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Off the Wall: Fragile frame gets kangaroo-skin makeover

Arts & Culture

Two aged tanned kangaroo skins found at a garage sale in Mount Barker and a set of 19th-century leather moulding tools acquired at a local antiques fair prompted the Art Gallery of SA’s most recent conservation project with Artlab Australia.

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The second-hand discoveries were used to replicate the intricate original design of the gallery’s newly acquired Barossa Valley leather frame which adorns a portrait of a widow by an unknown artist, circa 1848–49.

Following consultation with Artlab, the original frame was deemed too fragile to restore. Instead, conservator Chris Payne undertook the time-consuming and ambitious task of making a replica frame in which to display the painting (see photos of the process below).

The kangaroo skins were the right weight and colour to replicate the original decorations. They were also free of oily dressings, enabling the leather to be formed wet and to hold its shape upon drying.

The leather, having been tanned with natural materials, provided a finish of subtle, “broken” tonality that would not have been achieved had modern leather been used.

Most of the flowers and leaves were created individually and then affixed to the frame based on their natural colour.

The conservators were careful to avoid waste and the two skins provided just enough material to complete the facsimile.

Areas of severe degradation to the original elements were so advanced that strict copying was not entirely achievable. To better understand the individual elements, the species of the recognisable flower and leaf designs were researched and identified. The flowers were thought to be sunflowers, dahlias, roses, convolvulus and daisies or flannel flowers (probably the former). The leaves were difficult to classify and some may have been fanciful.

Artist unknown, Portrait of a lady [in reproduction frame], c.1848-49, Barossa Valley, oil on canvas, leather on wood, 75.0 x 54.0cm; Gift of Dr Robert Lyons through Art Gallery of SA Foundation.

 The 1890 publication Home Handicrafts by Charles Peters provided Payne with valuable information. As the author explained, this type of leather craft, most likely undertaken by women, was out of vogue by the late 19th century. The book illustrates and briefly describes a decoration similar to the Gothic rickrack occupying the centre of each side of this elaborately designed frame.

The painting and its original leather frame – now safely stored – were generously gifted to the gallery by Dr Robert Lyons.

Conservation in progress featuring conservator Chris Paine (images supplied by Artlab Australia):

Elle Freak is assistant curator of Australian Paintings and Sculpture at the Art Gallery of South Australia. This article is the latest in a regular series, Off the Wall, highlighting the Art Gallery of South Australia’s lesser-known treasures.

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