fig. 1
Nicholas Caire

Nicholas Caire is considered today to be one of the pre-eminent Australian photographers of the nineteenth century, and Fairy scene at the Landslip, Black’s Spur, c. 1878, is perhaps his greatest and most popular work. In 1995 when the National Gallery of Victoria acquired Fairy scene … in its rarest of versions – a crystoleum – it became a priority for conservation and curatorial staff to restore it to its original appearance, complete with a reproduction of its dramatically coloured, scarlet, plush-velvet frame (fig. 1).1 The National Gallery of Victoria collection also contains Fairy scene … , c. 1878, in its more usual albumen silver format (PH6-1995.8) along with Caire’s original collodion glass-plate negative (PH111-1990).

The decision to undertake this conservation work was guided, in part, by an appreciation of the significance that Caire placed on this version of his photograph. Crystoleums were rarely produced in Australia, no doubt because they were relatively expensive and time consuming. This is the only crystoleum that Caire is known to have produced – perhaps because of the amount of work involved – and reflects his desire to celebrate a location with special meaning for him.

When Caire took this photograph in 1878, Black’s Spur and the Fernshaw district had become an accessible ‘wilderness’ for Melburnians who could travel there in half a day by rail and then coach. Day-trippers visited the area for its picturesque qualities and also for its therapeutic benefits. As one writer observed: ‘The forest is the proper refuge for the tired dweller among city streets … Long may the quietude’s of Fernshaw renew the flagging energies of Melbourne’s workers’.2 E. E. Morris (ed.), “Fernshaw’ in Cassell’s Picturesque Australasia, London, 1887–1889, p. 61. Caire himself was a passionate believer in the physically and spiritually restorative powers of nature and, in a book on the region that he wrote with his friend and fellow photographer J. W. Lindt, he expressed an almost rapturous sense of the region. He observed:

The music of the gentle zephyrs playing among the great giant gums, combined with bird sonnets and other multifarious sounds of animal and insect life in the great forest, impressed one vividly with the feeling that we were within the precincts of fairy land. Veritable fairy glades, the windy fern-bound, and the innumerable fern gullies … is calculated to give the visitor, on his first impression a feeling of ecstatic bewilderment.3 N. J. Caire & J. W. Lindt, Companion Guide to Healesville, Black’s Spur, Narbethong, Marysville, Mt Donnabuang, Ben Cairn and The Taggerty, Melbourne, 1904, pp. 34–5.

Key elements in Caire’s appreciation of the ‘fairy land’ are the giant tree ferns of the area. The graceful fronds of these ancient plants appealed to the aesthetic sensibilities of the times, even inspiring poems on the theme.4 See, for example, ‘To a ferntree’ Bulletin, vol. 2, no. 100, 11 April 1885, p. 22. But ferns also had other more weighty meanings. As writer James Smith observed at the time, viewing such scenery could ‘carry you back to the morning of time’.5 J. Smith, Leader, quoted in Caire & Lindt, p. 12. For Caire, like other artists of the period, the palm-like fronds of the ferns were a reminder of the traditional depictions of the Garden of Eden and recalled the dawn of Creation.6 For an elaboration on the biblical overtones of ferns, see D. Thomas, ‘Fernmania in Australia’ National Gallery Magazine, September 1982. For most of his life, Caire was a devout Methodist, but by 1911 he had become a supporter of the Seventh Day Adventist movement that promoted healthy living, and his photographs frequently appeared in their journal Life and Health. His profound love of nature seems to have inspired his involvement in this movement and it is tempting to conjecture that he also subscribed to Adventist views on Creationism. If this were the case, then Fernshaw would have been the manifestation of God in Nature for the photographer.

The dedication with which Caire photographed the area certainly had a commercial impetus, with sales of these photographs forming his livelihood, but it also came from spiritual motivations. His desire to convey the special qualities of this landscape inspired him to return repeatedly to photograph the area and to find the best ways to capture its distinctive features. He often chose to work on overcast days when the light is more even, and observed: ‘There is nothing more unsightly than an under-exposed fern picture … much depends on the angle between sun, fern and camera’.7 Cairn & Lindt, p. 65. However, while Caire worked hard to capture detail effectively, he could not depict the distinctive colours of the landscape. Colour photography had not yet been invented and perhaps to overcome this frustration, Caire made one grand attempt to fully evoke the ‘fairy scene’ by using the crystoleum process with its layers of hand-coloured ‘backings’. The decision to then frame the work in a rich, scarlet-coloured, plush-velvet frame appears also to have been carefully and purposefully made, reflecting Caire’s keen observation and love of the colours of the Fernshaw area. As an unknown writer of the period observed:

[A] very peculiar colour … overspreads the entire landscape. Many leaves of the gumtree are stained with streaks and spots of brilliant red, and this blending with the hues of other foliage, and with the pale haze which gathered in the hollows, the whole scene showed in the bright sunlight, a dull-reddish purple, like the colour of a ripe red plum with the bloom upon it.8 Morris, p. 61.

