In Sir Sidney Nolan’s Centenary year, Plowden & Smith’s Senior Paintings Conservator Susan More reflects on her experience treating over 100 works by Australia’s foremost artist…

There is a great variety in the paintings of Sir Sidney Nolan, particularly in his use of materials.

Working on over 100 Sidney Nolan paintings has allowed me a unique insight into the artist’s technique, and how his evolving use of media fits in with the wider developments in paint media during the 20th century.

Nolan works were executed not just in oil but also in Ripolin enamel, PVA medium, and enamel spray paint. Back in the 1990s when I first treated paintings by Nolan, few conservators had worked with these materials and so as much as Nolan pushed his own technical expertise, he was also responsible for pushing mine.

The Nolan paintings I have treated were typically cleaned and consolidated as necessary. They were also varnished, reframed and back boarded, measures which provide a layer of protection to both the front and the reverse.

Varnishing artworks that were left unvarnished by the artist can be seen as controversial.

Museums carefully control levels of light, temperature and humidity so direct intervention to the protect the canvas is not really necessary.

However, environmental conditions in private homes are nothing like those of a museum: in many cases the conditions in houses can be extremely detrimental to the condition of a painting.

When a conservator is treating paintings that are going to be sold in a private gallery (as in this instance), one has to work on the assumption that most of these paintings will end up in private homes.

A reversible, invisible layer of varnish, and / or a glaze of a high quality UV filtering glass is the best way of ensuring the long term health of an artwork.

This invisible layer of varnish acts as a seal, helping to protect the paint surface from the effects of atmospheric pollutants, and fluctuations in humidity levels and UV light.

I have subsequently applied this knowledge to a number of works by other twentieth-century artists and I consider Sir Sidney Nolan to be a key figure in my development as a paintings conservator.

As part of the Sidney Nolan’s centenary celebrations, it was an honour to be recognised by the Sidney Nolan Trust as a world authority on caring for Nolan’s work and to be invited to speak at the Sidney Nolan Symposium at the Royal Academy alongside many distinguished experts on the artist.