Too Much Muck on the Garden? - Preparing Duncan Grant’s ‘The Hammock’ for loan

Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums
5 min readMay 31, 2024

Ana Flynn-Young, Head of Painting Conservation, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums

Last year the Laing Art Gallery received a request for the loan of one of our paintings by Duncan Grant. It is a portrait of Vanessa Bell and her three children in their garden at Charleston in Sussex. Angelica walks along the path, while Julian is in the punt on the left and Quentin rocks the hammock. Both Quentin and Angelica became artists, and Julian was a poet. The young man reading a book is the boys’ tutor, the sociologist W.J.H. (Sebastian) Sprott. Both Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant were members of the Bloomsbury Group of writers and artists.

Fig 1-painting before treatment.

This painting has often been on display and I have always thought it looked very dark and muddy; not the play of colour and patterns that I would expect of a Duncan Grant work. As the painting conservator at the Laing I had often thought about whether it could be cleaned. However because it was in a stable condition for display, it had never been a priority.

The good thing about painting loans is it’s a long process. This gave me the chance to give it a closer look. I needed to get it out of its frame to glaze it; we generally don’t loan unglazed works. It seemed practically rude to put it behind glass without giving it a surface clean (at least that’s my excuse).

At first, the results were disappointing. There didn’t seem to be any dirt coming off the surface, which was a bit odd. The last record of any conservation was in 1976. We do try to keep our stores in good order, but no dust on the surface for almost 50 years would be a miracle, which needed further investigation!

Fig 2- during removal of the wax coating.

A common practice in the past, particularly with dealers, is to ‘brighten them up’ with a bit of wax. This deepens the tones of the painting and gives it a healthy shine. The problem is that it acts as a dust and dirt magnet and blocks the effectiveness of water based cleaning techniques. It was time to bring out the big guns and get the solvents out.

The solvents were definitely removing dirt and, as I had suspected, a layer of wax that the dirt was stuck in. Underneath the wax was a layer of varnish but the painting was still very dirty. I could see the dirt sitting in the brush marks of the slightly textured paint.

Fig 3–5 -varnish removal tests.

Back to the solvent cupboard I went. This time I found a solvent that took off the varnish and, rather scarily at first, most of the dirt too! As you would expect, the varnish was slightly discoloured with age. What you would not expect is to have a layer of dirty soot under the varnish! Evidence would suggest that this painting was originally unvarnished and may have hung for some time near a fireplace where the dirt and soot had settled on it before it was varnished.

Fig 6- half way through varnish removal.

This painting just kept on giving. I then discovered that a strip of wood of a different width had been added to the bottom of the stretcher. This was causing the canvas to pucker up at the bottom. Also the canvas had been placed on the stretcher very low, so the old turnover edge was visible when in the frame. It was decided to take it off its stretcher so it could be re-stretched in the centre of the frame and adjust the bar to reduce distortions.

Fig 7- edge of painting faced to prevent paint loss on stretcher removal. Fig 8- dirt and debris on removal of stretcher.
Fig 9- frame with old attachment. Fig 10-new strip of wood added to frame.
Fig 11- canvas stamp found under turnover edge.
Fig 12- support added to strengthen turn over edge. Fig 13- during cleaning of frame.
Fig 14- frame after cleaning with losses filled.

It took me about 150 hours to fully treat this painting but it was well worth it. It has gone from a painting that was so dirty it looked like the garden of doom, to a sunny day in the garden. I hope people get as much enjoyment out of seeing it as I did in uncovering its true colours.

Fig 15- Full front before treatment. Fig 16- full front after treatment. Fig 17- full front in frame and hanging in gallery.

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Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums

Major regional museum, art gallery and archives service. We manage a collection of nine venues across Tyneside and the Archives for Tyne and Wear.