Aid for Spanish Civil War banners!

I recently had the pleasure of treating a set of Six Spanish Civil War banners in the Textile Conservation Studio the project was undertaken for the Marx Memorial Library in order for the banners to go on display at an exhibition at Islington Museum and was funded by the Textile Society and GFTU educational trust Most of the banners were made from cotton canvas with a ground layer and water based paint, they were used by the Communist Party Hammersmith to raise funds to help civilians fleeing the conflict. I spent between 5 and 15 hours on each banner depending on what each one required. Two of the more complicated banners are featured in this post and demonstrate quite different conservation problems.

Arms & Justice for Spain during conservation People's History Museum

Arms & Justice for Spain banner during conservation

The first banner I want to highlight is entitled Arms and Justice for Spain it is very striking image featuring the recognisable symbol of unity in a handshake between three men in this case. The style is reminiscent of Picasso with the expressive figures drawn in profile. Water-based paint has been used and it was well bonded to the canvas ground in most places apart from the area of upper text which had become cracked along fold lines from previous storage. This required a stabilisation treatment to ensure that no more paint was lost using an adhesive which had a matt appearance to match the quality of the paint. I undertook a series of tests to find a suitable adhesive using samples to experiment with before treating the object. Isinglass (fish glue) was found to be the best choice in this instance because the bond strength was good and it did not appear shiny when applied to the paint.

Arms & Justice for Spain after conservation People's History Museum

Arms & Justice for Spain banner after conservation

The second banner is different to the rest of the group as it was made with oil paint it is entitled International Brigade and features the single figure of a Republican solider against a background of swirling flames. The image is a little difficult to read because a lot of the paint is loose and in some areas it has been lost completely. It was also clear on first inspection that there was a ghost image of text underneath the top layer of paint. Further investigation revealed that the banner had been once used as a book shop sign and then recycled as a banner and it is likely that a weak bond between the old and new paint is what caused much of the current damage.

Underlying text Peoples History Museum.jpg

International Brigade banner highlighting the underlying text

Due to the extent of the damage most areas on the banner required treatment to prevent further loss occurring. This time I used an adhesive called Beva which is safe for oil paints and provides a strong bond to secure the loose paint. We aim to preserve what remains of the original material rather than trying re-touch/re-paint areas of loss, so the banner does not look like new but the paint is much more stable, it is able to hang safely and is more accessible for visitors and researchers.

International Bridage during conservation People's History Museum.JPG

International Brigade banner during conservation

Each banner was also fitted with a white cotton sleeve for display which provides even weight distribution when suspended from a pole. The banners will be on display from the 5th of May to the 8th of July 2017. Spanish Civil War Exhibition A5 leaflet

International Brigade after conservation.jpg

International Brigade banner after conservation



Textile Conservation at Manchester Cathedral

A guest post by our Textile Conservation Team, Jenny Barsby and Vivian Lochhead

Fig 1 Cross before conservation

Fig 1 Cross before conservation

The Textile Conservation team recently spent two days working on site at Manchester Cathedral, together with a student from Cardiff University who was on placement with us. The Cathedral is currently undergoing a building works to the roof and other structures with particular focus on the Jesus Chapel which is to the right as you enter through the main door. A number of items were moved to enable the work to start, including a large cross with textile elements. We were contacted by the project manager who felt that this was a good opportunity to assess the condition of the cross and have it treated while it is off display. Senior Conservator Vivian Lochhead made an initial site visit to gauge the level of work required and found the cross to be in a reasonably stable condition but extremely dirty with many years build up of dust coating the various components (fig 1).

Fig 2 Detail of linen threads at anchor points

Fig 2 Detail of linen threads at anchor points

The cross is dated 1969-1970 and was a collaboration between two designers. Bryant Fedden made the cross structure which is formed from cast aluminium. It is a modern style, with two main vertical sections bridged with spacers across the back and horizontal arms which slant upwards; each metal section is tapered towards the ends. The textile elements were created by Theo Moorman, they are tapestry woven with various three dimensional sections and textural surfaces. The tapestry inserts are attached to the cross by means of four anchor points per strip secured by linen threads tied to wires which are screwed into the cross (fig 2).