 The crystoleum

Although crystoleums were ‘certainly produced here’, little information on their manufacture, use and popularity in Australia has been found.9 A. L. Davies, letter to Angeletta Leggio, 21 December 2001. National Gallery of Victoria files. One rare reference to them was an advertisement in the Northern Argus in October 1888 that referred to a ‘Crystoleum Painting! A Rare Novelty’ that was available through a photographer, Mr E. W. Marchant in Main Street, Clare (SA). The crystoleum was also referred to as a chromo-photograph.

A crystoleum typically consists of an albumen silver photograph pasted face down to the inside of a piece of convex glass (that is, to the concave surface). The paper backing of the photograph was removed using sandpaper, either completely or until only a very thin layer of paper and emulsion remained (fig. 2). The remaining paper was then made transparent by applying a slow-drying oil or wax. To highlight details of the image, such as facial features or jewellery, colour was applied to the back using a fine brush. A second sheet of convex glass was placed behind the first and the two pieces of glass taped together along the edges. Broad areas of colour were applied to the second sheet of glass. A card or sheet of paper was placed on the back and the assembled ‘package’ was then ready for framing. Materials for the crystoleum were commercially available until 1915.

The albumen silver photograph used in Nicholas Caire’s crystoleum measures 290 x 247 mm, and is adhered to glass measuring 380 x 290 mm. The collodion negative from which the image was printed measures 305 x 254 mm. It is slightly larger than the photographic print as the emulsion on wet collodion negatives does not usually reach the edge of the plate, due to the manner in which it is applied.

The Caire crystoleum consists of two sheets of convex glass, each approximately 2 mm thick. The albumen silver photograph was adhered to the verso of one of the sheets of glass and the paper on the verso of the photograph sanded back; both broad and detailed areas of colour were then applied. The two sheets of glass were taped together along the edges, and broad areas of colour applied to the second sheet of glass. This composite was then fitted into the frame.

The image was in excellent condition with the exception of some highlight yellowing – a common form of deterioration seen in albumen photographs. The glass was generally in good condition with some surface dirt. Treatment of the crystoleum involved removing the old tapes and cleaning the glass. The two sheets of glass were rebound together using an archival, pressure-sensitive tape.

The existing frame

The frame in which the crystoleum came into the NGV collection is believed to be the first frame for the work, however, it had deteriorated to the point where it was considered unsuitable for display (fig. 3). Close examination revealed that the frame had a longer history than the crystoleum, and had previously existed in a different format, presumably for another work of art. It seems likely that the frame was adapted from its original format specifically to house the crystoleum.10 In the past the recycling and adaptation of frames was a fairly common practice. Spare frames became available when works were reframed for reasons such as changes in ownership or changes in interior decoration. 

The frame, constructed from a simple hardwood moulding (fig. 4), was originally decorated with silver leaf and coated with a coloured varnish to imitate gold. There were only tiny remnants of silver visible on the frame due to most areas of metal being converted to black corrosion products (most likely silver sulphide). This technique of imitating gilded surfaces has been used since antiquity and was common in the nineteenth century. Subsequently, the frame was coated with ‘bronze’ paint,11 These paints are based on copper–zinc alloy powders which, in modern terminology, would be termed ‘brass’, as opposed to ‘bronze’. The traditional name is likely to derive from the primary use of such paints, which was to imitate bronze sculpture. See J. Thornton, ‘All that glitters is not gold: other surfaces that appear to be gilded’ in Gilded Metals, (ed.) T. Drayman-Weisser, London, 2000, p. 312. a frequent method of restoring frames since the mid nineteenth century.

The existence of an added square section of softwood at the back exterior of the frame and the rough, uneven nature of the frame rebate (fig. 5), indicated that the original frame had been disassembled, new mitres cut, and then reassembled with the moulding reversed. This allowed the cutting of a deeper rebate to accommodate the thickness and curvature of the crystoleum (fig. 4). Subsequently, a thick, bevelled-edge card mount was attached to the frame with nails.

