The acquisition in 1878 of John Herbert’s painting Moses bringing down the Tables of the Law, c.1872–78, was an important moment in the National Gallery of Victoria’s collecting history. At the time, this was the largest and most expensive painting the Gallery had ever acquired. The purchase of the painting also reflects the attitudes and ideals of the first trustees of the Gallery, who saw art as a means to raise the moral and aesthetic sensibilities of colonial Melbourne’s growing citizenry. By the middle of the twentieth century, however, as modernism became entrenched as the dominant aesthetic and moral paradigm, and public interest in Victorian art and culture waned, paintings such as Herbert’s fell out of fashion and were removed from display in favour of more popular styles.
Due to its large size, this removal meant Moses bringing down the Tables of the Law would spend the next seventy years in storage, rolled on the same custom wooden cylinder Herbert had used to transport the painting from London in 1878. During this time the painting has continued to age and, owing to its unique construction, to deteriorate to the point where it cannot be returned to display safely without a large-scale conservation intervention.
The project to restore this painting will begin on 16 April at NGV International. Over the course of several months, members of the public are invited to watch and engage with a team of conservators who will clean and conserve this monumental painting so that it may be returned to display. The project is a rare opportunity for visitors to see conservation in action and to learn about the role of conservation in making works such as this one accessible to the public.
John Herbert was a popular and well-known artist in Victorian Britain. He was born in Maldon, Essex, on 23 January 1810 and studied at the Royal Academy, London, from 1826 to 1828 before turning his hand to commercial portraiture and illustration. Throughout the 1830s he was a regular exhibitor at the Royal Academy, where he produced many well-received portraits and Venetian-inspired romantic genre scenes. In 1840 Herbert converted to Roman Catholicism, at which time he also began to explore a distinctly religious subject matter in his art. In 1841 he was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy, and five years later became a full member. As a teacher, Herbert taught at both the Government Schools of Design and the Royal Academy Schools. Among his many pupils were several members of the fledgling Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, who were influenced by his unique blend of medieval style and Nazarene art.
In 1845 Herbert won a commission to produce a fresco based on a scene from Shakespeare’s King Lear for the Poet’s Hall in the Palace of Westminster, London. The resulting work brought him considerable fame and attention and two years later he was commissioned to paint an additional nine frescoes in the Peer’s Robing Room of the House of Lords. Owing to a range of problems, mainly regarding his materials and technique, Herbert was only able to complete one of the nine promised frescoes, Moses bringing down the Tables of the Law.
John Herbert and the National Gallery of Victoria
John Herbert’s relationship with the NGV began in 1870 when he was appointed, alongside leading art critic John Ruskin, to act as a London-based advisor to the Gallery’s committee. In 1872, Chairman of the National Gallery of Victoria Committee Sir Charles Gavan Duffy contacted Herbert about acquiring one of his works. It is believed that Herbert initially agreed to reproduce the central figure of Moses from the fresco but, with the original preparatory drawing on paper of the fresco (known as a ‘cartoon’) still in his possession, changed his mind and offered instead to paint over the cartoon in oil and send to Melbourne a scale version of the whole Westminster Palace fresco. The committee agreed to the offer and in July 1872 the work was commissioned for completion by 1874.
As with the fresco itself, the painting took longer than Herbert had anticipated and the completed picture did not arrive in Melbourne until six years later, in 1878. Transporting a work of this size from London to Melbourne would not have been simple. To prepare it for travel, the painting was faced with blotting paper and rolled onto a custom-made wooden cylinder. At a final cost of £1735, and six years after it was first commissioned, Moses bringing down the Tables of the Law was loaded onto a ship and sent to Melbourne.
When it arrived at the NGV and was unrolled by Mr A. Fletcher, the restorer in charge of inspecting the work, it was observed that the painting had most likely suffered from heat and moisture during transportation and required restoration prior to display. Once this was completed, the painting was tacked onto a stretcher and fitted into a custom-built frame that had arrived, in six large pieces, on the same ship from England. Moses bringing down the Tables of the Law was finally exhibited for a Melbourne audience in 1878.
Throughout six weeks in April and May 2015 a team of NGV and volunteer conservators will address a range of structural and aesthetic issues that have prevented this work from being exhibited in public over the past seventy years. In preparation for this project, conservators have examined the painting and documented its condition and the materials and techniques used by the artist. Such information allows conservators to better understand the history of the painting and informs their treatment methodology. The conservation treatment employed is guided by the Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Material (AICCM) Code of Ethics and Code of Practice and follows principles of minimal intervention, reversibility of applied materials and respect for the original integrity of the artwork. The steps in the treatment are as follows.
Stage 1: stabilisation
Stabilisation and repair involves treatment that ensures that the painting will be structurally sound and secure. This is an important treatment step that enables the work to be safely handled and moved for exhibition or further conservation treatment.
