Engineering and art researchers have used advanced computer modelling to help preserve old works of art. Researchers at the University of Warwick and The Courtauld Institute of Art
worked together on the project which shows the creative side of engineering. The results of the study including canvases, model structures and the unusual images of the ‘strain maps’ produced during testing and computation will go on show in an exhibition entitled Tensioned Fabrics in art and architecture in the Embankment Galleries at Somerset House, London WC2, from 4 to 18 March 2009 following its debut at the International Digital Laboratory, a new multi-disciplinary research centre run by WMG at the University of Warwick.
The project is based on work done by the research team led by Professor Wanda Lewis of Warwick’s School of Engineering who model the stresses and strains experienced by tensioned fabric enclosures such as the Millennium Dome. The project is in collaboration with Dr Christina Young of the Conservation and Technology Department at The Courtauld Institute who specialises in measuring the physical behaviour of fabric supports such as the canvases of paintings.
Professor Lewis said: “We have developed a sophisticated computer modelling package that predicts the shape of fabric enclosures very accurately. This aspect of design affects the aesthetics, durability and function of these structures. I realised that we can apply the same modelling principles to predict the behaviour of artists’ canvas which is simply a different material and structure.”
Dr Christina Young, a Senior Lecturer in Paintings Conservation, explained: “When conservators restore a painting, if it is severely degraded, they may attach new fabric to the reverse. This ‘lined’ painting is then restretched and attached to a wooden stretcher. Ideally, this results in a painting which will be stable and safe to display for future generations.
“The Courtauld has a unique testing facility that allows paintings to be tested over the whole range of stresses and environmental conditions that they can experience. It uses a combination of mechanical testing and lasers. This facility has been developed over fifteen years in collaboration with Imperial College, Tate, and the National Gallery, London.”
Professor Lewis added: “We can model every detail down to the number and position of the staples used, friction of the fabric, the effectiveness of the staples, and the detail of how the fabric is wrapped round the corner. The results of our work can bring about significant improvements in the methods of tensioning the canvas to ensure as uniform distribution of stress as possible. Jointly with the Courtauld, we aim to predict the effects of temperature and humidity on the behaviour of fabrics. We can then predict where there are potential areas of damage, avoiding the risk of disaster.”
Dr Young stated: “This work will provide invaluable information to help us improve and develop structural conservation treatments for paintings on canvas. It also opens up new options for living artists by finding fabrics which are suitable for novel projects and longevity.”