The final and most dramatic change to the frame was covering it with a scarlet plush-velvet fabric.12‘A kind of plush with a short, soft, dense nap, resembling velvet.’ The New Oxford Dictionary of English, 2001. The depth of the pile … is approximately 1/8 inch which lies between the pile depths ascribed for velvet (1/16 inch or shorter) and plush (1/4 inch or longer). See N. Holten & J. Saddler, Textiles, New York, 1968, p. 164. Prior to attaching the fabric, the surface of the frame appeared to have been intentionally scraped back on parts of the moulding, probably for the purpose of providing a suitable surface for adhering the fabric. Although the fabric was largely missing from the front of the frame, the existence of a small section of fabric across one of the corners suggested that a single piece of fabric was used to cover both the frame and the card mount. The fabric had been adhered with animal glue and secured at the back perimeter of the frame with flat-headed tacks. There were small sections of fabric on the back of the frame where the pile was relatively intact. This provided an indication of the original colour and texture of the fabric. The fabric was identified as having a silk pile and a cotton base, with a plain, 2 x 2 mm basket weave.13 Identification carried out using burn tests by Kate Douglas, NGV Textile Conservator.

Plush-velvet-covered frames such as the one housing the crystoleum fit comfortably into a typical interior of the Victorian era of the 1870s which often contained rich fabric upholstery and drapery. Synthetic dyes, introduced in the mid nineteenth century,14 The first synthetic dyestuff, derived from coal-tar, was discovered by William Perkins in 1856 and was named Mauveine. See J. S. Mills & R. White, The Organic Chemistry of Museum Objects, London, 1987, p. 130. produced some very vivid colours, of which scarlet, turquoise and moss green were among the most common at the time of the crystoleum’s production.15 Terence Lane, discussion with Holly McGowan-Jackson, June 2002. These colours appear very bright to modern eyes, however, from all accounts, they reflected the current taste. Referring to frames for painted tintype photographs in the Victorian era, the writer Stanley B. Burns says, ‘Frames were highly embellished, often overwhelming the works they contained’.16 S. Burns, Forgotten Marriage: The Painted Tintype & the Decorative Frame 1860–1910, New York, 1995, p. 93.

Cut-pile fabrics, such as plush-velvet, were generally found on frames for small works, including cabinet pieces (designed to sit on a cabinet or table), photographs, mirrors and watercolours.17 See photograph of drawing room by Captain S. Sweet, early 1880s, showing small plush- or velvet-covered frame on the table, in T. Lane & J. Searle, Australians at Home: A Documentary History of Australian Domestic Interiors from 1788 to 1914, Melbourne, 1990, p.28, (fig. 176). These fabrics were also seen covering small stands, such as those on which cabinet pieces might sit. In addition, velvet was often found inside ambrotype and daguerreotype cases and covering the liners (inner frames) of frames housing 1870s–80s tintypes.18 Burns, specifically figs 65. p.148; 66, p. 140; 69, p. 139; and 77, p.142.

Approach to reframing

In recent years the NGV and other art institutions around the world have increasingly recognised the historic and artistic significance of frames, and the importance of conserving and documenting them to the same standards as other objects in the collection. Closely aligned with this is a dedication to the production of historically accurate reproduction frames for photographs and other works of art. Experience has proven that to produce a replica frame of the highest quality it is necessary to have reference to an original frame. In this way the details of construction, from the shape of the mouldings to the nuances of the finish, can be imitated as closely as possible. In the case of the crystoleum, we were fortunate in having the original frame on which to base the decision that its original appearance be recreated as closely as possible.

After examining the frame, two options were considered. The first was to use the existing frame and slip; clean and repair as necessary, then cover that with a fabric as close as possible to the original. The second was to build a reproduction frame and slip to the exact dimensions of the original and cover with a fabric as close as possible to the original. The first option was rejected as covering the original frame would have altered it permanently and impeded access to evidence regarding its history, materials, and techniques of construction for future study. After much discussion, it was decided that a reproduction frame should be made.

Conservation technical assistant Matthew Adams produced a frame with an identical moulding in jelutong, a pale yellow hardwood known for its dimensional stability. Several additional frames were constructed as mock-ups for practising attachment of the fabric. The slip was cut from 8-ply archival-quality card and adhered to the rebate using Mowolith DM4, a polyvinyl acetate emulsion adhesive regularly used in conservation.

