Under the sea

Micheline Ford, NGA Senior Conservator Textiles, uncovers the hidden secrets of one special seahorse.

In 1995, Micheline Ford, NGA Senior Conservator Textiles, was thrilled when a package arrived at the National Gallery of Australia from Sotheby’s in London, containing extraordinary costumes from the legendary Ballets Russes (the Russian Ballet). These works–a Seahorse, a Squid and a Fish Head designed by Natalia Goncharova for the ballet Sadko–were hailed as fantastic additions to the NGA’s already impressive collection of Ballets Russes costumes, purchased by inaugral NGA Director James Mollison in a forward-thinking push to elevate the world’s appreciation of textiles as high art.

Micheline Ford installs Natalia Goncharova’s Seahorse from the Ballets Russes 1916 production of ‘Sadko’.

Thanks to Micheline’s efforts, the Ballets Russes Seahorse is now able to be displayed at the NGA with a clearer interpretation of the artist’s design. With painstaking precision, Micheline has treated over half of the four piece costume, reversing and mending existing damage, and uncovering its secrets along the way.

Premiering in New York in 1916, the Ballets Russes performance of Sadko drew from the most famous scene of an epic Russian folk poem, where the poor musician Sadko marries the beautiful Princess Volkova, daughter of the Sea King. The Ballets Russes production imagined Sadko and Volkova’s magnificent wedding, attended by monsters, fish and creatures of the deep.

Natalia Goncharova, ‘Cape from costume for a seahorse’ c.1916, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra © Natalia Goncharova. ADAGP/Copyright Agency

Designed during World War I, Goncharova’s vivid imagination energised her creations for Sadko. The Seahorse’s bright patterns and the Squid’s ultramarine and gold lamé tentacles helped dancers suggest the movement of water and the iridescence of sea creatures.

However, when the Squid and Seahorse arrived at the NGA in 1995, their sparkle had been dimmed. When working on the four part Seahorse costume, Micheline quickly realised that it had already been subjected to questionable prior restoration efforts.

‘With the headdress and cape, we found that a lot of the shattered silk had been covered over with patches. This could potentially have occurred over the course of its life in different productions of Sadko, and definitely during previous restoration treatments. Rather than trying to repair damage, the restorers had tried to cover the silk to protect it.’

‘While this kept the costume stable, it didn’t represent the artist’s original vision. Our ethic as art conservators is to try to get works of art back to the way the artist intended.’

To this end, Micheline studied Goncharova’s original watercolour drawing and design. She also looked at photographs of dancers wearing the costume to discover which elements of the costumes were original, and which had been added or altered.

‘While the original design had crisp and angular outlines, we could see that past restoration efforts had left the headdress overly padded. We X-rayed the costume, and saw that there were numerous breakages and distortions in the internal wire structure.’

Archival photograph of Micheline carefully removing excess padding from the Ballets Russes Seahorse in 1995.

‘Rather than working on the items as a whole, the Seahorse headdress needed to be completely taken apart to allow access to the individual components. We unpicked previous repairs and removed the synthetic fabric coverings, and carried out structural repairs through small openings in the mouth and behind the supporting skullcap. We reshaped distorted wire and realigned and supported torn and damaged silk with adhesive coated silk gauze. Soft wadding was placed inside to support the structure, and all seams were resewn with silk thread.’

‘You have to have the skills of a surgeon while sewing. We use surgical needles and tools to do our repair work, using threads as fine–if not finer–than human hair.’

Having spent her career patiently working on the Ballets Russes collection, Micheline has formed a special bond with the costumes.

‘As a child, I loved archaeology and the idea of being able to look into history to find out secrets. The Ballets Russes costumes are a dream come true for me, as they’re brimming with hidden stories.’

Daryl Lindsay’s pencil sketch of ‘Les Sylphides from the Ballets Russes production of Les Sylphides’ (1937‑38) captures the dynamic dancers in action. Image © Daryl Lindsay Estate.

‘You find out a lot about the dancers who wore the costumes. Underneath the patches, you can see the custom stamps and personal inscriptions made for each production run. Most of the dancers have their names just scribbled in pencil, but the principal dancers’ costumes have lovely labels.’

‘There are even certain makeup marks that are kept on the costumes because they form part of its story. We tend to remove general pink face makeup, because the oils in the makeup aren’t good for fabric. However, the bright blue makeup marks on the ‘Blue God’ costume from the ballet Le Dieu Bleu is essential to the work, because they let us know the intense colour that the dancer would have been painted on the rest of his body and his chest.’

‘I get excited whenever I hear the NGA is purchasing a new work to add to the Ballets Russes collection. It’s like adding another character to the fold.’

Discover the Ballets Russes collection on Level 1 of the NGA today.

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