A guest post by Conservator Jenny Barsby
The Textile Conservation Studio here at PHM takes in private work as well as caring for our collection which helps to support the running of the museum. I recently had the pleasure of working on a banner belonging to the GMB union. This was an interesting project for me not only because the banner is still being used, which presents specific conservation issues, but also because the artist who created the banner was able to provide valuable information about the object which informed the treatment.
The banner in question was designed and made by Scottish artist Andrew Turner. Turner was born into a coal mining community and his early experiences as a miner’s son feature heavily in his work. In 1961 he attended Edinburgh School of Art but was later expelled for organising a student demonstration. He went on to study at the Leeds College of Art before attending the Royal Academy as a postgraduate in 1971. The banner was commissioned by the Manchester branch of the GMB (then GMWU) in 1977. The brief was to produce a banner which represents the strength of the working class, depicting the ongoing struggles but also hope for the future.
The design put forward by Turner featured a muscular proletarian figure positioned in the centre with his head facing down; eyes closed and fists outstretched breaking the chains which bind him. Turner recalls that the figure was christened by a young shop steward at the unfurling of the banner who thought he looked like the Incredible Hulk. Other symbolic references are included such as the negotiating table which appears often in Turner’s work, a key and a small piece of cake. An open book sits on the table with a quote from Engels ‘It is not the Lowness of wages which forms the fundamental evil but the wages system itself.’ It is painted onto heavy-weight blue cotton sailcloth; the colour was a controversial choice because it is has conservative associations but in an art history context, blue symbolises hope, which is why Turner favoured it.
Turners working process involved stretching the fabric out under tension and pinning it to a frame before applying a primer layer and blocking out the design using scale drawings. The painting was worked up in thin layers with drying time in between. The style of painting is quite expressive with shading used to pick out the shapes and make the image look three dimensional and dramatic. The figure and chains are depicted with exciting, dynamic marks which suggest movement and aggression whereas the text is worked very neatly in flat colour with sharp clean lines.
It is quite rare for a conservator to be working on an object and be able to consult the maker or artist about the treatment of their piece. So when the opportunity arose to meet Andrew Turner we didn’t hesitate to invite him to the studio to see the banner he finished painting 35 years ago. Turner was delighted to be re-united with his work and was pleased to see it was still in good condition despite being used on marches for many years. For me the experience really enhanced my appreciation of the banner and although the insight provided by Turner did not alter my treatment plan, it confirmed that my approach was appropriate for the materials I was dealing with.
The banner was painted with good quality artist’s acrylic paint. This media is a modern material and still commonly used by artists today, it does however present problems for long term preservation. Even when dry, the paint film remains quite soft which means it can be easily damaged; this also means that dust and other types of particulate soiling can become embedded in the surface. Cleaning all types of paint can be very difficult because water and other solvents can react chemically and cause more damage. In the case of acrylic paint, research is still being done to find safe ways of cleaning which do not alter the original quality of the paint. With this in mind my treatment plan for the ‘Hulk’ banner was to surface clean and stabilise cracks in the paint film without full scale wet cleaning of the paint.
The first stage of treatment was a thorough surface clean; this was done using a low suction vacuum with a screen placed across the object to protect the painted areas. The non-painted areas were worked over more thoroughly using soft brushes and the vacuum. Any dust removed was captured on muslin traps inside the vacuum nozzle; this allows us to assess the condition of the textile and the type of dirt coming off. In this case, a surprising amount of dust was found on the traps along with loose fluff, dislodged paint flakes and a lot of blue fibre from the fabric itself.
The second stage was a series of tests to establish the suitability of possible consolidants for the painted areas and then work began on stabilising the cracked and flaking paint. The consolidant is a type of adhesive, it is transparent and no attempt is made to ‘touch up’ missing areas. In most cases conservators aim to do what we can to preserve the original material rather than make something look new again. In addition to stabilising the paint some humidification was done to ease out creases across the top of the banner, unfortunately some creases in the body of the banner have set in with the stiffening of the paint over time and will now be impossible to remove. As part of the treatment a special banner bag was made to make it easier for the client to store and preserve it, advice was offered for its ongoing care with the hope that it will be enjoyed for years to come.