RWA (Royal West of England Academy)

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Tru Vue Conservation & Exhibition Grant Scheme

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Rachel Howells ACR


Dod Procter: Challenging Conventions

The Project

The grant covered the costs of conserving, fitting out and glazing two works in the RWA’s collection, ‘Ancilla with Oranges’ and ‘Flowers on a Chair’, both by Dod Procter RA RWA, to bring them to a suitable condition for inclusion in the exhibition ‘Challenging Conventions’ at the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle, and thereafter for display at the RWA.

Trained at the Forbes School of painting in Newlyn, Dod Procter (nee Doris Shaw) used her childhood nickname as a gender-neutral epithet at a time when women artists struggled to gain recognition. Procter went on to be only the second woman ever to be elected to the Royal Academy, and, like the first (Dame Laura Knight), was already a Royal West of England Academician at that point.

In her day, Procter was a household name, having risen to fame with the enormous success of her painting ‘Morning’, selected as picture of the year at the 1927 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition and bought for the nation after a public campaign led by the Daily Mail.

In the 1950s she travelled repeatedly to Jamaica, and ‘Ancilla with Orange’ is arguably the most important of several portraits of children produced on those trips. It was purchased by the RWA from the 1956 Annual Open Exhibition. The Royal Academy purchased another Jamaican painting, ‘The Sunday Shirt’, the following year.

Conservation work

Both paintings were in their original, hand-painted frames, with no space for glazing or back-boarding. ‘Ancilla with Orange’ was nailed into the frame within a series of wooden blocks glued to the back of the frame; there was no frame rebate and the canvas was only just large enough to fill the frame aperture. ‘Flowers on a Chair’ is a late work on a reused panel and has past scrape damage, which had to be repaired.

The work was undertaken by conservator Rachel Howells ACR.

‘Ancilla with Orange’

Whole front framed and glazed
Whole back framed and backed with polycarbonate sheet

The artist had repurposed an old wooden frame that was weak, warped, in poor condition with crude repairs and reinforcements. It had both a worn original coating and artist’s applied coatings. All were patchy with intentional and accidental distressed effects, losses, wear from abrasion, scrapes, knocks, bashes and woodworm holes.

Whole back framed

The biggest issue encountered was in carrying out conservation framing. The frame was almost too large for the painting, not square ,and had a tiny, uneven rebate of between 3 – 5mm. This created a problem with fitting the 4.4 mm laminated TruVue glass and painting in the frame securely, so that minimal edges showed, and so that the painting was symmetrically fitted in the frame as much as possible.

In the past, eight blocks had been glued around the sight edge to create a space for the painting and glass to sit in. Unfortunately, it was not possible to remove these blocks because of the weakness of the frame and the strength of the glue that attached them. A compromise was achieved whereby the blocks were kept and the black painted balsa spacers that separated the painting from the glass were allowed to protrude into the image area. The gummed paper tape securing these spacers into the frame also slightly showed. Fitting the painting securely into the warped, non-symmetrical space took some time and tweaking but the final result was acceptable.

The conservation treatment of the painting was relatively straightforward. However, ethical decisions had to be made regarding restoration of what may or may not have been intentional damages. As none of the losses could clearly be said to be not intentional, and the scratches/loss that were present were not distracting, no retouching was carried out.

Improving the attachment of the canvas to the stretcher allowed the deformations to be reduced. The canvas attachment was failing in several places. The failed areas of canvas were reinforced and re-attached to allow the painting to be re-tensioned, and flattening treatments to be carried out. These corrected areas of cockling and sagging in the canvas showing as shadows in the images below.

Whole view in raking light lit from the left
Whole view in raking light lit from the left

‘Flowers on a chair’

Whole front framed
Whole front framed

The conservation framing of ‘Flowers on a chair’ was more straightforward than for ‘Ancilla with Orange’. Although this was another artist re-purposed frame, with a slip frame riddled with old woodworm holes, and numerous small losses to the outer frame, attaching the 4.4 mm laminated TruVue glass between the slip frame and outer frame was relatively simple.

Whole back framed
Whole back framed

One interesting feature was a pencil drawing found on the back of the work, which when flipped horizontally is thought to be a landscape as shown in the images above.

Detail of scrape
Detail of scrape

As with ‘Ancilla with Orange’, ethical decisions were required regarding what to restore and what not to restore. The horizontal scrape shown in the images above were quite disfiguring. Although they could have happened early in the painting’s life while the paint was still soft, possibly while still in the artist’s possession, they were not thought to be an intentional part of the image. In this case, as they were so distracting, it was thought beneficial to disguise them. However, as there was a question over the status of them, and the difficulty of knowing how much paint had been lost, or what was meant to be there, the damages were knocked back by applying a reversible varnish locally, rather than retouching the scrapes fully.


Project Outcomes

• The two paintings have been fully conserved by Rachel Howells ACR, who also adjusted the original frames to accommodate the TruVue glazing

• Both have retained the aesthetic the artist intended – including the original frames

• This conservation work and glazing enabled both works to be included in the Challening Conventions exhibition at the Laing Art Gallery, which ran from 17 May to 21 August 2021

• Although visitor numbers are not yet available, the show has been really well received and has had good local/regional and national press coverage including the Telegraph, Daily Mail, World of Interiors, Art Lyst and Museums Crush, and it has featured on local BBC TV, Look North

• Visitor feedback has been excellent, and the proportion of returning visitors has doubled in comparison to the previous charged-for exhibition pre-Covid in 2019

On reopening the RWA building in 2022, both paintings will be included in displays in the new, free-to-view galleries as part of reopening celebrations (currently scheduled for spring 2022). RWA also intend to display ‘Ancilla with Orange’ regularly in the future, celebrating a positive aspect of the historic links between Bristol and Jamaica.


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