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

 

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.

New year, new job, new gallery display

A guest post from our newest member of staff, Conservator Zoë Lanceley

Every year during the first two weeks of January the PHM change over the banners on display in the main galleries. This was particularly exciting for me as Monday was the first day of my new job as a conservator here in the Textile Conservation Studio.  This week we have been hard at work putting a new selection of banners on display and taking the old banners away for a rest from light, dust and the physical strain of hanging vertically.

Taking down the banner 2Taking down the banner

Here at the PHM the main galleries have been designed with a nifty system to make it easy to change over banner displays. Each banner hangs from a long pole inserted through a sleeve at the top of the banner. The pole is then gradually raised or lowered into position using a pulley system which is hidden behind the walls.

Vacuuming the bannerTo remove banners from display we carefully lower them down, rolling them as we go. We then take them to a large open space and lay them flat out on the floor (they are too big for tables) and gently vacuum both sides to remove any dust which may have accumulated in the past year. We vacuum them through a mesh screen to protect the delicate surface of the fabric and also put a piece of muslin inside the vacuum nozzle to allow us to collect the dust. Dust samplesThis is really helpful as it allows us to monitor exactly what sort of dust and fibres are being removed, i.e. general dust from the carpet or fibres from the banner itself. The banners are ‘put to bed’ until the next time they are displayed by rolling them onto large cardboard tubes, and wrapped up in acid free tissue paper, calico and Tyvek® (a non-woven polyethylene fabric) .  We take a lot of care when rolling the banners to make sure that no creases are formed as these could turn into permanent distortions or splits in the future.

New banner ready to go upRolling up the new bannerFinishing touchesWhen we put banners up on display we follow the same procedure in reverse, carefully unrolling the banner as it is raised up. To put the finishing touches on the new display we make sure the that banners are lit in the right way; bright enough so that visitors can see them clearly but not too bright as this would cause the fabric to fade.  The final step is to put barriers in front of the banners to deter people from touching them, as even clean hands can leave traces of oils and salts on the fabric which would cause the fabrics to deteriorate.

Being a textile conservator is an exciting and wide-ranging job. Working with large flat textiles like banners means that our job varies day to day from carrying out painstaking precise treatments at a workbench to kneeling on the floor or carrying heavy objects. I have really enjoyed my first week at the PHM and hope all our visitors enjoy the new display.

If you want to find out more about the work that is carried out in the Textile Conservation Studio, pop up to Main Gallery Two where you can peek through the window into the studio, or join us for one of our quarterly tours.