opening up the mari lwyd

Brecknock Museum and Art Gallery has been closed for the long-delayed and ambitious re-modelling that will revitalise both the historic building and the collections it houses. On Wednesday I arrived in Brecon at the invitation of  curator Nigel Blackamore, to be present when a 2001 drawing of mine from the museum’s art collection, The Mari Lwyd Approaches, was removed from its frame for cleaning. Over the eleven years it had been under glass, the densely worked Conté pencil of the drawing had yielded a fine dust of waxy powder that had migrated to its surface, and so it was decided to remove it from its frame in order to give it a light clean. I arrived with my bag of brushes and cloths, and once the back of the frame had been opened and the heavy sheet of paper removed, it took slightly under half and hour to clear the dust from its surface. However, it’s been decided to improve the existing frame by the same methods used at the National Museum of Wales on the frame of their own Stumbles and Cannot Rise, a Mari Lwyd drawing from the same series as the Brecknock drawing. Additionally, the National Museum re-glazed their drawing under anti-reflection picture-framing glass with conservation grade UV protection, and conservation framer Cath Lloyd-Haslan has advised that the same be done for The Mari Lwyd Approachs.

Just before moving on to the photographs, I should point anyone interested in the tradition of the horse as a spectral manifestation, to THIS post from my friend… and one of the poets in The Book of Ystwyth Callum James at Front Free Endpaper. Callum has uploaded a little snippet of film to his blog of what looks like the most amazing ‘puppetry’ at Ryde Carnival. Thank you Callum for sending me the link.

Cath Lloyd-Haslan and Nigel Blackamore begin to unseal the frame.

The drawing removed from its frame and ready for cleaning.

Wax dust on the underside of the glass had clouded it, making the drawing appear veiled.

With the film of disfiguring wax dust removed, the drawing is once again as it should be. Back in 2001 the surface  was buffed to a gleam by my knees and hands as I crawled around the paper while working on the image, making the darkest areas resemble polished slate.

31 thoughts on “opening up the mari lwyd

  1. Late to the conversation, I must add how fascinating this is. Your work so powerful, even online here though I wish I could see it in person. The museum’s process of cleaning and reframing is interesting and educational to see and read about. I’ve long been aware that ideally work should not touch the glass, which is one reason for using mats. Spacers are great for ‘floating’ one’s work without a mat, which I like to do with prints done on paper with a lovely deckle edge. I wish I could afford to use the non-glare UV glass for reflections certainly are an issue, especially with darker works.

    Thanks for sharing all this, Clive.

    • At the moment the National Museum of Wales Mari Lwyd drawing is the only one of the series under UV glass. It looks really magnificent, the blacks inky and bottomless without reflections to distract. But the cost of the glass for such a large work is crippling. Possible for an institution, but beyond my means. I have to leave such luxuries to the museums.

      I float work a lot these days, particularly the drawings.

  2. This addresses a concern I’ve had about my Iceland drawings, which are done in a combination of charcoal and Conté. I haven’t framed any of them yet, but when I do it sounds as if a deeper frame might be a good idea.

    What was it like emotionally to be touching this drawing again, Clive? Or have you now gone pretty far beyond the original emotions that led to its creation?

    • Beth, I’d always recommend the deeper frame. Keep the drawing as far away from the glass as you can.

      Last year when many of the Mari Lwyd drawings were gathered together and displayed in a room to themselves at the National Library, I found myself a tad overwhelmed by the experience, and so clearly the drawings en masse still have the power to shake me up. Nevertheless I was taken aback by how powerfully this particular drawing felt to me last week when I was once more on the floor with it under my hand, catapulting me back to the time when I made it. It was the strangest feeling. I’ve aged and yet the drawing hasn’t. How can that be?

  3. oh, it was surprising to see how big this drawing is, too–it’s i think my favorite of the series (although, it’s *so hard* to choose), and it’s wonderful to see the size of it; odd how in the world of the internet that aspect can sort of disappear from one’s consideration…
    what a process!

