Cleaning and lining the Falaba painting

22 April 2015 by David Crombie

detail of a ship painting, showing a small dark dirty area of the sky

The Falaba painting during the final stages of cleaning in the sky with nearly all of the dirt layers removed

This is the third blog in a series following the conservation of the huge painting of the Falaba, which is now on display in the exhibition Lusitania: life, loss legacy. In the last post I described the structural treatment of the painting, in order to reattach the loose paint.

Once the structural treatment was complete, the painting was turned over and cleaning could begin once the facing tissue was removed. Cleaning proved quite difficult, as the thick grime layers had previously been covered by the wax facing. The types of solvents and chemicals needed for dirt layers and waxy deposits are often very different. In the end, I used a mixture of three components in combination that seemed to achieve the best results – judging the right amounts to apply to different areas was not easy but once a good balance was found, I was able to work slowly across the whole surface, modifying the mixture proportions as necessary if I needed to.

detail of painting with one  narrow strip cleaned

The initial cleaning tests at the left side of the picture show what a dramatic difference removing all the dirt layers would have on the whole picture

Cleaning revealed the original colours of the painting, with a bright red Ensign flag at the stern of the ship and much lighter appearance of the sky. You can compare the colours of the pinting before conservation in the picture in Ellie’s blog post with the conserved painting on display in the Lusitania exhibition.

With the cleaning completed, the painting could now be lined onto a new support. This process involves adding a new material to the back of the painting, giving it strong edges and suitable support for years to come. It also makes sure the surface is level with no distortions and that the paint is fully secured.

The lining was carried out under light pressure on our multi-purpose lining table, and the new material backing was attached with a heat-seal adhesive. The table surface can be set to heat up to different temperatures, and in this case, a layer of heat-activated adhesive placed between the back of the original canvas and the new support was used to attach the two together.

For this painting I decided to use polyester sailcloth rather than linen canvas for the lining material. Polyester sailcloth is a very strong and stable woven material, and very suitable for such a large painting, particularly as it is less prone to changes in tension over time than canvas. It was originally designed to make the huge ‘spinnaker’ sails used on large sailing yachts, so has to be very strong!

painting on a table

Falaba painting under light vacuum on the lining table

The final picture shows the painting under light vacuum on the lining table, ready for the lining to take place. The white polyester sailcloth lining material is visible under the original canvas around the edges. The different bands of canvas strips around the picture are used as air vents so that the air can be sucked out from the picture surface, giving an even vacuum hold during lining. The shiny layer covering the whole table is a very thin polyester film that is only 12 microns thick, (0.012 millimetres) used to create a vacuum over the picture without affecting any of the paint texture. The picture was so big that two sheets of thin film had to be used, and the pale white strip visible along the length of the ship is where the two sheets were joined together.

Once the lining was complete and the table had cooled down, I could remove the thin film from over the painting that had been used to achieve vacuum pressure. After this, the painting was turned over once again so it could be re-attached to the original wooden support stretcher.

Look out for my last blog post in this series next week, looking at how paint losses were restored in the final stage of conservation.

  1. Jane O'Sullivan says:

    Both my Dad and I have now visited the museum to see the painting. We are so pleased that the tragedy which killed my great Uncle is being commemorated in this way. I was particularly moved by the photo on the information board of some of the passengers and crew looking for lifeboats – I hadn’t seen this photo before. We had hoped to buy a postcard or print of the painting but there were none available, and I can’t find any images of the restored painting online. Is there any way we can get hold of a copy? Well done with the restoration – it’s beautiful.

    • Ellie Moffat says:

      Hello Jane,

      Thank you for getting in touch. I’m so pleased to know that you and your Dad like the painting so much, and I can appreciate the significance it must hold for you with your Great Uncle being one of the victims of the attack. The painting has been in the collection for some time, so it was a special moment for us when we saw it hanging in the gallery for the first time. Our Paintings Conservator has done a truly wonderful job.
      Unfortunately the image is not available as a postcard at the moment, but if you follow the link below then you can order an image from our Photography Department.

      Having worked on the exhibition, I would be interested to hear more about your family connection to the Falaba – if you are happy to share. If so please can you email me at

      Kind regards,

      Ellie Moffat
      Curator of Maritime Community History

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