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Archive: August, 2016

The Science in Art: Safe, Safer, Safest

August 30th, 2016

by Elizabeth Carroll, Collections Care Assistant

Sabine Schaefer, Art Handler, delivers works on paper to Maureen Del Degan, Collections Care Specialist and Elizabeth Carroll (handling matted work of art using cotton gloves)

Sabine Schaefer, Art Handler, delivers works on paper to Maureen Del Degan, Collections Care Specialist and Elizabeth Carroll (handling matted work of art using cotton gloves)

Conservation of fine art can be much more rigorous than often expected. Conservators must be highly skilled in fine art techniques to be able to match the delicate brushstrokes of an 18th-century landscape, and they must also be inquisitive scientists, aware of any chemical reactions that may occur as they mix solvents, and monitor the gallery’s environment. Scientific research and testing is integral to conservation as it helps conservators know what materials to use, what may be happening to an item as its appearance or structure changes, and how to prevent or slow the deterioration of artwork.

This summer, I have the pleasure of working as Collections Care Assistant at the AGO researching topics in preventative conservation. Environmental factors and tools can play a large role in conservation. Light, vibration, temperature, humidity, and visitor’s sticky fingers are just a few of the many agents of deterioration that preventative conservation aims to manage. As a Master of Information student focusing on Archives, I’ve become quite interested in preventative ways to help preserve artifacts and records. If we can control and reduce potential damages to the art, the art can remain on display longer, and conservators will not have to treat the object as often. The object, as a cultural artifact, will also be available longer for the enjoyment of future visitors.

Gloves: The Great Debate

A standard in preventative conservation is using gloves to handle objects. Our hands contain oils that can damage an object, change its colour and degrade its surface. Cotton gloves are the most recognizable tool, yet they are not often used at the AGO. Cotton fibres may catch and tear the art being handled, and the glove itself does not create a complete barrier between the work of art and the oils in one’s hand. Instead, nitrile gloves are often used. Nitrile gloves have become the standard in the conservation community because they create a stronger barrier between the wearer’s skin and the object being handled. They are tear resistant and, ideally, will not leave any residue on the object. Nitrile gloves also offer the user a better sense of touch, which allows for safer handling. Gloves are a very important tool in art conservation, and are used in almost every situation.

Recently, however, conservators have begun to debate whether nitrile gloves are actually safe to use. Some believe that these gloves are causing metals in art to tarnish. This is very concerning as art conservators are tasked with restoring, and preserving art, not contributing to its deterioration. To help improve our knowledge on nitrile gloves, I was asked to research the topic. I found that there are many opinions and possible conclusions based on my survey of the current literature. One theory maintains that traces of sulphur left over from the manufacturing process can still be found on the glove, causing the object to tarnish. Another conclusion based on the literary research is that conservation-safe nitrile gloves are only those labeled accelerant-free, as this type should not contain sulphur. Other avenues in the research suggest that manufacturers have changed their glove formulas, thus gloves that were once safe are no longer advisable to use.

Which of these nitrile gloves is a safer choice for handling art? Colour is not an indicator. Research your options!

Which of these nitrile gloves is a safer choice for handling art? Colour is not an indicator. Research your options!

This dilemma shows that everything that comes into contact with an artifact must be considered and tested for its potential to harm the object, and that constant re-evaluation of products and materials used in conjunction with artwork is a wise approach. Even the seemingly small attributes of a glove can have a large impact on the object being handled and thus careful research is important in all aspects of conservation.

The next step in research is testing theories to see if the hypothesis made through literary reviews hold up. These nitrile gloves also caught the attention of Lisa Imamura, a Master of Art Conservation student at Queen’s University. Imamura began experimenting with commonly used nitrile gloves to see if the hypothesis she made after literary research would be supported. One test method she used was the Oddy test. This is an accelerated corrosion test that looks for corrosive agents in a given material. Small coupons of copper, silver, and lead (Imamura replaced her lead sample with solid sterling silver) are placed in individual air tight containers with a bit of water and whatever material that needs to be tested. The containers are heated to accelerate chemical reactions, reducing the wait time of the experiment. If a metal coupon tarnishes or corrodes, conservators know that the tested object has reacted to the sample. Experiments like Imamura’s can have a significant impact on material and product choices for preventive conservation care.

Though literature research and test results can help make an informed decision, scientifically testing each product or material and their potential applications improves our understanding of the agents of deterioration and their impact on artwork. A seemingly simple tool like a glove can have a lasting negative impact on an object. Conservators must look at all aspects of their work, including the small tools and materials they use that may come into contact with artwork under their care.

