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



Spanish Refugee Drawings

A guest post by Gallery Assistant and resident Spanish Civil War expert Andy Hoyle

Every year the People’s History Museum utilises the quiet weeks in early January to replace their impressive banner collection on display. Banners that have been proudly exhibited for the past 12 months are returned to storage, to be substituted on the galleries by replacements. Often, those going on display are new acquisitions (such as the current Fakenham Labour Party banner on Main Gallery One) or are being exhibited to the public for the first ever time.

The museum does this for two reasons. The first reason is that many of the banners sustain wear and tear. The second is that the museum has such an extensive collection (the largest collection of trade union and political banners in the world – over 400!) and cannot possibly exhibit all of them at one time.

Basque 1It is not just banners that are annually changed however. This year, a number of Spanish refugee drawings from the late 1930s are displayed on Main Gallery One. Although they may not be as immediately eye-catching as the neighbouring banners they are just as fascinating.

The Spanish Civil War was fought between 1936 and 1939 and is often seen as a precursor to World War II. The conflict was a fight between democracy and autocracy. Although Nazi Germany and fascist Italy supported the rebel leader Franco (and provided troops, aircraft, tanks and artillery) Britain remained neutral throughout the conflict. ‘Appeasement’ was the watchword of British politics in the 1930s.

By 1937 Spanish republican heartlands were coming under attack. The Basque country in particular was subject to heavy bombardment, Guernica being just one example of a city effectively razed to the ground by aerial attacks. Despite such conditions, a number of Spanish children from republican areas managed to board ships bound for England.

Arriving on the south coast, many of the young refugees were placed in camps and were soon adopted by sympathetic British families. The drawings currently on display at the museum are sketched by these children, some as young as 3 or 4. The vivid detail is telling. Not only do they depict the true nature of mechanised warfare in the 1930s, they reveal just how close ‘total war’ was to the civilian population.

The grizzly and macabre depictions in some of them (notably the bodies floating along the river Ebro) are too disturbing to have been made up by children this young. Others, such as the shaded republican soldier or the ‘Mosca’ aeroplane are beautiful pieces of art in themselves.

These drawings are important for historic, political, artistic and also human reasons. I really do think that they are well worth seeing!