Identifying an appropriate fabric was a lengthy task.19 The search involved discussions with frame and textile conservators both here and overseas; decorative-arts specialists at the Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales were consulted, and a query was placed on the Textile Conservation discussion list. Shops specialising in new and antique fabrics were contacted in Boston, New York, London, Sydney and Berrima, New South Wales. Colleagues visiting Europe were enlisted to visit likely shops and collect samples. Many samples of velvet and plush were examined but where the colour matched, the texture did not, and vice versa. In addition, the original fabric had a deeper pile than those available today. Lengthy discussions began regarding whether it was more appropriate to match the original colour or the texture; clearly, a compromise would have to be made. Finally, it was decided that the colour was the top priority.

After extensive investigation of fabric samples, a specialist fabric shop in Sydney, with an agency for a range of French velvets, eventually supplied the material. The velvet has a pure-silk pile and base, but although it was woven on a loom similar to a nineteenth-century one, the weave is somewhat different from the original. Because the velvet was extremely expensive, sufficient fabric was ordered to cover only the reproduction frame and not the mock-up frames. Two full-size sample frames were covered with another velvet that was readily available and less expensive. Techniques similar to those used by bookbinders to ‘massage’ the fabric over the moulding were employed. This enabled the frame to be covered using one piece of velvet, eliminating any joins at the corners of the frame. The adhesive Mowolith DM4 was again selected for the job. Its relatively fast-drying nature enabled the fabric to be adhered in sections so weights were not required to hold the fabric in place after the adhesive was applied. However, this also meant that adhesive had to be applied repeatedly to the fabric because it dried so quickly.

Once this technique was perfected, a section of a sample frame was covered with the velvet that had been ordered for the reproduction frame. This fabric reacted quite differently to the less expensive velvet used on the other samples, distorting so severely that it was evident that it would be impossible to apply it to the frame as a single piece. Instead, the fabric was adhered to the slip and part of the frame, then cuts were made in the fabric along the mitres of the frame and the fabric completely adhered to the frame, with joins along the mitres.

When the frame was covered, the crystoleum was placed in position and it was viewed under exhibition-lighting conditions. During the finishing of reproduction frames, and indeed, during frame-conservation treatments, works are regularly viewed under display-lighting conditions. These vary considerably from the fluorescent lighting in the frames conservation studio, and natural daylight, in terms of colour temperature which indicates the warmth or coolness of the light, and lux levels that indicate the amount of light. As expected, the frame appeared bright and pristine in relation to the crystoleum. It was also observed that the faint green colouration

in the image was more evident within the setting of the red frame, as red and green are complementary colours. The crystoleum was then removed and the fabric distressed by ‘bruising’ the pile, to give it a slightly aged appearance. The crystoleum was returned to the frame and examined once again under exhibition-lighting conditions and judged to be satisfactory. The frame rebate was lined with felt to cushion the edges prior to the crystoleum being placed in the frame. The small space between the frame and the edge of the glass was filled using strips of archival-quality corrugated card which was built up to the depth of the glass. A cushion made of Tyvek, spunbonded olefin filled with wadding, was placed on the verso in the concavity of the crystoleum package to protect the glass from physical damage. The crystoleum was secured to the frame with a Fome-Cor backing.

The success of this project was contingent on several critical factors. First, although we sought advice from those outside the NGV, in-house advice was invaluable. The collaboration between frame and photographic conservators, technical staff and curators resulted in essential insights into the frame and its context – and provided the impetus to continue the long process of material sourcing. Second, an unusually lengthy lead-time prior to the work being required for exhibition was important to allow sufficient time to search for a suitable fabric and develop a technique to attach the fabric to the frame and slip. Finally, the viewing of the finished frame under exhibition-lighting conditions meant that a realistic assessment of the new frame could be made.

This project has been useful in re-examining the reasons behind the NGV’s reframing decisions. For many works in the collection, historical evidence such as contemporary photographs or examples of original frames on works by the same artist, give a stronger foundation for decisions taken, rather than individual taste alone. In the case of the crystoleum, it was fortunate to have what was most likely the first frame for the work in an intact though extremely worn state. Although there were challenges in terms of sourcing appropriate fabric, application techniques and the aesthetic impact of the frame outside the context of its Victorian-era origins, all the evidence needed to create a high-quality replica of the original presentation was available. In its present, final form, the crystoleum now effectively recaptures the intent of the artist for whom the magnificent ‘fairy scene’ was a site of special aesthetic and spiritual significance. Now it also properly presents a unique version of a photograph that is considered to be of prime significance in the history of Australian photography.