Fig 3 During cleaning of metal cross

Fig 3 During cleaning of metal cross

After discussing the options as a team we decided on appropriate methods to clean both the metal and textile components which would be safe to do in a public space without our normal studio facilities. The metal could be safely swabbed with de-ionised water and a little detergent ensuring that each section was thoroughly rinsed and dried (fig 3). The textile parts would be cleaned with a low suction vacuum and the raised tufts swabbed with de-ionised water and detergent before rinsing and gently drying with a hair drier.

Fig 4 Work space

Fig 4 Work space

The work was planned to take place over two days and we set up on tables in a cordoned off area of the cathedral building (fig 4). This meant that visitors could see what we were doing and we were on hand to answer questions. The people we spoke to seemed very interested in what we were doing with the most frequent question being: How long will the work take you? The work was quite intensive because we had to stand up to do most of the cleaning, bending over for the difficult to reach sections inside the cross

Fig 5 Vivian & Julie cleaning

Fig 5 Vivian & Julie cleaning

(fig 5). Although we are used to being watched by our visitors at PHM, this was a different experience because there was a lot more interaction. We did enjoy explaining our work but this also meant that we probably worked a little slower than usual (fig 6).

Fig 6 Jenny Vacuuming

Fig 6 Jenny Vacuuming

Overall the conservation was very successful, the metal part of the cross came up very well once the layers of dust had been removed and the tapestry inserts were much improved, in addition to cleaning, Vivian strengthened each anchor point with an extra line of linen thread (fig 7).

Fig 7 left arm before and after conservation

Fig 7 left arm before and after conservation

The inserts are fixed under slight tension so adding extra threads should take the strain and prevent further damage occurring to the original threads. Once complete the textile parts of the cross were wrapped temporarily in a loose layer of plastic to prevent further dust from settling on it before it is installed back in the Jesus chapel after the completion of the building works (fig 8). We were also able to surface clean the tapestry hanging which is normally displayed behind the cross; this was done using a low powered vacuum working through a mesh screen to protect the textile. It was nice to have a change of scenery for a couple of days and work in such a beautiful building, don’t forget to look out for the cross the next time you visit Manchester Cathedral.

Fig 8 The cross after conservation

Fig 8 The cross after conservation

The Incredible Hulk!

A guest post by Conservator Jenny Barsby

Fig 1.The banner in use at a demonstration

Fig 1.The banner in use at a demonstration

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.


Fig 2.  Andrew Turner’s visit to PHM

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.

Fig 3. Microscope image showing cracks and soiling

Fig 3. Microscope image showing cracks and soiling

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.

Fig 4. Cracking in paint on book motif

Fig 4. Cracking in paint on book motif

Fig 5. consolidating the paint

Fig 5. consolidating the paint

Fig 6. Face of banner after conservation

Fig 6. Face of banner after conservation

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.

George Quayle’s Tricorn Hat

A post by conservator Zoë Lanceley.

As well as caring for the objects in the People’s History collection, the Textile Conservation Studio also carry out work for TCSOC168_BC_ (1)private clients. This helps to support the wider work of the PHM.

We recently took on the job of conserving two hats owned by the Manx Museum. The hats date from the late 18th Century and were both owned by a man called George Quayle (1751-1835) who was a prominent politician and banker on the Isle of Man. The Manx Museum is currently preparing an exhibition about George Quayle, which will include both of his hats. (Nautical Museum, Castletown)

I am currently working on one of his hats, a stylish tricorn cocked hat with metallic braid, tassles and a black silk corsage. Just below the corsage is a gold coloured button with the triskellion symbol and motto of the Isle of Mann: ‘QUOCUNQUE JECERIS STABIT’ (Whichever wayTCSOC168_BC_ (10) you throw, it will stand). The term ‘cocked’ refers to the three sides of the brim which are turned up. George Quayle’s initials are inside the hat, as well as the maker’s paper label. The makers label reads: ‘Wagner, Hat maker to their Majefties (sic), Pall Mall, London’. As well as making hats for the Royal Family, Wagner’s also made hats for the military. You can tell George Quayle wore his hat many times as perspiration is present around the lining of the crown.

