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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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Under the Light: Preserving Tess Boudreau’s negatives and contact sheets

July 20th, 2016

Tess Boudreau, Joyce Wieland, early 1960s. Gelatin silver print, 35.6 x 27.9 cm. Gift of the artist, 2007. 2006/457 © 2016 Estate of Tess Boudreau

Tess Boudreau, Joyce Wieland, early 1960s. Gelatin silver print, 35.6 x 27.9 cm. Gift of the artist, 2007. 2006/457 © 2016 Estate of Tess Boudreau

Curatorial intern Cat Lachowskyj shares her recent findings made during her work in the AGO Photography Collection. A graduate student at Ryerson University in the Film and Photographic Preservation and Collections Management program (FPPCM), Cat is currently writing her thesis on colonial photographs taken during the Younghusband Mission in Tibet (1903–1904).

What project are you currently working on at the AGO?

I’m working on preserving and organizing a collection of Tess Boudreau’s negatives and contact sheets that comprise one of the AGO Library’s Special Collections. We have a number of her photographs in the permanent Photography Collection, so it’s interesting to also have the negatives and contact sheets that reveal her working process.

Who was Tess Boudreau?

Boudreau has an interesting history, having lived in Nova Scotia, Montreal, and Paris, where she worked for Henri Cartier-Bresson as a caption writer for his photographs. As a skilled darkroom technician, she was able to find work easily in many major cities in Canada and Europe. In 1950 she met her husband, Kryn Taconis, who also had affiliations with Cartier-Bresson through Magnum Photo. The couple eventually left Paris for Amsterdam, and then moved to Toronto where Boudreau worked as a photographer in the arts scene during the 1960s, photographing artists, studios, and events. She passed away in 2007 in Guelph, which is when this collection was gifted to the library.

Catherine Lachowskyj, Curatorial Intern, Photography

Catherine Lachowskyj, Curatorial Intern, Photography

Can you explain the Tess Boudreau project in greater detail?

Because the materials had been stored for some time at the house of one of Boudreau’s friends, unstable temperature and humidity conditions resulted in their curling and warping. I have been working closely with Katy Whitman, our Photography Conservator here at the AGO, to properly house the negatives and flatten the contact prints. I’m also pursuing research on Boudreau’s life and work so that this can be incorporated into a finding aid for the collection. This finding aid will help create links to Boudreau’s prints in the permanent collection.

Tess Boudreau, contact sheet, ca. 1960-1969, gelatin silver print with applied colour, 8.5x11"

Tess Boudreau, contact sheet, ca. 1960-1969, gelatin silver print with applied colour, 8.5×11″

Why might objects like these be useful for scholarly research?

Objects that provide us with more information on a maker’s process and greater context are often the most useful research tools. Negatives and contact sheets can reveal events that were not necessarily deemed important or worthy of a final print at the time of their creation. For example, many of the negatives show work that isn’t found in our permanent collection. By looking at these objects in particular, we can identify attendees of certain gallery events in Toronto in the 1960s, revealing networks and a history of Toronto’s art world that might not be common historical knowledge. The collection can also help us better understand Boudreau’s own artistic practice. Yellow markings on some contact sheets show Boudreau’s process of selecting a particular image to be made into a final print, and further markings indicate her notation method for editing prints in the darkroom.


Signature Partner of the AGO’s Conservation Program


Hive Mind

June 18th, 2016

Sherry Phillips, Conservator, Contemporary Art, shares her insights on preparing Pierre Huyghe’s “Untilled (Liegender Frauenakt)” — a statue that contains live beehive — for display during Luminato Festival 2016.

