Conserving Art: restoring a painting at the Grimwade

Portrait of Harley Griffiths Senior on Sorrento Beach by Hugh Ramsay (1877-1906). Oil on canvas on hardboard ca. 1897. Private collection

Tucked away in the Victorian Archives Centre, which houses around 100km of public records dating back to the 1830s, are the laboratories of Grimwade Conservation Services. Grimwade Conservation Services specialises in the restoration and museum-standard conservation of art, including paintings, works on paper, textiles, inorganic objects such as ceramics, and archaeological materials.

Like the archives, the labs are places where histories and stories long forgotten can be rediscovered.

Late last year the painting conservation team, led by Senior Paintings Conservator Cushla Hill, worked to restore a small oil painting by Australian artist Hugh Ramsay (1877-1906), whose work is currently on exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra.

Conserving Art: Restoring a painting at the Grimwade.

“It’s an early student work by an exceptional Victorian College of the Arts student Hugh Ramsay, who went to Sorrento Beach on a camping painting trip with fellow student, Harley Griffiths [the subject],” she said.

Ms Hill was able to date the painting to 1897. “Although I’m familiar with Ramsay’s work from the substantial holdings of the University of Melbourne collections, it was fortuitous that the Ramsay retrospective was running concurrently at the National Gallery of Australia”, she said. “A visit to the NGA in Canberra and archival research led to a definitive date for the work of December 1897.”

The work required comprehensive cleaning, filling and inpainting to restore previous damage, and restoration to the ornamented frame.

Senior Paintings Conservator Cushla Hill inspects the painting
Senior Paintings Conservator Cushla Hill inspects the painting.

“Preliminary microscopic investigation revealed a seascape of embedded sand and shell in the paint film,” Ms Hill explained, adding that removing the discoloured varnish layer to restore the natural colour scheme without disturbing the fragile surface was a painstaking and slow process.

“The sand grains themselves tell a story of plein air painting, youthful summer days and the Sorrento Beach location”, she said.

The portrait has now resumed its place in a private collection.

This is the first in a series of videos exploring the work of Grimwade Conservation Services. If you would like to know more about the many areas of restoration the team specialises in, please visit the Grimwade Conservation Services website.

For behind-the-scenes photos and videos on current projects, follow them on Instagram @grimwadeconservation