The hat is made from a single piece of beaver fur felt and dates from about 1790. At this time lots of different furs were used to make felt, but the finest hats were made from beaver fur felt. During the manufacturing process it was necessary to use a form of mercury (mercuric nitrate) to felt the fibres together. Unfortunately mercury is very poisonous, and hatters (who made hats) often became very ill, displaying symptoms such as shaking and hallucinations. This is where the term ‘Mad as a hatter’ TCSOC168_BC_detail_ (3)comes from.

When I looked at the hat under the microscope I made an interesting discovery. The metallic gilt braid has tarnished to a dull grey colour, but in some places gold paint has been applied over the tarnish. It is a mystery to me why or when this was done; did George Quayle do it to spruce up his hat? Or has someone else applied the paint more recently? As a conservator it is really interesting to make discoveries like this, it all adds to the mystery of the past.

Over its life time the hat has been in the wars and is quite damaged. Most of this damage has been caused by moths, as unfortunately beaver fur is delicious food for moths. They have nibbled their way around most of the crown of the hat and the TCSOC168_BC_detail_ (15)middle of the silk corsage. The first thing I did to improve the appearance of the hat was to very gently clean the surface with a tiny low powered vacuum cleaner and a soft paint brush. This helped remove dirt and dust which had accumulated on the hat. I also picked off fragments of moth casings (which moths leave behind after pupating from larvae to grown up moths) and loose bits of fabric which had been nibbled free.

Initially I had planned to reshape the hat by humidifying it (which would cause the felt to relax), and apply support patches across splits in the felt. Despite my best efforts this wasn’t possible, as the felt remained very rigid even after lots of humidification. Even though the hat looks very fragile, the felt is surprisingly robust. It feels very much like stiff cardboard. Despite the tough exterior, the lining is still fragile and handling the hat should be kept to the absolute minimum. My priorities TCSOC168_BC_detail_ (22)now are to make a safe stable support board for the hat to be stored and displayed on. The board will be covered in grey fabric so that it fits in with the exhibition at Manx Museum, and will have a dome on it to support the hat. I am also in the process of making a box for the hat which it can be stored in permanently when the exhibition is over.

It is really interesting to work with objects which have been well used by their owner, particularly when you can identify who that person was. I’m sure this hat will make a fascinating contribution to the George Quayle exhibition.

A sticky situation

A guest blog by Conservator Jenny Barsby

At PHM we collect objects which have a story and this is often told through the physical condition of the piece, if a banner has holes or stains these may be a clue to how, where or why it was used. As is often the case with social history collections we sometimes deal with complex objects made from a variety of materials, many of the textiles I treat show signs of wear and tear or may be disfiguring if viewed in a different context. It is my job as a conservator to preserve this evidence while ensuring that the object is safe for storage and display.

As well as maintaining our existing collection and preparing objects for display we treat new objects as they come in. When a new object comes into the Textile Conservation Studio the first thing I do is a condition report, this is a detailed document which I use to assess the current condition and will help me to track any future changes so the next time it is taken out I can compare against the report. I also note down as much information as possible about the object including a physical description, take measurements and lots of photos.

Banner face during treatmentAn example of this approach is a banner I recently worked on, it was donated by York and District Trades Union Council in 2014. It was made in 1975 but was used by the York TUC in fairly recent rallies. It is a single sided banner made from one length of red cotton sateen with appliquéd black cotton lettering cut out and machine sewn to the cloth. The interesting thing about this banner is that it is adorned with 21 self adhesive stickers pertaining to different campaigns when the banner was used.

