When the NGV’s flat textiles were assessed by textile conservators in preparation for the Mid-Century Modern exhibition, it was observed that a large section of the textile by Bee Taplin named Turtle Soup (c.1955) was missing. It had been acquired in this state in 1987 when the work was presented to the NGV by the artist. In fact the loss, which was cut from the bottom lower quadrant of the textile, equated to about 14 % of the printed area. Without a suitable in-fill this loss would likely prove distracting to exhibition viewers.
Possible in-fill options were discussed with curators Kirsty Grant and Katie Somerville and both felt that an in-fill was essential. While a plain mid-tone fabric was considered, replicating the original design was felt to be the more desirable solution. In the past conservators may have considered hand printing or painting an in-fill such as this, however such repairs were often technically challenging and time consuming. In more recent years, digital printing has been used in museums and galleries around the world as a means of replicating patterns for conservation purposes. Its application can be relatively quick and easy and if the area of fabric missing can be replicated by matching a repeat in the textile, the result should be highly accurate.
NGV textile conservators have used digital printing in-fills for several projects in the past, carried out by off-site printers; however the complexity of matching the scale and colour of a textile which cannot usually be taken to the printer is a disadvantage in the busy lead up to an exhibition.
Textile conservators spoke to the NGV Photography team to assess whether digital printing on fabric could be done in-house. The response was positive. A high resolution image of the textile already existed and it was possible to source a linen fabric which was a good match for the ground fabric. NGV Photographic Imaging Technician, Phillip White, manipulated the digital image using Adobe Photoshop and carried out test prints on the linen fabric. At the same time, conservators assessed the stability of the printing by testing its wet fastness and the possibility of pigment transfer. There results were positive but it was clear that several days were required for the pigment to fully dry. Furthermore, while it is likely that a near perfect colour match was possible, textile conservators specified that the tones be not matched precisely. The aim is for the in-fill to visually blend into the work, but it should remain obvious to the viewer what is non-original material when studied in detail. In addition, the exhibition label clearly states that the work has a digital in-fill.
Once the printed in-fill had dried for several days it was ready to attach. It was carefully aligned with the printed design on the original textile and stitched in place. The in-fill will be removed after the exhibition and stored separately from the textile but, should the textile be required for display in the future it can easily be re-attached.