(Untilled (Liegender Frauenakt), 2012, Concrete cast with beehive structure, wax sculpture: 75 x 145 x 45 cm, Beehive dimensions variable, Collection Art Gallery of Ontario, Purchased with the assistance of the David Yuile and Mary Elizabeth Hodgson Fund, 2013)

(Untilled (Liegender Frauenakt), 2012, Concrete cast with beehive structure, wax sculpture: 75 x 145 x 45 cm, Beehive dimensions variable, Collection Art Gallery of Ontario, Purchased with the assistance of the David Yuile and Mary Elizabeth Hodgson Fund, 2013)

When Kitty Scott, Curator of Contemporary and Modern Art at the AGO first mentioned we would be acquiring Untilled (Liegender Frauenakt) by Pierre Huyghe, I was intrigued. Containing a living system, this sculpture required a new way of thinking, and so began a fascinating and inspiring two-year process to prepare Untilled for its public display in Toronto.

Read the rest of this entry »

Conservation Stories: From Vault to Wall

June 6th, 2016

Sherry Phillips, Conservator, Contemporary Art, reveals the behind-the-scenes process of getting artwork out of the vaults and into the gallery.

How does it all begin?

It usually starts with a wish list. A curator will develop an idea for an exhibition and choose artwork or documents they think best explore and explain their concept. That list is then sent to conservators, who evaluate the condition and installation details of each object by heading downstairs… to the vaults!

Descending into “the vaults” sounds incredibly mysterious (and a bit frightening). What’s it like down there?

Well, I’ve been asked on many occasions if the AGO vaults resemble the final scene of the film Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. In some ways, yes they do! We have large rooms filled with racks or shelves that are hung with paintings or stacked with boxes.  One of my favourite things about working at the Gallery is spending quiet time in the vaults, just looking at and thinking about the artwork.  The layers of concepts and expectations about an artist or artwork are almost absent here. Simply by rolling out screens of paintings, I find myself enjoying the works and making unexpected associations with those works nearby — which offer an interesting blend of themes, colours, eras. We also have vaults filled with large wooden crates, stacked almost ceiling high, containing artwork in various stages of assembly. As the contemporary art conservator, many of the objects I look after are stored as separated component parts. And many of the objects haven’t been assessed in several years.

When assessing if an artwork is ready for display, what sorts of questions are you asking?

There are a range of questions, each of which can easily fit into a typical flow chart.  Is it ready to install? If yes, then there is a relatively short path to the gallery space; minor treatment, mount or frame, if any, and scheduling an installation date. If it’s not ready to install, the path of processing the artwork to the gallery space becomes much more complicated, and may not happen at all. Does it need treatment to repair or restore? Is the treatment complicated? Do we have the resources and can it be done in a reasonable amount of time, and in time for the exhibition?

Sometimes the original wish list becomes a much more complicated document, with more questions added than answers. One of the interesting features of contemporary art objects is an artists’ exploration of non-standard materials, like plastics or electrical components. These materials may be the primary material or used in combination with other traditional materials, like wood or paint.  Electrical components for example may need careful evaluation to ensure they meet parameters laid out by the Ontario Electrical Safety Association. Part of my job is to devise how to meet safety standards while honouring the artist’s original intention.

Sherry Phillips at work

Sherry Phillips at work

And what about object research — do you have to check out its history?

Absolutely; and the best way to start is with the object’s record. Every object in the collection has an associated permanent record. Some files are surprisingly scant, maybe a page or two, handwritten or typed several decades ago. (Interestingly, the paper files can be fascinating artifacts containing carbon copies and other types of early copying technologies, old letterheads and charismatic signatures.) There may be a brief note about the object’s condition when acquired or nothing at all. The internet has proven to be a powerful tool to begin the search for more information , but our library and archives, the artist or estate and even oral history gathered from people who knew the artist or artwork when originally installed, are essential to piece together the history of an undocumented artwork.

In conversation over coffee one day, Greg Humeniuk, Curatorial Assistant, recounted a recent visit with the daughter and granddaughter of a prominent Canadian artist about some artworks that were offered to the AGO from an estate. By speaking with the family, Greg learned about the artist’s practice and gained insight into his life and personality — things that aren’t generally discussed in existing literature. Oral history is an invaluable source of information that reinforces the complexity and nuanced nature in all of us. Curatorial and conservation practice in turn benefits from greater insight and new avenues of consideration and presentation.

