Technical Examination of Henry Gritten’s Melbourne from the Botanical Gardens, 1865

The recent acquisition of Melbourne from the Botanical Gardens (1865) by British artist Henry Gritten for the University of Melbourne Art Collection has provided an important opportunity for some collaborative research between the Grimwade Center for Cultural Material Conservation conservators and the Grimwade Collection Curator at the Ian Potter Museum of Art, Alisa Bunbury.

Prior to purchase, an in-depth condition report of the painting and frame was undertaken to ascertain any condition considerations and degree of previous restoration. Simple portable examination equipment (handheld lights) and thorough visual documentation was used to identify the general state of the work.

Following purchase, the painting was brought into the Grimwade Centre's North Melbourne conservation laboratory for further analysis and investigation using specialist equipment. Ultraviolet light examination revealed the level of previous restoration by showing small areas of inpainting in the sky area related to very minor damages. Additionally, some inpainting had been carried out to reduce some of the more prominent nineteenth-century drying craquelure. This previous restoration was probably carried out in the last fifty years in conjunction with a lining treatment and conveyed the ability of an earlier skilled restorer.

Infrared examination revealed Gritten’s distinctive underdrawing under the paint layer, used to map out the city buildings, including Parliament house at the top of Spring Street and several churches in the 1860s Melbourne skyline. Gritten’s draughtsmanship is visible in his drawing of the meandering Yarra river (a series of linked billabongs at this time) and the fairly recently established garden beds and specific trees of the Botanic Gardens (established 1846).

This preliminary research prior to the cleaning of the painting, provided some insight into the working method of the artist and provided several paths of dialogue with curatorial experts and opportunity for further cross-collaborative sharing of knowledge.

Areas of investigation include:

  • Which historical buildings can be identified?
  • How historically accurate is Gritten’s representation of early Melbourne?  Where does the work sit/compare with other scenes of the same location by the artist?
  • Is the frame contemporary to the painting? Who is the framemaker?
  • How to interpret the work 154 years after it was painted? Whether previous intervention and aging has altered the appearance of the original?

Cushla Hill
Senior Paintings Conservator
The Grimwade Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation