Conservators can spend long periods with individual artworks, carefully and slowly analysing, treating and restoring a single work. They also undertake deep research into artists and social, historical and personal contexts, to inform the unique conservation process. During conservation treatment of a landscape painting by British-born artist Thomas Clark from the 1860s, a trip to Nigretta Falls in Western Victoria not only enabled a deeper understanding of the environment Clark was depicting, but ultimately uncovered the artist’s original intention for the work.
Conservation treatments often spark curiosity, which is why I found myself driving four hours due west of Melbourne on a warm summer’s afternoon last January. My smartphone announced my arrival and I walked over to a lookout point at the edge of the dusty carpark that sits at the end of an equally dusty access road, surprised to see the exact view of Nigretta Falls I had travelled for. It was the same view I had been examining closely for months, in an oil-on-canvas painting from the 1860s, The Upper Falls on the Wannon, 1867, by British-born colonial artist Thomas Clark. It is one of a half dozen or so canvases he produced of the Nigretta Falls and the nearby Wannon Falls, about a twenty-minute drive from Hamilton. Most of Clark’s known paintings are landscapes of Western Victoria and around Melbourne, which offer distinctive impressions of the Victorian countryside in its early years of European settlement. That day, I stood steps from where Clark must have been when he first sketched the site more than 150 years ago.
In the conservation studios at the NGV, I had previously documented, researched and analysed the painting. The conservation treatment involved unpacking a multilayered restoration history. Twentieth-century restorations carried out before the painting was donated to the NGV in 2004 by generous supporter Dr Joseph Brown AO OBE involved materials and treatment philosophies that are no longer deemed appropriate by today’s conservation standards but were common in earlier times. Large areas of the composition were overpainted to mask abrasion (wear to the paint layer caused by unsuitable cleaning methods). This was a much faster but less sympathetic approach to today’s method of inpainting areas of damage only, with a focus on minimal intervention and honouring artistic intent. A thick resin varnish layer had become discoloured yellow and embrittled with age. The final layer was a thick wax surface coating.
As I began the slow and careful conservation process, the artist was gradually revealed to me as the original paint was uncovered. Once the cleaning was complete, I began reconstructing what was lost through damage by retouching. Using tiny brushes and paint that could be easily removed by a future conservator, the process was slow. Overall, I will have spent around eighteen months working on this painting. But through close and extended looking at the artwork Clark’s working process revealed itself, and I could begin to appreciate his original intentions through the many movements and micro-decisions he made as he worked up the picture.
Learning about Clark’s practice as I worked on his painting–how he prepared his canvas, sketched out his composition, the types of paints and brushes he used and how he handled them–revealed little about the person behind the work. There is scant surviving evidence that provides a sense of his character and there are numerous gaps in biographical information. This is despite his accomplishments in the artistic circles of Melbourne in the second half of the nineteenth century. Clark was appointed Instructor and Master of the fledgling National Gallery School of Design in 1870, charged with preparing students to progress to the National Gallery School of Art with Eugène von Guérard at the helm. Clark would retire by 1876 due to ill health, but in these years he was instrumental in the development of formal art education in Australia and taught some of the most talented artists of the next generation, including Tom Roberts, Jane Sutherland and Frederick McCubbin. Many major institutions around Australia and several Victorian regional galleries hold his works. The Hamilton Gallery brought the art of Thomas Clark to light in the 2013 exhibition Exposing Thomas Clark: A Colonial Artist in Western Victoria .1
In the absence of correspondence, journals, or descriptions from his contemporaries, the contributors to the catalogue acknowledge their reliance on what can be gleaned from media reports and job applications that survive in archives for details of his personal life and artistic practice.
Clark was a skilled draftsman and engraver, and taught drawing more often than painting in Britain and Australia, though very few of his sketches survive. Underdrawing the preliminary sketch of the composition made directly on the canvas before applying paint layers–is visible using infra-red reflectography and can be seen with the naked eye in thinner areas of paint, which naturally become more transparent over time. Clark used a dry medium, such as pencil or charcoal, and his execution was loose and confident.
