Tuesday 10 September 2013 by Kasi Albert. No comments
First World War Centenary, Conservation, Dioramas

As more building works continue in the Western Front Gallery, the Diorama Conservation Team has moved into the Sinai Palestine Gallery, to take on the treatment of the beautiful Transportation of Supplies series of dioramas. Although much smaller than most of what we have been tackling so far, these nine scenes present their own set of challenges.

The Transportation of Supplies series in the Sinai Palestine Gallery, before the start of the redevelopment


Most importantly, these objects are housed in their original, 1940s metal surrounds with curved windows, and cannot be removed without damage to the heritage building fabric. Conservation work has therefore needed to be carried out in situ and on top of the open glass front, so by necessity we are back on our now-beloved ‘scaff’ scaffolding. These dioramas are constructed of painted, modelled plaster bases with painted pewter cast figures, all within a curved painted plaster dome. Both the three dimensional modelling (by Leslie Bowles) and the painting of the background (by Louis McCubbin) are beautifully executed and convey a dynamic sense of light, action and scenic depth. However, time has taken its toll on many elements of these scenes and there have been a number of previous repairs and restorations that have not always been sympathetic to the original artworks. The small size of these dioramas also means that the viewers’ attention is much more focussed and close-up, so visual continuity is far more critical. 

Approaching the task

Although already used to lying on scaffolding to work, the Transportation series has brought a new variation to our working practices. Scaffolding has been built to a height that is just above the levels of the diorama ground, with two bars protruding into each dome. With wooden planks on these bars, we can lie with our heads and shoulders completely inside the plaster domes, or ‘pizza ovens’ as we sometimes call them. Lying on our backs, we can work on the backdrops, while lying on our fronts we can reach down to work on the base and three dimensional components. As before, swag mattresses and pillows are a necessity!


Diorama conservator Jocelyn Evans inside At the Railhead


As always, the first step we took in the treatment of these items was to fully assess and document the existing condition of all parts of the Transportation dioramas, both in writing and through photography. Not only is this information added to the long-term record of the object for posterity, but also helps to inform the treatment decisions we make in the present. With nine dioramas in this series alone, it was also helpful to come up a with a conservation plan that we could apply to all of them in the same way!

Thankfully, due to their having been contained behind glass, rather than open to the gallery, the Transportation bases and figures were not nearly as dusty as some of their larger counterparts in the Western Front Gallery. A brush vacuum and light wet clean was all that was needed to get them ready for the next stage. The main aim of the treatment was to stabilise the dioramas in order to prevent further damage. This primarily involved the reattachment of some loose three dimensional items, as well as the stabilisation and consolidation of flaking paint from the backdrops on the inside of the dome. However, as works of art, it was also important to return an overall sense of visual continuity to the dioramas, in order for them to be viewed as coherent and understandable objects. For this reason, work was also undertaken to reduce the visibility of damage and previous repairs.


Over overpaint

On the bases, some of the main recipients of this aesthetic attention were some rather large patches of overpaint, which had been added at various times to varying levels of success. Rather than removing this paint and risking damaging the original paint layer below (as well as having to use potentially harmful chemicals in an enclosed space) the spots were toned to match the surrounding areas using conservation-grade acrylic paints. These were easy to use and could also be identified and removed if necessary by future conservators. For very large areas of overpaint, noticeable edges were blended to simply reduce the visual impact, rather than completely cover the colour.

Mustard, pink, purple and green; a wide pallette of overpaint colours!


Goodness crate-scious!

The other most visible problems with the bases were the areas of physical damage and loss to the modelling. While the figures themselves are metal and quite robust, the ubiquitous wooden crates are plaster and many had chipped corners and crumbling edges. Although only half way through the treatment of the Transportation series, I can admit that I am already having dreams involving these little, yellow boxes, as there are multiple piles present in each scene! While minor chips could be easily disguised with acrylic paint, larger losses required filling so that they did not draw the eye away from the lovely backdrops and figures (both human and camel alike).

The first crate repair was to one of the most extensive areas of damage: the huge crate stack in diorama number two, At the Railhead. A large gouge had been taken out of the front of the stack and had been roughly overpainted. The top half of this stack could be removed, and the loss was filled with a conservation material called Flügger. Once dry, this material could be shaped to match the surrounding area and painted to blend in as much as possible.


Large loss in crate stack in At the Railhead

Initial loss filling with Flügger

The shaped fill

The painted fill


The end result!


Work on crates has continued apace after this, with more small fills, reattachment and painting required to bring the stacks more into line with the finely modelled figures and vehicles. Having recently moved onto Transportation dioramas number five to nine, we are facing a whole new set of scenes and issues, but of course there are always more crates along the way!


Kasi Albert