What are some difficulties you’ve come across when readying artwork for display?

Ensuing conversations with the curators and others members of the installation team may lead to difficult choices — like if we have to substitute one artwork for another already in “exhibition ready” condition. But, at the centre of the discussion is a desire to showcase the best of an artist’s career and the AGO collection. Inclusion on the list may be the first opportunity in a long time to schedule conservation treatment. If one or more artwork must be removed from the wish list however, at the very least we have a much better idea of the current condition, and one or more artworks are added to my long term to-do list.


Signature Partner of the AGO’s Conservation Program


Conservation Notes: Resurfacing Large Two Forms

July 30th, 2015

By Lisa Ellis, Conservator, Sculpture and Decorative Arts

Standing at the corner of McCaul and Dundas streets since 1974, Henry Moore’s monumental sculpture Large Two Forms has become an important part of Toronto’s cultural landscape. Scores of school children, families, local residents and out-of-town visitors enjoy sitting in the large void of the northern element, exploring and enjoying the surfaces and forms and now, perhaps more than ever, posing for photographs and selfies with the bronze giant.

Recently, the sculpture has begun to show its age. Those resting in the forms’ voids have inadvertently polished away the original textured surfaces. Pollution and moisture from the air have reacted with what was once a golden-brown surface, most notably on the top of the forms, turning it into a powdery light green corrosion layer. Worrisome stress cracks had opened up across welded joins and in the larger void where many visitors sat or stood for photos.

With generous funding and support from the Henry Moore Foundation, and after much planning and preparation, a small team of AGO staff members spent a month in the summer of 2015 addressing these issues.The treatment plan consisted of repairing stress cracks and attending to the appearance of the sculpture. Read the rest of this entry »

Conservation Notes: “I have seen my death!” and the very first X-ray

July 28th, 2015

By Katharine Whitman, Conservator, Photography

(photo at right) U.S. Military,  Operation Priscilla, taken at the moment of the shockwave, 1957.   / Camera Crew at Exact Moment of Shockwave Arrival, Nevada Test Site 1957. Gelatin silver print.

(photo at right) U.S. Military, Operation Priscilla, taken at the moment of the shockwave, 1957. / Camera Crew at Exact Moment of Shockwave Arrival, Nevada Test Site 1957. Gelatin silver print.

There’s something really amazing inside the AGO’s walls right now: a piece of medical history and the forerunner of technology used today. In our exhibition Camera Atomica, visitors can see a positive image of the first X-ray ever made. Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, a physics professor in Worzburg, Bavaria, created the gelatine silver glass plate image, what would become known as the first “röntgenogram.” It captures the hand of Röntgen’s wife, Anna Bertha, and her wedding ring (the large dark circle). When she saw the image she is said to have exclaimed, “I have seen my death!” Read the rest of this entry »

Conservation Notes: A case for all types of photos

July 8th, 2015

By Katharine Whitman, Conservator, Photography

 American, mid- to late 19th century (artist), unknown sitter: portrait of woman standing, wearing dark jacket, 1865, ambrotype: sixth plate, case: brown leather with "souvenir" plate, gilt edges and clasp, interior with embossed red velvet pad, 21.12 x 38.55 cm. Anonymous Gift, 2000

American, mid- to late 19th century (artist), unknown sitter: portrait of woman standing, wearing dark jacket, 1865, ambrotype: sixth plate, case: brown leather with “souvenir” plate, gilt edges and clasp, interior with embossed red velvet pad, 21.12 x 38.55 cm. Anonymous Gift, 2000.