His paint handling reflects this free-flowing sketching. Building the paint surface in layers, beginning with thin washes of colour used to block in the different areas of the composition, he then works up the rich and rugged landscape with contrasting paint textures, from flat opaque colour to thick impasto applied with brushes and a palette knife, before finishing with transparent glazes and bright scumbling (where an area of paint is modified by lightly applying opaque paint on top). This sequence reflects the painting technique of English landscape painter John Constable, whose distinctive style is echoed here, including his soft-colour palette and deliberate lack of high finish.2
Constable recommended a young Clark for enrolment at the Royal Academy School of Painting, London. Clark would have been familiar with his technique, along with other British Romantic painters, as he studied and developed his skills before leaving England in the early 1850s when he was in his early thirties.
While Clark looked to British painters, his celebrated contemporary Eugène von Guérard was painting in the tradition of German Romanticism. The NGV holds in its collection The Upper Wannon Falls on Kennedy’s Station in Victoria, 1857, a meticulous sketch of the Nigretta Falls by von Guérard in pen, ink and wash over pencil from almost the exact vantage point as Clark’s painting.3
Both exercised artistic licence: von Guérard heightened the dramatic grandeur of the setting with an elevated viewpoint, while Clark removed the trees in the foreground for an unobstructed view of the picturesque setting. In contrast to von Guérard’s crisp and detailed Australian landscapes in a high-key palette, Clark presents us these same settings with a distinctly British perspective.
Clark’s palette prompted questions during treatment. The blue-green on the rocks brought to mind the blue leaves of Dutch flower paintings, a strange and unintentional result of the practice of producing deep glossy green leaves by painting a transparent glaze containing yellow lake pigment over layers of blue, only for that yellow pigment to fade with time to betray an otherwise hyperreal depiction.4
Glazes are also often more sensitive to cleaning, which led me to wonder if these blue areas on Clark’s rocks might have once been a deeper mossy green, but were victim to overcleaning or a fugitive colourant in a glaze. Seeing the Falls in person proved me wrong: these rocks were spotted with blue-green lichen that accrued in-between rocks in exactly the way Clark had painted them.
The unusual salmon and apricot colours Clark used to render these rocks are also true to reality, these tones typical of the distinctive rhyolitic volcanic rock found on the site.5
While some of the trees in the middle distance look more at home in the English countryside, his depiction of twisted dead eucalypts at the water’s edge surpasses most of his contemporaries.
I stood at the lookout and contemplated Clark’s translation of this scenery into paint and I imagine he was captivated by it. I could now see he was an artist looking closely at this environment; his lack of high finish belying his incisive observations. I returned to Melbourne with renewed appreciation for landscape painting as the articulate interface between painter and place.
Caitlin Breare is NGV Conservator of Paintings. This essay was originally published in the Sep-Oct 2020 edition of NGV Magazine.
Peter Dowling et al., Exposing Thomas Clark: A Colonial Artist in Western Victoria. Hamilton Art Gallery, 2013.
Sarah Cove, ‘The painting techniques of Constable’s “six-footers”’, in Anne Lyles, Constable: The Great Landscapes Tate Publishing, 2006, pp. 50–69.
Michael Varcoe-Cocks, ‘The verisimilar line: The use of infrared in a survey of a group of paintings by Eugène von Guérard’, Melbourne Journal of Technical Studies in Art, Volume 2 (Underdrawing), 2005 pp. 19–34.
4.David Saunders & J. Kirby, ‘Light-induced colour changes in red and yellow lake pigments’, in National Gallery Technical Bulletin, vol. 15, 1994, pp. 79–97.
Geological identifications made by the Hamilton Field Naturalists Club. See Rod Bird & Diane E. Luhrs, Hamilton Region Nature Guide, D. Luhrs, Hamilton, 2010.