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Looking good on paper

Published 2 June 2014

How does the RA ensure the works of art it borrows remain in exemplary condition? Eleanor Mills charts the conservation challenges of bringing the woodcut prints in ‘Renaissance Impressions’ to the UK.

  • With so many rare and valuable works of art being transported to and from the Royal Academy for its exhibitions, it is essential that they travel first class. From the moment a work leaves the lender’s wall, everything is done to maintain the perfect environmental conditions for its preservation.

    The Academy’s exhibition Renaissance Impressions in the Sackler Wing of Galleries (until 8 June) – comprising rare woodcuts from the Albertina, Vienna, as well as those from the collection of artist Georg Baselitz – was a case in point. Once the loans had been agreed with the Austrian museum, a meticulous examination of the works was made by the Albertina’s conservators before transit, with the smallest marks, smudges and tears noted in a detailed inventory of each piece. A great degree of care was then required to transport these fragile prints.

    “It was crucial to build crates that protect such works against impact and vibration,” says Idoya Beitia, the RA’s Exhibitions Manager. “Dramatic changes to a work’s environmental conditions can result in irreparable damage.”

    For Renaissance Impressions state-of-the-art crates were constructed with several layers of hi-tech foam to soften any impact from bumpy roads while in transit and to insulate each work. The crates contained gauges to monitor temperature and humidity in order to eliminate the risk of mould germination and chemical instabilities. A customised fine- art truck, the conservation equivalent of a top- of-the-range limousine, then transported these fragile artworks to the airport. The truck was climate controlled and benefited from super- soft air-ride suspension and a security guard watching the cargo around the clock. Once the crates were placed into the aircraft, the climate-control features came into their own on the flight to the UK, protecting the works from the extreme temperature changes.

    “Once transferred to the Royal Academy’s galleries, the works sat in the spaces for 24 hours to acclimatise to their new environment,” explains Beitia. The prints were then unpacked by the Academy’s art handlers, under the scrutiny of the Albertina’s Conservator Karine Bovagnet and the RA’s exhibition management team. Each woodcut was then checked against the initial condition report. “During this process we identified any areas of instability that could worsen during the exhibition,” says RA conservator Graeme Gardiner.

  • Conservators Graeme Gardiner and Karine Bovagnet check 'The Triumph of Julias Caesar: Musicians and Standard Bearers' ('The Musicians'), 1599, by Andrea Andreani, after Mantegna, now on display in the RA's 'Renaissance Impressions'

    Conservators Graeme Gardiner and Karine Bovagnet check 'The Triumph of Julias Caesar: Musicians and Standard Bearers' ('The Musicians'), 1599, by Andrea Andreani, after Mantegna, now on display in the RA's 'Renaissance Impressions'

    Photo: Benedict Johnson.

  • “We assess the extent of possible movement within the frame of each print, because even under the tightest environmental controls, paper can expand and contract in response to minute changes in the air,” he says. “As conservators, this is something we are at pains to anticipate.” To guard against such tiny changes, Gardiner usually checks every paper- based work in a show once a week to ensure that it does not react negatively to being on display. “If it has been mounted and framed for the exhibition, the paper might move as it adapts to its new environment, which can result in creasing or tearing, or damage to loose and fragile pigments,” he explains. The Renaissance Impressions prints, however, arrived in sophisticated frames that maintained specific atmospheric conditions suitable for each work, making Gardiner’s job more straightforward.

    Once the exhibition was hung, the baton was passed to Engineering Manager Steve Watson, who checked the temperature and humidity of the galleries early every morning, looking back over the previous night’s readings to ensure there were no unexpected fluctuations. The RA’s Sackler Wing now benefits from a new air-conditioning system that has changed everything for Watson and his team. “The old air-conditioning plant was 20 years old, labour intensive and relied on ozone-depleting gas, which was not environmentally friendly,” Watson explains. “Repairs would typically take a week and depended on good weather. The RA has a complex exhibition schedule, so if a repair was needed it would have been difficult to organise without disrupting the public’s enjoyment of the art on show.”

    “Now works are protected to a much finer degree, with the galleries regulated at a steady 20 degrees Celsius, 50 per cent humidity,” he continues. The new plant cost £7 million and a further £10m is being spent on upgrading air-conditioning equipment across all of the RA’s galleries by 2018. The refurbishment of the Weston Rooms’ air- conditioning was completed in May, and the largest of the RA’s Main Galleries – Gallery III – will be upgraded by September, in time for the major survey show of Anselm Kiefer Hon RA’s work this autumn. The new equipment sets benchmarks in terms of environmental sustainability and, while whirring away unnoticed by visitors, ensures priceless artworks – the real VIPs of the art world – are preserved for future generations.

    Renaissance Impressions: Chiaroscuro woodcuts from the Collections of Georg Baselitz and the Albertina, Vienna is at the RA until 9 June 2014.