Adventures in Photograph Conservation: Cased photos

A photograph can be printed onto almost any surface. While paper is the most common substrate, others include metal, leather, plastic, cloth, canvas and glass, and many of these are represented in the AGO’s photograph collection. This is the first in a series of blog posts that will describe photographic processes and some of the hurdles a photograph conservator has to overcome while working with them. This instalment will cover the more common cased photographs: daguerreotypes, tintypes and ambrotypes. We’ll get to some of the more unique processes, such as the opaltype and pannotype, in another post.

Henry K. Sheldon, Mr. John Shields, Kingston, 1856, daguerreotype, tinted, 50.8 x 44.96 cm. Purchase with assistance of the Photography Curatorial Committee, 2008.

Henry K. Sheldon, Mr. John Shields, Kingston, 1856, daguerreotype, tinted, 50.8 x 44.96 cm. Purchase with assistance of the Photography Curatorial Committee, 2008.

Examples of these processes are often encased in leather-coated wood or sometimes in what were called “Union Cases,” which were made from a thermoplastic material. While some of the cases were larger, most were small enough to be held in one hand: these were precious, portable objects, often lined with silk or velvet, and many times contained the only existing photograph of an individual.

With the introduction of the daguerreotype in 1839 by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (1787–1851), the dawn of photography, as it related to the public, had arrived. A daguerreotype is a photograph that consists of a mercury amalgam on a silver electroplated copper plate (right). The distinguishing visual characteristics of a daguerreotype are that the image is on a mirror-like surface of metallic silver: it will appear either positive or negative depending on whether a light or dark surface is being reflected in the image. The image was often also coloured with pigments to give it a more life-like cast. As an example of employment following the development of new technology, many of the artists who did this work were former miniature painters. With the introduction of photography in 1839, the demand for hand-painted miniature portraits declined drastically, and so it become common for photographers to have re-touchers and colourers on staff to apply the pigments.

Unknown america or canadian, 19th century (artist), seated woman at table, wearing gloves, 1880s, tintype, tinted highlights, 22.36 x 15.96 cm. Anonymous Gift, 2006.

Unknown American or Canadian, 19th century (artist), seated woman at table, wearing gloves, 1880s, tintype, tinted highlights, 22.36 x 15.96 cm. Anonymous Gift, 2006.

After the daguerreotype’s public introduction and adoption, many scientists started working on other, more economical photographic processes. In 1851, Frederick Scott Archer (1813–1857) introduced the collodion process. Ambrotypes and the tintypes (examples at left) are both collodion-based processes, the former being on glass and the latter on a thin sheet of darkly painted metal, usually tin or a ferrous material. The collodion in these processes is derived from solution of pyroxylin, or gun cotton, dissolved in ether and alcohol. Once coated on a piece of glass or metal, the collodion is sensitized in a solution of silver nitrate and exposed in a camera, and the plate is developed, fixed and allowed to dry. The resulting photograph is then varnished to prevent deterioration of the image. These photographs were much more resilient than daguerreotypes and — though conservators today would warn against it — some people would send their tintypes through the mail without a case, unconcerned about damaging the photograph.


Curious about Conservation?
If you have a burning question about Conservation, leave a comment below. We’ll do our best to give you an answer in an upcoming Conservation Notes post.


Signature Partner of the AGO’s Conservation Program


Conservation Notes: Displaying Henryk Ross’s powerful Łódź Ghetto photos

April 30th, 2015

By Katharine Whitman, Conservator, Photography

Henryk Ross, Negative #940 from Lodz Ghetto Collection Series, 1940-1944,  35 mm cellulose nitrate negative, 40.88 x 45.97 cm. Gift from archive of modern conflict, 2007.

Henryk Ross, Negative #940 from Lodz Ghetto Collection Series, 1940-1944, 35 mm cellulose nitrate negative, 40.88 x 45.97 cm. Gift from archive of modern conflict, 2007.

The exhibition Memory Unearthed: The Łódź Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross is rather unique for the AGO in that many different mounting methods are used to represent the powerful imagery of the photographs. It depicts the life in the Łódź Ghetto in German-occupied Poland: a work camp for Jewish and Romani people before they were sent to the Auschwitz and Chelmno concentration camps. We used a variety of display methods in the exhibition—pins, frames, magnets and custom-designed display cases—that work together to create a seamless display of period and modern prints.

