Unique theatrical scenery restored by students from Litomyšl

When Tomáš Zaplatílek bought a rectory in Sudslava eight years ago, he had no idea what a treasure he actually gained. If was not until he gradually cleared out the attic when he stumbled upon a unique set of theatrical scenery from the early 20th century. He decided to restore those badly damaged. He invited "saviours" from the Faculty of Restoration in Litomyšl to restore the beauty of the unique finding.
There are exactly eighty-six of them. They had been lying for a long time on the dusty attic before being noticed. Unknown authors created them probably in 1920s to 1930s while painting in tempera on canvas and wood. As far the village amateur theatre is considered, it is one of the most comprehensive theatrical props in the Czech Republic.
"The scenery is unique in its complexity. Six complete theatrical sceneries have survived: jungle, castle, forest, castle, country house and rocks. The sets were found in the attic of the now former rectory where they had been lying for nearly sixty years unnoticed. When the rectory was sold by the Catholic Church to private ownership, their new story began to unfold. With Genius Loci Sudslava civic association established, the idea of their gradual restoration and disclosure to the public has also been achieved", says the proud owner of the set of theatrical sceneries Mgr. Tomáš Zaplatílek.
Students of the Faculty of Restoration Petra Janská, Luisa Wáwrová, Alena Fecskeová, Zuzana Nohejlová led by Mgr. art. Veronika Kopecká restored three selected theatrical scenery last year. Specifically, those are a country house, grassy environment with stones and hand-painted cabinet.
Light reveals the initial damage
In the first phase, using a non-invasive method of research, thus examining the object on a diffuse daylight, the restorers identified basic information about the work in natural lighting conditions. They indicatively assessed the art technique used, underlay and the degree of damage to the work. By observing the work in sharp side lighting, the students managed to delineate the relief of the painting and emphasize deformations of the underlay or coloured layers of traces of folding or crumpling of the underlay.
"Using UV light, we observed the object in the shortwave ultraviolet radiation. When impacting the surface of certain substances, high energy of the radiation causes secondary radiation called luminescence. Fluorescence is a type of luminescence that is emitted only if the object is exposed to the light. The colour scheme of fluorescence is characteristic for the traced pigments, fillers and other materials used in art practice and it can help us in determining the varnish layers, the pigments used, possible secondary interventions, the incidence of active biological attack, etc." says Mgr. art. Veronika Kopecká from the Faculty of Restoration about the work of restorers.
When the eyes are not enough, here comes the microscope
Methods of the invasive research focused on the chemical-technological exploration of the colour layers. Samples of the colour layer were tested for identification of the binder and stratigraphy of the colour layers. "In stratigraphy of the colour layers, samples are poured with dental resin and subsequently the samples are polished in cross section. The polished sections are observed under a microscope in visible and UV light at various magnifications. The type of the binder is determined in micro-chemical tests," says one of the young restorers adding information to the scientific work.
Dissolution tests were performed using cotton buds soaked in the respective substances and gradually placed to all colour layers.
What had its impact on the sceneries
The works of art were entirely covered with dust. The canvas underlay bore traces of various kinds of damage; it was deformed, mechanically damaged and torn. On both sides of the work were leaks of an unknown origin. The scenery may have been used secondarily, as evidenced by a painting on the back side. Wooden parts of the scenery carry considerable damage mainly by wood-destroying insects. Mechanical damage was clearly visible, especially where hinges are fixed, there were cracks and locally also a complete separation and loss of the original material.
Toluene and scalpel in the hands of restorers
The restorers mechanically cleared the sceneries from dust using a museum vacuum cleaner with very low pressure and finished clearing by stippling with latex rubbers. Given the strong dusting of the paint layer, it was consolidated with one percent Paraloid B72 in toluene. The concentration was tested in advance so as not to change the nature of the painting, gloss, or excessive closure of the surface.
The students removed stains caused by excrements of birds, lime and mortar using a scalpel and tampons with water-ethanol solution. "After a series of tests to remove them, we decided to the stains caused by an unknown fluid as their removal would lead to a loss of the colour layer. We tried to suppress the stains and their strongly characteristic visual manifestation with retouching", describes the restoration of the unique object Veronika Kopecká.
The restorers also had to even the canvas torn from the frame. They did so by combining warm steam and electric adjustable spatula. At the spots of defects where volume changes occurred, the canvas was condensed in this manner, so that it could be repeatedly stretched to the stretching frame. First, the back side of the canvas were exposed to steam and then the area was ironed with a spatula of 38°C over a thin filter paper. Missing parts of the impasto needed to be filled first with acrylic sealer and then with natural mineral pigments and Klucel G in ethanol.
Also, the frame itself had to be mechanically cleaned and treated with a preparation against wood-destroying insects. The original iron nails and hinges were largely replaced with new materials that do not corrode. The restored work looked much better and even its discoverer was quite excited about the result.
"Thanks to the cooperation with the Faculty of Restoration in Litomyšl we managed to realize a project of partial recovery and restoration of the Sudlava collection of theatrical sceneries. The restoration work was supported in 2013 by Baroque Theatre Foundation of Český Krumlov Castle, which in doing so appreciated the nation-wide uniqueness of this set."
The three restored sceneries returned back to its owner, to the rectory, where they can also be seen in the representative hall. However, some sceneries are yet to be restored.
Currently, a smaller publication dedicated to the collection of theatrical sceneries is to be issued. A part of the unique set of cultural relics can be seen in the premises of the former rectory in Sudslava and entry into the Central Registry of Collections managed by the Ministry of Culture is pending approval.
Through the eyes of the editor
The new owner of the rectory, a building dating back to 1692, is a lover of history and having bought it he fulfilled his childhood dream. He became a sort of castle lord. Sometimes you can really feel like that here. It is no holiday though because you need to take care of the property. In addition, it swallows a lot of money. You work with conservationists because it is a cultural monument, deal with grants and manage various craft professions. But if you enjoy it, you can take the worries out of your head. Especially if there are people coming to support your intention. They sit down in the parish garden, listen to and then applaud amateurs who arrived one afternoon to perform a theatre play for children. It is necessary to introduce a bit of culture and creativity here. So here I am sitting, making beads out of paper, peeking at the actors and the almost hundred years old theatrical scenery from time to time. I applaud.
Bc. Věra Přibylová
Department of Promotion and Public Relations of the University of Pardubice
The text was written on the basis of the restoration documentation in collaboration with Mgr. art. Veronika Kopecká
Sudslava theatrical sceneries dating back to 1920s make up a unique collection
Painted cupboard is part of the collection
Photo: Mgr. Tomáš Zaplatílek