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Re-Backing Old Canvas
( Article orginally published June 1944 )
One of the oldest methods of preparing foundations for paintings, coming down to us from Byzantine times, and in fact it, is older than that, was to glue canvas or linen to a wood panel, and cover it with glass, that is, chalk mixed with size, thus forming a fine, smooth white surface of great durability. Most religious pictures of the Middle Ages are painted on such foundations.
The reason for this treatment was that panels were apt to crack or twist, moreover they are subject to decay from fungus or worms, but the canvas layer between the wood and the painting tended to hold the cracks, or at least to protect the picture itself.It has always been a moot question with painters whether wood or canvas gave the most permanent or desirable surface on which to paint. On the one hand, there were the dangers above mentioned; on the other, canvas not only decayed but was fragile and easily torn. But with the introduction of old painting in the fifteenth century and the tendency later on to produce enormous pictures in the Baroque period, the use of wood was gradually abandoned. The Dutch and Flemish, however, especially with their small sized pictures, clung longer to the use of wood. They had better kinds, oak for example, than the Italians who used for the most part softer woods like poplar. The Northerners planed their panels down very thin, so they would not warp so easily, and these sixteenth and seventeenth century pictures have lasted surprisingly well.
Nevertheless, wood has been in disrepute among artists of modern times until very recently. Now they have been using many of the new process materials of compressed pulp, like Vehisote, Masonite, Hardboard and. several others with trade names. These materials have all the advantages of wood panels. They are thin, one-eighth to one-half inch thick, have two surfaces, one smooth and the other rough in imitation of the grain of canvas. They do not crack, warp or twist, they do not burn easily and when painted and waxed on both sides, that is made impervious to moisture, they are absolutely durable.
They are then an ideal material to use as linings or re-backings of paintings which have been damaged. Every restorer knows that old canvases with heavy layers of hard paint, which have been badly torn, as so many have been by accidents, cannot be permanently repaired by lining them on canvas. The restorer can patch up the tears or holes and iron them down to make the picture look as good as new, for a short time only, but he will tell you, if he is honest, that in a year or so the old tear or the patch will show up and the lining will not hold it down. Many owners of old masters are hesitant about this method, they wonder if their "Canvases" may still be called by that name after they have been applied to wood, but the answer is, they are indeed still canvases and their pictures are restored in a durable way, by a method as old as the art of painting itself.