    • If it looks big in the photographs, you should have experienced how big it felt when I worked on it, crawling over the surface scribbling away as I tried to conjure the shadowed world I saw in my mind’s eye. It was time consuming work!

  4. What an education Clive. Not only seeing the photos and reading about the process, but then working through the comments and your detailed replies. Such a mine of information. I love the sheen and feel that layers of graphite can build up and the mental picture of your knees buffing that conte crayon as you worked is a great one. Love the strength of that horse’s head with all those straining sinews!

    • I must say that I got into quite a panic when I first saw a bloom on the surface of the drawing just a few weeks after I’d made it. I feared it was mould. I contacted the company that made the pencils and between us we came to the conclusion that it was the wax drying out of the densely applied pigment, an effect that wouldn’t be noticeable in a ‘sketch’. Clearly the process continued once the drawing was put under glass. It happened too with the few drawings that remained with me (and with the National Museum drawing too) and last year, before my retrospective, I cleaned the drawings from my own collection ready for it. A decade after the Mari Lwyd series was completed, I believe that the process has now ceased, and the drawings are now stable and have no more wax dust to give up. But even if any of them do produce more, the process seems not to affect the drawings in any way.

      This was the first Mari Lwyd drawing made after my father’s death, and I hadn’t thought when I started it that there would be any more. But once I was underway, the floodgates opened.

  5. It’s always interesting to hear about other people’s technical doings and to see how problems get solved…..but, really, I have to say that mostly I am just overwhelmed with how beautiful and exciting that piece of work is. Thank you, Clive.

  6. Isn’t that a bit quick Clive? A cleaning so soon? But anyway, I reckon it was necessary and it is nice you give us a sneak inside peak in the life of a drawing.

    • I think perhaps ‘cleaning’ is a misleading term, making it sound like the kind of process that might be undertaken with a dirty oil painting. There was no dirt on the drawing, just the powder that had transmigrated to the surface of it. A light dust with brushes and a cloth were all that were needed to restore it to pristine condition. None of the pigment came away when I dusted it. In fact the main problem was less the powder remaining on the surface of the drawing, than that spread on the undersurface of the glass. It gave the drawing a clouded appearance that vanished the moment we removed it from the frame. I think that there is very likely no more powder for the drawing to give up, and so this should not be a problem in the future. Also, the drawing in the National Museum collection looks so much better for having quite a deep spacer between the paper and the glazing, and undoubtedly the museum-grade glass that has replaced the original makes the artwork much easier to view. Reflections are always a problem on dark drawings and paintings.

  7. What an astonishing drawing, must be such a relief to get it back to it’s former glory and alter the framing to keep it looking good. The details of the drawing are amazing, that figure of the man pulling on the reins is so powerful

    • It is indeed a relief. The drawing was shown in my retrospective last year, where it was possible to compare it with the National Museum drawing that had already undergone cleaning and an adjustment of the frame and glass. The difference between the two was so great that we determined to do something to ‘rescue’ the Brecknock drawing.

    • The techniques of working Conté so densely, and with parts of the drawing ‘glazed with layers of transparent white crayon, were invented ‘on the hoof’ while making this first drawing in the series. I continued to work in the same way with all the drawings that followed. It’s quite unforgiving as a technique because once a dark area has been made it’s impossible to change it back to being light again, and so all decisions taken during the process of making such a drawing have to be carefully weighed. After the series was finished I abandoned the technique for a decade until last year, when I re-visited it to make THIS drawing.

  8. It’s so wonderfully big! While online viewing is a good way to get to know your work, it’s often a surprise to see how large the works actually are, as demonstrated here by the scale of the conservator next to the drawing. So thanks for showing this. How fabulous for them to be able to open up the art and have the artist there. How other galleries must envy them with all the artwork they have in their own stores that need restoration works.

    Can I ask permission here to use your Noah’s Ark work for the notice sheet for Harvest Festival at church please. We will be thinking about creation, a wonderful world and rainbows and it would be lovely to have your image there.