We know from images provided by York TUC that the banner was taken on several marches from an anti-nuclear demo in 1980 where the banner appears to be fairly plain to the signal workers rally in 1994 when you can see from the photo that many stickers have been added. As part of the conservation I carefully assessed each sticker and noted its condition, although most are now well adhered to the fabric beneath, this could change over time meaning I may need to adjust my treatment. When these stickers were made they were probably not expected to last long, but this ephemeral nature is part of the reason we value such items, if they weren’t being cared for in museums they might be lost forever.

RMT sticker before conservation RMT sticker after conservationSome of the stickers were coming loose so they required treatment to make them stable and fit for display. To do this I used small amounts of conservation grade adhesive applied in patches underneath the loose areas. This provides adequate support without forming too strong a bond and can be removed if necessary in the future.

The banner was also quite creased from folding in storage, and in diagonal lines running across from the corners. As a rule we do try to smooth out creases because they can distort the fabric and eventually lead to splits and tears along the crease. With this banner, the fold lines were eased by introducing moisture as vapour and weighting down the creases, basically a really gentle form of ironing! The diagonal creases however were not treated because they demonstrate how it was carried, between two poles with little or no tension across the top. Of course this creasing will need to be monitored to make sure it doesn’t deteriorate and cause further damage. This is the balancing act we play as conservators, trying to preserve as much physical evidence as we can without putting the object at further risk.

York TUC banner after conservationFor the time being the York TUC banner has been wrapped up for storage but it will hopefully be on display soon. In the meantime please come and see some of the other wonderful banners which have been lovingly treated and installed by our conservation team.

Icon Textile forum

A guest post by our lovely Conservators Jenny Barsby and Zoë Lanceley

Last week Jenny and Zoë from our conservation team attended the Icon Textile forum. This is an annual event organised by Icon (the Institute of Conservation) which is the professional body for conservators in the UK. The forum is a gathering of other textile conservators from across the UK, it is an opportunity to hear presentations and see posters based on a theme which changes each year and the chance to catch up with friends and colleagues.

forum tea breakFor 2015 the theme of the day was ‘Learning Curve: Education, Experience and Reflection.’ It was a packed day with eleven papers delivered in total, with speakers from other national museums, private practitioners and students. To start was ‘Textile Education – what are we training for?’ This paper, written by Frances Lennard and Sarah Foskett reflected on the 40 years since the establishment of the Textile Conservation Centre which was originally based at Hampton Court Palace in London but is now run through Glasgow University, this training programme is currently the only place to study textile conservation in the UK producing around 9 graduates each year. The next paper delivered by Katriina Similä and co-authored with Dinah Eastop was entitled ‘Positioning: where you stand’ based around a workshop held at the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) and dealt with different people’s perspective of cultural heritage within an institution using conservation documentation to show how one person’s view of an object in this case can be completely different to someone else’s. ‘Public and Private Studio Collaboration for Interns’ by Jacqueline Hyman and Pierrette Squires discussed the benefits gained by their interns who had the opportunity to work in a private studio and at Bolton Museum. The placements offered the chance to do practical conservation work and learn about broader aspects of collections care and exhibition installation.

After tea the next session of papers began with ‘Standing on the shoulders of others: further developments in polychrome patterned nylon net’ written by Maria Jordan and Libby Thompson from Historic Royal Palaces. This paper outlined a treatment developed to protect very fragile textiles with nylon net which had been toned to match the fabric using digital printing and screen printing methods. The benefits and pitfalls of the work were discussed. This was followed by another practical paper from Elizabeth-Anne Haldane,  Joanne Hackett,  Sarah Glenn and Sung Im from the V&A entitled ‘Borrowing from the neighbours: using the technology of other disciplines to treat difficult textile conservation problems’, they described a series of treatments inspired by a workshop held at the museum by Richard Wolbers who specialises in cleaning systems for delicate objects such as paintings, paper and textiles.  The final presentation of this session was ‘Conservation of a large chenille carpet from Cragside, Northumberland’ written by Aimee Grice-Venour from the National Trust. The paper dealt with the challenges of working on large scale floor coverings and how the studio had to adapt working practices to accommodate it.

