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 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 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.
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 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 banner after conservation
Today, PHM conservator Leanne tells us about her recent trip to the North American Textile Conservation Conference in San Francisco.
The North American Textile Conservation Conference provides a bi-annual international and open forum for specialists working within the field of textile conservation. The 2013 conference tackled the theme: Conserving Modernity: The Articulation of Innovation. Oral presentations and research posters were full of textile conservation scenarios concerning analysis, history, and evolution of modern materials as objects and as conservation materials to innovative and experimental treatments. Delegates represented a world community and vibrant discussions ensued.
I took in the rollercoaster of talks and slides covering topics such as preserving viscose rayon, assessing the dilemmas of using nylon stockings as an installation art work, modern shoes, maintaining PVC inflatable sculptures and rubberised flannel which are often used in Native American regalia. All case studies presenting different challenges, solutions and on-going issues. Research posters discussed creating invisible mounts, the conservation of plastic dolls and introducing sustainable materials to use in treatments. Of course, there was my poster displaying the issues of preserving modern painted banners representing modern working person’s history in the UK.
The most interesting aspect of the conference for me was the open panel discussion entitled In the Realm of the Visible and Invisible: Concepts and Material in the Conservation of Contemporary Textile Art. The panel included conservators, teachers and a textile artist who created large open display installations. Discussions turned to the use of modern materials and the rapid effects of natural aging verses the artist’s intent and which of these elements are best preserved? Deciphering deterioration patterns and how these may be integral to the object was reported and the impact of working with both living and dead artists. I was interested to listen to a textile artist explain the importance of personal, social and political awareness in his work. Remembrance and memorial aspects of his textiles were essential elements for preservation.
Jill Sterrett, Director of Collections and Conservation at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, helped shape the conference with her keynote speech explaining conservation in contemporary times is a fine balance between the engagement of the artist, their practices and diverse materials. This is a reminder that people will remain central to this ‘business of objects’. I felt this was very relevant to the textile collection I conserve where emotional agitation and human impact is often noted.
As I collected my poster at the end of the conference, one of the organizing committee commented on how beautiful my poster looked. I thought this was a strange description of my serious attempt to contribute the work of modern banner makers to the serious world of conserving modern and contemporary art. As I caught the bus back to downtown San Francisco from the de Young Museum (conference venue) at the Golden Gate Park, I thought of all the banners I have worked on. Yeah, I would agree, working man’s history is actually rather beautiful.