British Tanks in the Western Desert. Catalogue reference INF 3

Artworks, many by renowned British artists, were commissioned for propaganda purposes by the Ministry of Information from 1939 to 1946. The INF 3 series includes 1,861 records with 1,918 original artworks, including portraits, cartoons, magazine illustrations, drafts for posters and publicity campaigns, and illustrations for reportage and overseas books.

These finely rendered works feature diverse media and supports, for example, oil on canvas; oil on board; pastels and watercolours; charcoal, lithographic chalk, graphite and pen drawings; and collages and paste-ups.

This conservation project has allowed safer and easier access to the artworks.

Conservation challenges and treatments

As well as degradation of the inherently poor quality materials, the artworks had suffered as a result of inadequate storage, continual impact and abrasion when retrieved and produced for readers, causing physical damage to the support and media of these sensitive and largely unprotected items.

First steps were to make these artworks safe to handle and rehouse them appropriately for long-term preservation and reader access. These included treatment of:

  • damaged or detaching overlays or collage elements
  • bowed secondary and primary supports
  • delaminating and impacted corners and edges
  • ruptures, cracks, tears and losses
  • damaged paper frames and protection sheets
  • discoloured adhesive tapes
  • failing paper tapes

Rehousing

In 2007-08, each of the 1,918 artworks was individually rehoused in a covered mount sufficiently deep to prevent contact of the artwork with adjacent materials. The backmount was of acid-free, unbuffered, 100% cotton museum board; the window mount of 5mm 'Fome-Cor'; and the cover of grey archival cover paper.

'Fome-Cor' - a polystyrene filled paper-faced board - was deemed sufficiently deep, rigid and shock-absorbent to protect the artworks and yet suitably lightweight for safe handling and reader access. 'Fome-Cor' layers, separated by 'Plastazote' pillars, were used to create deep mounts where necessary.

To stop the mounts slipping and abrading in the repository map drawers, four standard sizes of mount were used. Four-flap enclosures were used to give added protection to the two smaller-sized mounts.

Technical examination

Conservators carried out a technical examination of selected artworks. We first investigated a glossy, often flaking, white media appearing on some of the works. After initial examination, under magnification in visible light and in UV radiation, it was further investigated using FT-IR/ ATR. The media seemed to vary in composition and seemed likely to consist of titanium or zinc whites rather than lead or calcium whites.

At this stage the project was broadened to include:

  • examination under magnification in visible light and in UV radiation of all the artworks of around 100 artists
  • examination of pigments to be consolidated, using a polarising microscope
  • investigation into possible conservation treatments for artworks on scraperboards

Consolidation of media

Many artworks from the INF 3 series contained materials that were abraded, offsetting or flaking. A survey of these 89 artworks established whether the artwork would benefit from media consolidation, how the consolidant should be applied and how long it would take.

Of those surveyed, 67 artworks were recommended for consolidation. Initial trials were carried out with a variety of consolidants:

  • locally applied with a brush on to recently prepared gouache samples 
  • locally sprayed on to recently prepared pastel samples with an AGS 2000 Aerosol Generator

 The consolidants used, in solutions of varying concentrations in water, were:

  • Gelatin 136 bloom and 221 bloom (Gelita)
  • Isinglass fine cut (Cornelissens)
  • Methyl cellulose A4C (VWR International)
  • Funori (Talas)

The consolidation stage of the project was carried out in 2009-10.

Progress to date

  • More than 400 entries were added to Your Archives, detailing the media used and any other points of interest discovered while conserving the artwork
  • Conservators took minimal samples of flaking media and identified them with polarised light microscopy
  • We asked the current manufacturers of 'ESSDEE British Scraperboard'- used for 17 of the INF 3 series - about the board's past and current composition. Samples of varying ages were procured from artists' suppliers as well as from artists themselves. We used the samples in mock-up treatments, establishing the effects on the board and its surface. A common problem with ageing scraperboard is damage to the kaolin surface and bowing of the board