Posted: 20th August 2020
In June 2019 Ferens Art Gallery received a Woodmansterne Art Conservation Award to conserve the late Victorian painting The Night School by Edgar Bundy. This painting was one of the first artworks gifted to Hull by Thomas Ferens. The generous support from Woodmansterne has made it possible to preserve it for future generations and to be safely returned to display for visitors to enjoy.
Bundy’s The Night School
The Night School depicts a group of working men of varying ages sitting over books and jotters in the lamplit room that houses the night school. They are making up for missed education in early life, having been forced to start earning a living at a young age. The subject of education and self-improvement through study was one close to Thomas Ferens’ heart.
This popular painting has been presented in a variety of exhibitions and displays at Ferens over the past 100 years. It has also been used to illustrate articles and books on art, social history and education.
The Night School is painted in oil on canvas and measures 94.2 cm high by 153.6 cm wide. It is framed in a neoclassical style ornate frame, inside of which sits a gilt slip frame which separates the paint surface from the glazing.
Condition of the painting before conservation
Prior to conservation the painting was vulnerable due to instability of the support and frame. The stretcher was warped and in poor condition, as was the slip frame (the interior frame) which had splits on the sides. All these issues compromised the safety and health of the painting.
Aesthetically, there were some cracks and losses to the paint surface, and old varnish had dulled the colours. There were also minor losses to the applied decoration on the frame, along with minor abrasions and surface cracks. The gilding was also worn in places.
The conservation project
Conservation involved treating the canvas, support and frame to protect the artwork and ensure its safety and longevity. The painting and frame conservators also cleaned and retouched the surfaces to significantly enhance the painting aesthetically.
Conserving the Painting
Removal of old varnish
Painting conservator Lucy Partridge removed the old varnish and discoloured retouching covering cracks throughout the painting.
The painting has a fairly brown tonality as intended by the artist, so the varnish removal in this case hasn’t made a dramatic difference. It is still very good for the painting, as otherwise the varnish would have continued to discolour over time, getting darker and darker.
Structural work on the painting
Following the varnish removal, protective eltolene tissue facing was applied to the edges of the painting to protect them during structural work. The structural work dealt with the ripple distortions and corner draw distortions.
These distortions were caused by the poor condition of both the canvas tacking margins and the stretcher. The canvas tacking margins were degraded and torn, and so were not properly attached to the stretcher. Meanwhile, the stretcher had warped and had been very heavily keyed out. This meant that it could not safely be expanded more to increase the canvas tension. Because of this it was necessary to replace the stretcher with a new one.
The stretcher was removed and the tacking margins (edges) of the canvas were flattened so a new strip lining could be attached. The strip lining provides extra support, as these areas of the canvas are often weakened. It is made of stable sailcloth fabric and a conservation heat seal adhesive.
Painting conservator Lucy Critchlow also added a sailcloth loose lining onto the stretcher, which will provide additional support to the original canvas.The new stretcher offers greatly improved support for the painting.
Applying isolation varnish
A synthetic resin isolation varnish was then applied to the front of the painting by brush. This acts as an isolating layer between the original paint layers and the retouching. This means that everything the conservators put on the surface now will remain reversible in the future, should someone desire to do that.
Retouching and Varnishing
Lucy Critchlow also retouched some scuffs, scratches and paint layer abrasion.
In the final stage of treatment, a new coat of varnish was applied to the paint surface. The surface gloss is greatly improved and the whole image is a lot clearer and unified after conservation. The varnish is a bespoke mixture of conservation grade synthetic resin and microcrystalline wax. The varnishing is carried out in a dedicated varnishing room with extraction.
Conserving the frame
The painting has two frames. The main outer one is a 19th century Empire style frame with ornate moulding and gilding. The simpler gilt slip-frame separates the glazing from the front of the painting.
The main structural treatment involved repairing two areas of splitting in the slip-frame.
The treatment also included a full surface clean. Areas of decoration were repaired, surfaces retouched, and the frame was re-gilded as required.
The painting was refitted in the frame and a new sheet of light Perspex was fitted to replace the original heavy glass.
The Night School was first displayed in public in the Hull Autumn Exhibition in 1907. Over 100 years on, we look forward to welcoming visitors to view this newly restored Ferens favourite when it returns to display in the gallery sometime later this year.
We are extremely grateful to the Woodmansterne Foundation for supporting this conservation project.
• Woodmansterne Art Conservation Awards
• Painting conservation: Critchlow & Kukkonen Ltd
• Frame conservation: Mike Howden
• Friends of Ferens paid for transport costs
• Eeva Kukkonen, Lucy Critchlow and Mike Howden provided documentation of the treatment process.