A few months ago Gratz Gallery & Conservation Studio was commissioned by Chester County to conserve a mural that hung in the Chester County Courthouse. The courthouse where the mural hung for many years was scheduled to be renovated, and local officials wanted to save the work of art and have it hung in the new courthouse. The mural was dirty and had areas of paint loss throughout. Its size was also a factor– the painting was 5 x 16 feet. Conserving a piece of this size requires a multi-step process.
The mural had to be prepared for removal from the wall to which it was affixed. The mural was faced with Japanese tissue paper and coated with a thin layer of liquid BEVA 371 solution. This process stabilized the paint layer and ensured that the paint would not flake from the canvas during removal. The canvas was then carefully pulled from the wall and detached using a scalpel. As it was removed it was carefully wrapped around a large plastic tube to secure it for travel.
Back at the studio, the canvas was unrolled and prepared for total conservation treatment. Bits of glue and plaster from the courthouse wall remained affixed to the verso of the canvas. They were meticulously scrapped off with a scalpel. Every piece of extraneous material had to be removed prior to the canvas being relined to ensure a smooth relining. Relining a canvas is a process that involves affixing a new backing material to a canvas. This allows the paint on the existing canvas, which may have become dry and brittle, to receive a moisture treatment and become stable again– the paint of the mural was consolidated after a relining.
Paul uses a device called a 'hot table' to reline paintings. The vacuum pressure hot table allows the canvas and the new material to join together flawlessly. The mural, a polyester fabric free from weave imperfections, was laid down on the table, and was then coated in a BEVA 371 solution. The mural (which had to be lined in sections due to its size) was laid down on top of the fabric. The vacuum compressor draws the air out of the chamber face-up so as not to damage the paint layer.
The tissue paper facing was removed after the relining was complete. Solvents were applied to a cotton swab, which saturated the tissue and broke down the BEVA that was affixing the paper to the canvas. Paul carefully peeled the Japanese tissue paper away from the canvas, making the surface stabilized, ready to be cleaned, and in-painted.
The painting was cleaned using cotton swabs and an array of solvents. Every square inch of the painting was carefully tended to, and a variety of solvents were used according to the level of grime and surface dirt.
Once the cleaning process was complete the canvas was ready to be in-painted. In-painting is when the conservator fills in the areas of missing paint and re-paints them to match the artist's original intentions. Skilled conservators take special care to make pigments and mimic the artist's original style. Before in-painting, a layer of varnish was applied to the surface of the mural, separating the artist's original work from the conservator's additions. A final layer of varnish was applied after the in-painting was complete.
Conservation on the mural was completed. The canvas was rolled again carefully around a tube for transport. The canvas was taken to the courthouse to be mounted on stretchers on location, as it was too large to be stretched before transport.