Southampton City Art Gallery
Still life with Bust, painted by British artist Mark Gertler in 1936, was acquired by Southampton City Council (through the Chipperfield Bequest for Southampton City Art Gallery) in 1953. The gallery holds one of the finest collections of art in the south of England, comprising over 5,000 works spanning eight centuries. The core, however, is British twentieth century and contemporary art including five works by Mark Gertler: Family Group, The Rabbi and his grandchild, Seated nude, Still life with Bust and Flower Piece. The gallery is located in a major port in the southern shoreline of England, home of a number of the largest cruise ships in the world.
Mark Gertler and Still life with Bust
Mark Gertler was born in the East end of London in 1891 to a poor Jewish émigré family. His evident artistic talent won him a place at the prestigious Slade School of Art.
Gertler was a meticulous draughtsman and gifted colourist. The influence of Post-Impressionism and German expressionist art is clear in his paintings made during WWI, while he was rejected from active service due to his ill health. His master work, Merry-Go-Round (1916), now at Tate Britain caused controversy when first exhibited as it was perceived to be an anti-war statement.
Gertler’s admiration for paintings by Cezanne, Renoir and Picasso certainly influenced his Still Life with a Bust painted in 1936. At this late stage of his career, the artist experimented with the application of thick textured oil paint using a palette knife together with a brush, which can be seen in a detail of the painting surface.
The painting recently came to the Department of Conservation and Technology at The Courtauld Institute of Art for study and conservation treatment. While the structure was in good condition, the surface of the painting was covered by a layer of dirt that obscured the colours and gave the image a flat matte appearance. There were also white crystalline deposits on the surface that had formed on aging of the work. Technical examination of the painting was undertaken using a range of methods to help determine the artist’s techniques, paint analysis, and identification of the white deposits before deciding on an approach to the conservation treatment. This was combined with study of the history of the artist, and the physical history of the art work, to better understand its current condition and how it may have changed since it was painted.
Analysis of the white deposits revealed that they were composed of epsomite, a degradation product of magnesium carbonate added to the paint by the manufacturer. The formation of epsomite probably occurred when the painting was exposed to air containing the pollutant gas sulfur dioxide from diesel combustion. This is likely to have been produced by ships in the port, which is very close to Southampton City Art Gallery, where the painting was stored. Cruise ships release 1000 ppm of sulphur dioxide at idle, that is 60 times more sulphur dioxide than eighteen trucks.
Epsomite is water-soluble and could be removed from most areas of the painting relatively easily using a cotton swab. However. the surface of some paints were sensitive to water swabbing. In these areas special methods had to be developed to remove dirt without affecting the paint.
As part of the conservation of the painting a plan was made to prevent further deterioration and preserve the work for future generations. This included display of the work in a frame with glazing so that it can be enjoyed without risk of surface damage and dirt accumulation, as well as protection from environmental changes.
Tru Vue 6mm Optium Museum Acrylic® sheet was used for the glazing as it provides low reflectance , UV protection, is abrasion resistant, and has anti-static properties which inhibits the accumulation of dust. An optically clear glazing, it allows the viewer to appreciate the vibrancy of the colours, the nuances and transitions, the tactile quality of the impasto and the stress on pattern, which are characteristic of Gertler’s late work. Optium® thus provided the ideal combination of viewing experience and protection required for this painting.
Founded in 1976, FoSMAG is a registered charity supporting Southampton’s rich heritage by assisting and promoting the work of Southampton’s museums, archives and galleries. The financial support that FoSMAG has given to Southampton City Art Gallery has enabled the investigation and conservation treatment of Still life with Bust, representative of the final period of the artist Mark Gertler.
I would like to acknowledge with gratitude my Painting Pairs’ partner Anneke de Bont; Silvia Amato, Aviva Burnstock, Miriam Gillman, Pia Gottschaller and Elisabeth Reissner (The Courtauld Institute of Art); Rebecca Moisan, Ambrose Scott-Moncrieff and Ben Hall (Southampton City Art Gallery); Sarah MacDougall (Ben Uri Gallery), Rebecca Hellen, Judith Lee, Bronwyn Ormsby, Harriet Pearson and Joyce Townsend (Tate); Ben Blackburn and Bill Luckhurst ( Analytical Lab King’s College); Hamilton Kerr Institute; Fitzwilliam Museum, Tate Reading Rooms and the National History Museum.
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