Conserving the fabulous gouache collection of post WWII textile designer, Shirley de Vocht

Floral design, gouache on paper by Shirley de Vocht 2002/88/1-5/2 Floral design, gouache on paper by Shirley de Vocht

Shirley de Vocht (nee Martin) studied art at East Sydney Technical College and worked in a number of post-WWII Australian design and manufacturing industries. She became a well known designer, primarily of textiles and created the official towel for the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games. During her career, Shirley focused on Australian flora and later fauna, creating colourful, intricate designs.

The Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences has a wonderful collection of Shirley’s work from 1945-1955 that includes 13 textile designs using poster paint (gouache). The works feature waratahs, wattle, flannel flowers, gum blossoms, Christmas bells, kangaroo paws and daisies.

Shirley designed this 'Bambi' fabric, her mother made the dress. Photo c1946
Shirley designed this ‘Bambi’ fabric, her mother made the dress. Photo c1946
Gouache on paper, designed by Shirley de Vocht 2002/88/1-5/4
Gouache on paper, designed by Shirley de Vocht

The gouache designs were in fragile condition and needed conservation care. The gouache paints are mostly painted on thin board, then adhered to another thin board. The backing boards are discoloured, have some foxing stains and some are dog-eared. The painted surface has areas of paint loss and cracking. Often this paint loss is in areas of creasing, areas with some distortion from point of adhesion to the backing board, or where the paint has been thickly applied. The gouache has lost both adhesion to the paper plus some breakdown of the paint binder which has resulted in paint loss and cracking.

Detail of paint loss on the first image 2002/88/1-5/2
Detail of paint loss on the first image 2002/88/1-5/2

Firstly, the collection was photo documented and a condition report done for each design. The objects were surface cleaned using a size ‘0’ brush, a dental aspirator and a microscope, to facilitate precision and prevent loss of loose paint. Some of the designs had dry white mould residue which was successfully removed with the surface clean. In some cases it was possible to treat the dog-eared, distorted corners if the paint surface was not disturbed. They were slightly dampened and gradually flattened.

Conservator Dee McKillop applies a red algae adhesive to secure the loose paint
Conservator Dee McKillop applies a red algae adhesive to secure the loose paint

A consolidant (binder) was needed to stabilise the paint surface to prevent further loss. Funori is a Japanese glue extracted from red algae and it was chosen because it is the most suitable for matte powdery paint finishes. The prepared product was applied using a size ‘000’ brush, again using the microscope, and applied to the edges of paint loss. In areas that had cracking, the consolidant was surface applied. The treatment proved to be very successful with good adhesion and the paint surface maintained a matte appearance.

The conservation work needed to be done using a microscope for precision
The conservation work needed to be done using a microscope for precision

A storage box was made for the designs using archive text and acid-free mount board. The designs have individual sink mounts to ensure the painted surface is protected.

Dee's last project was to ensure the collection was documented, stabilised and safely housed. Thanks Dee
Dee’s last project was to ensure the collection was documented, stabilised and safely housed. Thanks Dee. Photos  of Dee by Curator Anne-Marie Van de Ven

Written by Kate Chidlow, Conservator

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