  9. Clive, this makes me think of my own works…

    I do graphite pencil occasionally, as well as the not so common to me pastels. Is there a way to better frame them, under glass, so they don’t need cleaning?

    My oil pastels don’t usually get glassed, but sometimes they do, if they’re matted. I spray those and try not to frame under glass immediately. I hope that works.

    Any advice?

    (Thanks for sharing your works, past and present!)

    • These works were made in a way that is far from typical for Conté. Because the crayon was applied so heavily, the waxes used to bind the pigment manifested as a dry dust on the surfaces of the drawings, and from there transferred to the glass. (Conté is more usually used as a sketching crayon.) At the time I made the drawings I had no idea that this is the way the crayon would behave. In most cases the drawings were still in my possession when the dust became evident, and I was able to clean them. However in two cases, the drawings were already in public collections.

      In retrospect I can see that the original frames for these drawings held the paper too close to the glass. When the National Museum of Wales cleaned their drawing, they placed a spacer between the glass and the paper, effectively turning the frame into a shallow box. The original frame didn’t have the depth to allow for this, and so it had to be worked on from the back, deepening it by a few centimetres while leaving the original moulding intact. The appearance of the drawing was hugely improved by it being set back from the aperture, and while they were at it the conservation staff also replaced the original glazing with museum-grade anti-reflection glass with conservation grade UV protection… this glass diminishes reflection without rendering its surface matt… something that would have been beyond my pocket for such a large work. I know that in all respects the team at Brecknock Museum intend to follow the precedent of the work carried out by the National Museum of Wales.

      I don’t believe a graphite drawing will give up the waxy dust that I experienced with my Conté pencil drawings. My experience with graphite to a lesser degree, and pastel to a greater, is that both can yield dust from the surfaces of the drawings made with them. Draw the tip of your finger across a graphite drawing, and some of the graphite will transfer to it. With pastel, the surface of any drawing made with it can be very fragile, which is why aerosol fixatives are used by some artists. My advice generally is to place any drawing as far away from the glass as is possible, even if that means using a shallow box frame to hold the work. Then if anything drops from the drawing, at least there will be less likelihood of it attaching itself to the underside of the glass in the disfiguring way that happened with The Mari Lwyd Approaches.

      • Sounds like I’ve been framing correctly then 😉

        I use what I call “spacers” in the framing, setting the works further from the glass. I’ve used Conte only once. And I’ve gotten into the habit of fixing pretty much everything with some fixatives that are highly rated for keeping the work as original, not darkening papers or other surfaces.

        I saw how you posted about how physically demanding a large work was for you; since I do miniatures, I get a different stress… I’m betting I’ll start working larger as soon as working without my glasses means I can no longer work small LOL

        I hope this fix is more permanent for the work!

        • Yes, ‘spacer’ is the word, not ‘fillet’, which is what I substituted while struggling to remember the correct term. (I’ve changed it to ‘spacer’ in the above post.) However, so big and heavy are these drawings… more like rugs than sheets of paper… the National Museum staff must have supported their drawing from behind, otherwise it would have slumped like an old sail. I don’t know how they did this, and so the conservator from Brecknock is going to speak to them to seek advice.

          I have a friend, Sigrid Muller, who does punishingly finely detailed renderings of plants in coloured pencils sharpened to needle-points. I agree, we all stress ourselves in ways that we’re best able to deal with. If I ever do such large drawings in Conté again, I think I’ll have to mount the paper on board so that it can go up on the easel. My knees are fine in normal, everyday use, but they’d protest a lot if I spent nine months on them again, as I did when making the Mari Lwyd series!

          You should link your name to your website, so that Artlog visitors can pay a call to see your work.

          • Embarrassingly, I don’t have one up to view (though I’ve built several for many larger artist groups)
            Some of my works are available for viewing on my Facebook page (look for Meran ni Cuill, and then in the artworks folders)

            I do plan on getting one up, officially, sometime this winter, hopefully about January. When I do, I’m going to proudly place your blog in my blog roll (with your permission, of course!)

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