Friday, November 12, 2021

Painted Ladies

I#0507 painting 2_treated

Paintings after conservation treatment

Many years ago there used to be an Antiques Shop opposite the Queen Victoria Market in Elizabeth Street that had many beautiful things for sale. After doing my market shopping I was wont to drop in to the shop and browse their wares. The owners of the shop were a mother and son who were lovely people and knew their trade well. They also grew to know my taste in antiques and I rarely resisted buying the objects they tempted me with.

I purchased many items from them over several years, antique glass vases, a Japanese kimono, a mahogany writing box, an embroidered silk scarf to name just a few items I acquired at the time.

This blog entry however relates to my acquisition from the said antiques shop of a pair of small (7” x 5”) portraits painted on cigar box lids.

Initially I had them hanging in the hallway of the Northcote house, but took them down for some reason and stored them away in a cupboard. And there they stayed for decades.

original. painting 2_orig

Paintings in original state before conservation treatment

However, they were never far from my mind as after watching the ABC TV show The Repair Shop, and observing the rejuvenation of various objects brought in to the shop, especially the paintings that had been cleaned and touched up, I wondered if my old paintings could be given the same treatment, as they were dark and yellowed with age and a bit chipped. In my reckoning they are over 100 years old.

A search on Google for ways to clean old oil paintings convinced me that if I attempted such a process I would be sure to stuff it up, especially as the paintings were very old and reportedly can be tricky to clean.

Though the paintings are probably not that valuable, I did a further search on Google to see if there was a painting conservator in Melbourne who could do the work. There are a few, but I settled on Helen Gill who has a studio in Brunswick and by all appearances knew a great deal about the process and had years of experience in conserving old paintings.

Helen had just reopened her studio after the Covid lockdown, so I took the paintings to her and she completed the conservation work in a surprisingly short time. I must say that she did a wonderful job on cleaning the old paintings, and also rehoused them in their original old frames.

Though the cost for this service was quite expensive, I was happy to see my old yellowed paintings restored to their original colours and thought it was money well spent.


Who knows who these young women are, but I suspect they were painted by John Mather, a Scottish born artist who was active in Australia at the same time as the famous Heidelberg School.

The paintings are signed with the initials JM, and by chance some years ago I bought a card that had a painting by John Mather on its front and included a signature that looked remarkably like the signature on my paintings – a stylised JM.

John Mather also was acquainted with Louis Abrahams, – indeed painted a portrait of him - art patron and tobacconist associated with the Heidelberg School, who supplied the artists with the cigar box lids on which they famously painted and displayed in the 9 x 5 Impression Exhibition of  1889. The back of my paintings contain the name of an obscure cigar brand  - Chiamosta - that were manufactured in Dusseldorf.

Whether my speculations are correct will only be solved by having the paintings valued by an expert.

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