New prints made from Ross's negatives, pinned to the wall of the gallery.

New prints made from Ross’s negatives, pinned to the wall of the gallery.

Unlike most exhibitions at the AGO Memory Unearthed includes many modern prints because most of the original images are only available in negative form. The negatives are nitrate-based and cannot be put on display for health and safety reasons. We put them into frozen storage, but before that we scanned them into a database and made new prints for the exhibition. To avoid detracting from the image, we opted to pin them to the walls of the gallery without frames (as above).

Prints sandwiched between Plexiglas.

Prints sandwiched between Plexiglas, with Japanese paper tabs.

This exhibition also includes period gelatin silver photographs, such as a folio of contact prints, identification cards, candid shots and wedding photographs. One of the more complicated mounting challenges we faced was how to minimally present Ross’s folio of contact negative prints safely and gracefully. The goal was to give the impression that the pages were almost floating in the case. To accomplish this, we:

  • affixed the folio pages to clear Plexiglas frames, which were then sandwiched in long sheets of additional Plexiglas;
  • attached Japanese paper tabs along the top edge, connecting the pages to Plexiglas frames;
  • used dry wheat-starch paste, a fully reversible adhesive, to attach the tabs to the folio pages;
  • and used archival double-stick tape to attach the tabs to the Plexiglas frames.

This method was successful, but to give visitors another way to view these important images, they are also projected on the wall near the presentation case in a film format (as in the photo below).

Gelber Gallery, where we are presentign the Ross folio.

Gelber Gallery, where we are presentign the Ross folio.

Learn more about the exhibition Memory Unearthed: The Łódź Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross here.


Curious about Conservation?
If you have a burning question about Conservation, leave a comment below. We’ll do our best to give you an answer in an upcoming Conservation Notes post.


Signature Partner of the AGO’s Conservation Program


Conservation Notes: Print on this

February 18th, 2015

carbon transfer 2001.169

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By Katharine Whitman, Conservator, Photographs

Suzy Lake, The Natural Way to Draw, 1975. Colour emulsion transfer on uncoated canvas, 102.5 x 134 cm. Gift of nancy Hushion, 2009. 2009/107. © 2015 Suzy Lake.

Suzy Lake, The Natural Way to Draw, 1975. Colour emulsion transfer on uncoated canvas, 102.5 x 134 cm. Gift of nancy Hushion, 2009. 2009/107. © 2015 Suzy Lake.

Suzy Lake’s The Natural Way to Draw and other interesting photograph supports

Until the relatively recent advent of digital photography, in which many photographs exist solely as pixels on a screen, every photograph was printed. By far, the most common support on which to print has been paper. However, even since the early days of photography, they have also been printed on paper, fabric, metal, glass, ceramic and a host of other surfaces.

And now, with the advent of digital printing technologies, we can print photographs on almost any substrate. They can be ink-jet printed on to canvas, plastic, vinyl or paper: the possibilities are endless. As photograph conservator at the Art Gallery of Ontario, I’m fascinated by the wide array of other materials on which photographers and artists have printed their images. Read the rest of this entry »

Conservation Notes: Plastering The Grange

February 18th, 2015

By Claire Molgat-Laurin, AGO Conservation intern

Conserving the AGO’s largest artifact

The AGO’s largest artifact isn’t a monumental painting, or even a sculpture. Think even bigger.

Built in 1817, The Grange was the first building to serve as the home of the AGO, then known as the Art Museum of Toronto, and it is the oldest remaining brick house in Toronto — an important piece of history both for Toronto and for the AGO.

But over the course of the past few years, Jennifer Rieger, the historic site coordinator for The Grange, noticed that paint on one of the basement scullery walls was becoming powdery and blistered. This was a worrying symptom, one that indicated water was trapped in the walls and was damaging the plaster underneath the paint.