Signature Partner of the AGO’s Conservation Program

An interview with Toronto artist Anique Jordan: Lawren Harris, Toronto and a complicated history

August 17th, 2016


When you think of Lawren Harris, do you imagine snow-capped mountains and ice-blue sky?  While he is best known for these iconic images that have become an accepted part of our Canadian identity, Harris spent his formative years in Toronto, often painting a complex and culturally diverse neighbourhood called the Ward. Come experience these remarkable Toronto works for the first time (or again), along with his best northern landscapes, in The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris, on until September 18. See Toronto’s early days from Harris’ perspective, along with archival photos and maps of the Ward and a response to those images from contemporary Canadian artists.

Anique1_webWe asked Anique Jordan, a Toronto artist who created two extraordinary works for the exhibition, to share her thoughts about Lawren Harris’ complicated legacy and how her work is focused on creating a more inclusive Canadian history.

AGO: What about Lawren Harris’ work interests you?  

AJ: My interest in Lawren Harris began as an interest in Canadian and Torontonian archives, specifically in the stories that are absent from them.  I wanted to uncover what the invisible parts of Toronto’s history – its people, its architecture, its spirit– look like. A lot of work that I do looks at the spiritual aspect of Lawren Harris’ work and also looks at some of the things that are missing from his work.

AGO: What were some of your observations?

AJ: His work made me think about some of the ideals of Canadian art history and what it means when we remove images of people from landscapes and from spaces. For me, Harris’ paintings from the ward and his northern landscapes are an entry point into questioning: who has the power to construct these official “histories”? And what are the implications of omitting, erasing or making invisible particular versions of history? What if Canadian history and art history could offer a nuanced, complex memory of people, places and moments?

AGO: What was most surprising when you first came across his work depicting the Ward?

AJ: I was most surprised by how much of this densely populated, immigrant community laid buried under Toronto, and until recently, was hardly mentioned. One of my works in the exhibition is a re-creation of the Black British Methodist Episcopal church that existed in Toronto in the early 1900s in the ward. Using a church congregation, I re-enacted a Black Victorian mourning scene with intentions to not only think about the fact that Black Canadian histories and Black histories in general are constantly omitted from the archives, but also with the intention to honour surrealism, sacredness and ritual.  While these images are inspired by the past, they also free us to imagine the possibilities for a different present and future.


AGO: Lawren Harris painted Toronto at a particular time in our history.  How does his work – and your work – help us better realize Toronto’s history and how can it help us understand our present/future?   

AJ: We would have lost something important if we didn’t consider the role this work has in questioning and shaping a type of future we might not have once been able to imagine. We hold a responsibility to include these stories, without simplifying them, into the dominant narratives of our city’s building.

To find out more about Anique Jordan, please visit

Come and see for yourself!  Book your tickets today and share your thoughts online using #HarrisAGO.


IMAGE CREDITS: [1] Lawren S. Harris, The Corner Store 1912
 oil on canvas. Bequest of Mary Gordon Nesbitt, Toronto, 1992 
92/113 © 2016 The Family of Lawren S. Harris [2] Arthur Goss, Printed by Jeremy Taylor Health Department. Rear Yard, 512 Front Street East August 27, 1914; printed 1998
 gelatin silver print Purchase, 1998 © 2016 Art Gallery of Ontario [3] Lawren S. Harris, In the Ward  c. 1920
 oil on board. On loan from a private collection © 2016 The Family of Lawren S. Harris [4] Karimah Gheddai, 2016 [5] Anique Jordan, Mas’ at 94 Chestnut 2016 digital C-print mounted on di-bond. © 2016 Anique Jordan

How to conserve Tom Thomson’s “The West Wind” (1917)

August 5th, 2016

by Katharine Whitman (Conservator), Maria Sullivan (Manager, Conservation), and Andrew Hunter (Frederik S. Eaton Curator, Canadian Art)

Figure 1. Tom Thomson, The West Wind, winter 1916–1917, oil on canvas, 120.7 x 137.9 cm, Gift of the Canadian Club of Toronto, 1926 © 2016 Art Gallery of Ontario

(Figure 1) Tom Thomson, The West Wind, winter, 1916–1917, oil on canvas, 120.7 x 137.9 cm, Gift of the Canadian Club of Toronto, 1926 © 2016 Art Gallery of Ontario

Tom Thomson first painted in Algonquin Park in May 1912 and returned there every spring, summer and fall until his death in 1917.  Thomson had a small paintbox containing his paints and brushes, and created numerous small sketches during his visits to the park.  He would then use the sketches to create large oil on canvas paintings in his studio in Toronto in the winter. The piece below, Sketch for “The West Wind”, measures just over 8 x 10 ½ inches and is oil on wood panel.  One can see the quick, confident brushstrokes in the piece, and imagine how quickly the work was created.

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