Isobel Crombie, Senior Curator, Photography, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2002).

Angeletta Leggio, Conservator of Photographs, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2002).

Holly McGowan-Jackson, Conservator of Frames and Furniture, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2002).

 

Acknowledgments

The authors would like to thank Alan Davies, Curator of Photographs, State Library of New South

Wales; and NGV staff: Lyndsay Knowles, Senior Conservator of Paper; Matthew Adams, Technical

Officer; Terence Lane, Senior Curator, Australian Art; John Payne, Senior Conservator of Paintings;

Susan van Wyk, Curator, Photography; Kate Rhodes, Assistant Curator, Photography; Narelle

Wilson, photographer; and Katy Glen, NGV Foundation Development Conservator of Paper for

searching for materials in London.

 

Notes

1     The National Gallery of Victoria collection also contains Fairy scene … , c. 1878, in its more usual albumen silver format (PH6-1995.8) along with Caire’s original collodion glass-plate negative (PH111-1990).

2     E. E. Morris (ed.), “Fernshaw’ in Cassell’s Picturesque Australasia, London, 1887–1889, p. 61.

3     N. J. Caire & J. W. Lindt, Companion Guide to Healesville, Black’s Spur, Narbethong, Marysville, Mt Donnabuang, Ben Cairn and The Taggerty, Melbourne, 1904, pp. 34–5.

4     See, for example, ‘To a ferntree’ Bulletin, vol. 2, no. 100, 11 April 1885, p. 22.

5     J. Smith, Leader, quoted in Caire & Lindt, p. 12.

6     For an elaboration on the biblical overtones of ferns, see D. Thomas, ‘Fernmania in Australia’ National Gallery Magazine, September 1982.

7     Cairn & Lindt, p. 65.

8     Morris, p. 61.

9     A. L. Davies, letter to Angeletta Leggio, 21 December 2001. National Gallery of Victoria files.

10     In the past the recycling and adaptation of frames was a fairly common practice. Spare frames became available when works were reframed for reasons such as changes in ownership or changes in interior decoration.

11     These paints are based on copper–zinc alloy powders which, in modern terminology, would be termed ‘brass’, as opposed to ‘bronze’. The traditional name is likely to derive from the primary use of such paints, which was to imitate bronze sculpture. See J. Thornton, ‘All that glitters is not gold: other surfaces that appear to be gilded’ in Gilded Metals, (ed.) T. Drayman-Weisser, London, 2000, p. 312.

12     ‘A kind of plush with a short, soft, dense nap, resembling velvet.’ The New Oxford Dictionary of English, 2001. The depth of the pile … is approximately 1/8 inch which lies between the pile depths ascribed for velvet (1/16 inch or shorter) and plush (1/4 inch or longer). See N. Holten & J. Saddler, Textiles, New York, 1968, p. 164.

13     Identification carried out using burn tests by Kate Douglas, NGV Textile Conservator.

14     The first synthetic dyestuff, derived from coal-tar, was discovered by William Perkins in 1856 and was named Mauveine. See J. S. Mills & R. White, The Organic Chemistry of Museum Objects, London, 1987, p. 130.

15     Terence Lane, discussion with Holly McGowan-Jackson, June 2002.

16     S. Burns, Forgotten Marriage: The Painted Tintype & the Decorative Frame 1860–1910, New York, 1995, p. 93.

17     See photograph of drawing room by Captain S. Sweet, early 1880s, showing small plush- or velvet-covered frame on the table, in T. Lane & J. Searle, Australians at Home: A Documentary History of Australian Domestic Interiors from 1788 to 1914, Melbourne, 1990, p.28, (fig. 176).

18     Burns, specifically figs 65. p.148; 66, p. 140; 69, p. 139; and 77, p.142.

19     The search involved discussions with frame and textile conservators both here and overseas; decorative-arts specialists at the Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales were consulted, and a query was placed on the Textile Conservation discussion list. Shops specialising in new and antique fabrics were contacted in Boston, New York, London, Sydney and Berrima, New South Wales. Colleagues visiting Europe were enlisted to visit likely shops and collect samples.