Henry Bowyer Lane British, 1817 - 1878, The Grange, c. 1840, overall: 28.6 x 44.1 cm (11 1/4 x 17 3/8 in.), watercolour on paper, Gift of Mrs. Seawell Emerson, Marblehead, Massachusetts, 1972, transferred from the Grange, 2008. © Art Gallery of Ontario

Henry Bowyer Lane
British, 1817 – 1878, The Grange, c. 1840, overall: 28.6 x 44.1 cm (11 1/4 x 17 3/8 in.), watercolour on paper,
Gift of Mrs. Seawell Emerson, Marblehead, Massachusetts, 1972, transferred from the Grange, 2008. © Art Gallery of Ontario.

A house like The Grange is like a living organism, with each part of its construction supported by another. If one component of the house is out of balance, it can affect the rest of the building too. The plaster covering the walls of The Grange should function as its skin, protecting the walls of the house and wicking dampness away from them.

Finding the root of this problem took some serious digging through the archives of the AGO to find records of previous repairs, sending samples of the materials in the wall to be analyzed by conservation scientists and consulting with a preservation architect to assess the exterior of the house. As we learned more about older repairs and the materials used, the situation started becoming clear: one of the problems with this wall originated during a restoration treatment that undertaken in the 1970s.

One of the most important principles in conserving artifacts and art is to use compatible materials that will react to the surrounding environment in the same way as the original components. The old restoration of the plaster in The Grange had been executed with materials that were thought to be compatible at the time. However, in more recent years, it has now been found that these newer, more mainstream materials definitely don’t combine well with traditional materials like those used in the original construction of the house.

Exposed structural wall in The Grange.

Exposed structural wall in The Grange.

The Portland cement and bonding agent used underneath the repaired plaster didn’t react to moisture in the same way as the original lime plaster layers. Instead of allowing moisture to dissipate through its surface, the bonding agent blocked the movement of moisture, causing the plaster to deteriorate and any attempted repairs to fail. The analysis of the materials also suggested that the wall was retaining moisture because the plaster hadn’t been left to cure long enough before the paint was applied, which didn’t allow the plaster to breathe.

To repair the plaster, we called in the services of specialists in heritage plastering — Ben Scott and James Sloan from the Lime Plaster Company. Both have a lot of experience working with historic buildings and know lime plaster inside and out.

According to Scott, working with historic houses like The Grange is complicated, but there’s one simple approach: every historic building is going to be different, and you can’t treat them all the same way.

Most of the time, going back to tried-and-true traditional methods is best. This is a new repair, but the materials have been used in construction all over the world for thousands of years: slaked limes, non-hydraulic or hydraulic limes, animal hair and assorted natural aggregates. The plaster used by Scott and Sloan is their own mix of aged lime putty plaster, unadulterated by any other materials that could be in ready-made mixes.

A closer look: Exposed structural wall in The Grange.

A closer look: Exposed structural wall in The Grange.


It’s a process that takes skill and experience and, most of all, time. Before starting the new treatment, they completely removed the old repairs, paring the wall down to its granite rocks to get a good surface for the plaster. They then applied several layers of plaster over the course of several weeks, starting with a strong “pricking-up” coat that prepared the surface for other layers, then gradually building up to the smooth outer finishing coat. Finally, the plaster needed time to cure as the lime react with carbon dioxide in the air and hardens, forming a strong bond.

The new lime plaster will allow The Grange’s wall to breathe again by effectively drawing moisture away from the walls to help protect the house. A well-executed plastering job like this will last a lifetime, like the original walls of The Grange.

“They don’t make them like this anymore,” Scott said, patting the wall of The Grange.

All the more reason to keep it breathing.


Curious about Conservation?
If you have a burning question about Conservation, leave a comment below. We’ll do our best to give you an answer in an upcoming Conservation Notes post.


Signature Partner of the AGO’s Conservation Program