The paint layer of Moses bringing down the Tables of the Law is fragile and displays flaking and lifting cracks in areas. The paint layer will be consolidated using a reversible, non-toxic and conservation-grade adhesive. This will be applied by fine brush and left under weights for approximately twenty-four hours. There is also some detachment between the paper support on which the artist painted and the canvas. This will be reattached using a non-toxic, reversible and conservation-grade adhesive and once secure will provide greater overall stability to the paint layer.
Stage 2: cleaning
Cleaning is an important aesthetic step in a conservation treatment, involving removal of dirt, dust and accretions, discoloured varnish layers and old repairs.
Herbert’s painting is covered in a layer of surface dirt and accretions. This will be removed using a water-based, non-toxic cleaning solution that will in no way damage the underlying original paint film. Removal of the dirt layer will not only allow tonal nuances of the composition to become evident, but also contribute to the overall preservation of the painting. Surface dirt and dust can attract and imbibe moisture, which can have damaging effects on the paint layer, paper and canvas.
Because Moses bringing down the Tables of the Law has been rolled for much of its lifetime, it has been kept away from the damaging effects of light and UV – two of the main catalysts for causing varnish layers to darken and discolour. As a result, the varnish layer on the painting is in quite good condition and will not be removed.
There are a number of old repairs scattered across the surface of the painting. Over time these have become cracked and discoloured, resulting in noticeable damage that visually distracts from the painting. These repairs will be carefully removed under magnification using fine tools and micro-scalpels, ensuring no damage is made to the surrounding paint film.
Stage 3: repair
The tacking edges of a canvas are where the painting is stretched over and attached to its wooden stretcher. It is important that canvas-tacking edges remain strong and stable so that the painting is securely held onto the stretcher and kept under adequate tension. Over time, the tacking edges of the painting have become fragile, frayed and degraded. In order to ensure the strength and stability of the canvas edges, when reattaching this monumental canvas to its stretcher some reinforcement of the edges will be required, achieved by conducting a ‘strip’ or ‘edge lining’ of the canvas. This involves adhering strips of an inert synthetic material around the edges of the painting using a strong, reversible and conservation-grade adhesive in conjunction with controlled amounts of weight and heat applied using conservation tacking iron.
The large wooden stretcher will also require some repair prior to the painting being reattached. This work will be conducted by NGV conservators in the Conservation Technical Assistants workshop.
Stage 4: restoration
Restoration refers to the process of ‘infilling’ damaged or lost areas of paint and ‘inpainting’ these filled losses in order to match the colour and texture of the surrounding, intact original paint. Conservation ethics dictate that infilling and inpainting is confined only to lost areas of paint, without covering any original paint or adding new elements to the work. Infilling and inpainting are important steps in the treatment process as they can reinstate the painting’s pictorial coherence.
The work has numerous areas where flaking and detachment of the paint from the paper support has resulted in lost areas of media. In order to reinstate the texture of the lost paint, a thin layer of reversible, conservation-grade synthetic gesso is applied to the area of loss using fine spatulas and brushes and is shaped using an array of techniques, including the use of fine dental tools. Inpainting is conducted using dry pigments mixed with a conservation-grade synthetic varnish which can be removed in the future with no damage to the original paint layer.
Stage 5: reattachment
Once the stretcher has been repaired and the painting has been treated, a group of NGV conservators and volunteers will attach the monumental canvas to the stretcher. Prior to this, the canvas will be temporarily pinned to the stretcher to make sure that the image is properly aligned, as well as to prevent movement of the canvas during the attachment process.
Teamwork will be an important factor in the reattachment process. One or two conservators will maintain tension of the canvas over the stretcher bar, while another attaches the tensioned canvas to the stretcher bar using a pneumatic staple gun. This method will be repeated along all four edges of the painting until it is reattached to the stretcher. Once this is complete, the work will be put on temporary display while the frame undergoes conservation treatment.
Stage 6: frame treatment
The original frame comprises more than twenty metres of frame components and requires stabilisation and surface cleaning in order to be safely reassembled and handled, and to bring the frame into visual harmony with the painting. Methods that do not affect the original gilding or glue layers will be employed to remove the dirt layer and to allow the richness of the original gilding to be brought to the fore. Conservation-grade adhesives will be used to consolidate and secure loose gilding or ornamental components. Once treated, the frame will be reassembled and the painting will be fitted into it.
At the conclusion of the frame treatment, John Herbert’s monumental painting will be put on display at the NGV for the first time in living memory.
NGV Conservation department
Over the past forty years the NGV Conservation department has evolved from a single practitioner into a cluster of studios specialising in the conservation of Frames and Furniture, Objects, Paintings, Works on Paper, Photographs, and Textiles. Through a range of examination, treatment and research programs the department provides unique insight into works of art in the Gallery’s permanent collection. For more information about conservation projects at the NGV visit www.ngv.vic.gov.au/explore/collection/conservation
The John Herbert Public Conservation Project is made possible through the support of The Copland Foundation and the help of our volunteers.