the titanic task of salvaging a shipwreck...
22 September 2020
– Conservator, Jenny Sherman & Co. help the Helpless
From time to time, the Dunedin Public Art Gallery is able to embark on major conservation projects – attending to damaged or deteriorated art works from the collection and beyond.
A little over a year ago, we began a major conservation process to improve the condition of the massive British shipwreck painting, Helpless, c.1886, by Thomas Cooper Gotch and William Ayerst Ingram. Helpless travelled from London for exhibition in the New Zealand and South Seas International Exhibition held in Dunedin in 1889-90. It has been much loved by visitors to the Gallery, with McCahon writing of ‘a huge, dark shipwreck’ painting as a memory of his childhood visits to the DPAG. By 2020, Helpless was in desperate need of conservation treatment.
At some point in its past, the stretcher had been cut down to reduce the width of the painting (probably to fit a picture frame, although no frame currently remains). This required a section of the painting to be wrapped around to the back of the stretcher. The painting also had in significant complex tears to the canvas, and areas of loss.
This damage made Helpless a priority for conservation treatment. Early steps involved flattening the tears, removing the canvas from its stretcher and attaching it to a working frame. Tears and areas of loss were repaired with salvaged historic canvas, and the whole canvas was reinforced and lined with sailcloth and then linen. The stretcher was reinstated to its original dimensions.
Helpless is now re-stretched onto its modified, original stretcher with the full composition visible again. The process is far from complete however, with next steps including the removal of very discolored old varnish, revarnishing and retouching areas of the painting and applying a final varnish. It is a slow and careful process, and over the next year or two Helpless should be back on view and its future secured for the next generations.
Noho ora mai, Jenny Sherman
Conservator, Dunedin Public Art Gallery
[above: Thomas Cooper Gotch and William Ayerst Ingram Helpless, c.1886. Oil on canvas, 1815 x 3625 mm. Collection Dunedin Public Art Gallery.
below top: Conservation assistant Rachel Keir-Smith removing protective facing tissue from the painting after tear repairs.left: Collections Assistant Jay Hutchinson spraying adhesive to the back of the painting in preparation for lining. right: Conservator Jenny Sherman ironing the linen canvas to the back of the painting.]