forum _Nora Meller presentationA short AGM followed the lunch break and then the afternoon session began with a paper by Alice Brown, Sophie Minnis, and Louise Joynson. ‘Tapestries in time: The role of time and our development in tapestry conservation’ looked at the Doddington Hall tapestry project which is ongoing and involves the team of conservators working in a studio which is accessible to the public. They talked about their working practices and the problems and benefits of doing such complex work in full view of the general public.   Jennifer Cruise from the University St. Thomas Minnesota presented a paper called ‘Missing Links? Access, Utility and Communication’ discussing the scientific literature produced by and available to conservators, looking at how we use these resources and which external factors can affect the progression of this research. This was followed by a paper by Nora Meller from the Royal Museums Greenwich entitled ‘Learning from interdisciplinary collaboration during an internship at Royal Museums Greenwich.’ It discussed a project to stabilise and pack a collection which had been donated by the London Missionary Society and included a large number of ethnographic objects.

During break periods there was the opportunity to view a selection of posters which had been produced, including one from Zoë detailing a treatment that she carried out when working at the Victoria and Albert Museum last year. The poster was about a complicated project she carried out to mount a German Calvary helmet dating from 1630, which will go on permanent display at the V&A later this year. The helmet was complete with its original padded linen lining, so Zoë had to work with the mountmaking team to find a way to display it, making sure it is safe and secure whilst appearing to hover in midair.

An afternoon tea break was followed by a talk by Ann French from the Whitworth Art Gallery, reflecting on her career in conservation with ‘Thirty Years On: Connecting Personal Self-Reflection to Professional Change.’ Looking back at her experiences, she discussed the shift in value systems which challenge conservators to re-address the way we treat and display objects in our care. The final presentation of the day was delivered by Joan Kendall Textile consultant at Hatfield house. ‘Recruiting, selecting, Training and Managing volunteers for the Textile Conservation Group at Hatfield House, 1977-2014’ was a tribute to a long running volunteer programme from inception to the highs and lows of working with the groups and eventual end to the project alongside Joan’s retirement.  In January the TCS team drove down to Hatfield House to collect a painted 19th Century Garter Banner which we are currently conserving in the studio . Next time you’re visiting the PHM, have a look at it through our studio window.

Conservation of a Garter banner from Hatfield House

A guest blog by Senior Conservator, Vivian Lochhead

1 Garter Banner, c1847 Hatfield House before conservation

Garter Banner, c1847 Hatfield House before conservation

Conservation of a Garter banner from Hatfield House in Hertfordshire has just begun in the Textile Conservation Studio. The 2nd Marquess of Salisbury was made Knight of the Garter in 1842 and the banner to mark this honour dates from c1847. The banner is similar in size and construction to military colours of the time, being made of a single layer of fine silk fabric, fringed around the edges and hand painted with various devices.

2 Garter Banner c1847, detail showing deterioration of a part painted area

Detail showing deterioration of a part painted area

3 Garter Banner c1847 showing fractured painted silk

Detail showing fractured painted silk

Processing of the silk fabric during manufacture to create a good white background for the design has most probably been the catalyst for deterioration of the fabric. The banner is now extremely fragile causing the silk of unpainted areas to spilt and fall away and for painted sections to stiffen and break into angular fragments. Some loss of white background silk and painted design has occurred, but many detached fragments have slipped beneath adjacent sections and will be retrieved during treatment for correct repositioning.

The banner is currently undergoing close examination and very light surface cleaning, allowing recovery of stray detached fragments and testing for further treatment options.