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16 Aug 11

Eugene von Guérard: Nature Revealed

Join conservator Michael Varcoe-Cocks as he takes us behind-the-scenes, revealing the background and conservation of key artworks in Eugene von Guérard: Nature Revealed.

Tea Trees near Cape Schanck

The Question of a Fox and Cloud

Tea Trees near Cape Schanck, Victoria, 1865 is a dramatic rendering of rugged coastline on the Mornington Peninsula, south of Melbourne. Von Guérard climbed down the precarious cliff to obtain a west-facing vantage point that included the weathered basalt outcrops cast in a golden glow of late afternoon sun.

Beyond the larger forms that progressively descend into Bass Strait is the vertical column known as the Pulpit Rock. Within months of von Guérard completing this picture, the Illustrated Sydney Newsprinted a tourist’s account of Cape Schanck which noted:

‘An eagle’s family have for years occupied its loftiest and most inaccessible points [of the Pulpit Rock], and enjoy the repose of undisturbed solitude; their shrill cry and lofty flight add greatly to the wild sublimity of the ocean, which rolls and dashes its billows against the base-of the rock.’

Although von Guérard had the chance to observe the wedge tail eagle he included in this picture, the accompanying European fox could not have been present. Australia’s fox population is known to have been founded for the purpose of recreational hunting in 1871, six years after the painting was completed.

However von Guérard’s inclusion of this foreign species was a topical one. A public debate involving the Acclimatisation Society and the Melbourne Hunt Club and the opposing voices of concerned citizens appeared in Melbourne newspapers directly before or even during the period von Guérard was painstakingly working on the picture in his Melbourne studio.

But if the fox is an invention to explore a narrative, the rendering of topography and its vegetation is typically faithful and based on direct observations recorded in detailed drawings and oil studies done on location.

A photo I have taken of this site makes for an interesting comparison.

When Tea Trees near Cape Schanck, Victoria, 1865 was acquired by the NGV in 2006, I became fixated on a cloud that lifted vertically from the main form in an unusual manner. My suspicion was that this feature was probably added by a restorer. An initial technical examination failed to ease my mind and it was only in the lead up to the Eugene von Guérard: Nature Revealed exhibition that an opportunity to address the issue in more detail arose.

Examination of the painting’s surface with ultraviolet light revealed minor sections of recent restoration but did not differentiate the suspicious cloud from its original surroundings. Likewise, elemental analysis to determine the use of pigments could not conclusively date its application.

The image below shows a portion of this region as seen through a stereo-microscope regularly used for work on paintings in the NGV’s painting conservation department. It gives an indication of the complex but beautiful surfaces conservator’s endeavour to understand.

As is regularly the case, an x-radiograph was the most informative method of analysis. A loss of original paint directly below the cloud (appearing as a dark passage in the x-ray) had seemingly motivated a nineteenth century restorer to conceal its presence by adding to von Guérard’s cloud.

This ‘repair’ had been applied with oil paint and was now sufficiently old as to make it chemically indistinguishable from von Guérard’s own oil colour. Because of this similarity, the employment of chemicals to remove the restorer’s addition would place the underlying paint at an unacceptable risk. Instead the over-paint was delicately removed using a small scalpel under the stereo microscope to eventually uncovering the rather modest loss. The area was then filled and retouched using pigments bound in a synthetic media and without the need of any change to the original composition.

The comparative images below show the cloud as seen before treatment, the x-ray and the painting following conservation treatment.