Street urchins, blue moons and rare visions

Restoring the dome of the Isaac Theatre Royal.
 A Midsummer Night's Dream (detail). Isaac Theatre Royal dome painting during restoration. Photo: John Collie

 A Midsummer Night's Dream (detail). Isaac Theatre Royal dome painting during restoration. Photo: John Collie

Even in a city where surreal scenes have become somewhat routine, the sight of the Isaac Theatre Royal's eight-tonne dome, suspended like a great alien craft, had the power to turn heads and drop jaws. Preserved inside a strange white shroud while the theatre was slowly deconstructed around it was a jewel of Christchurch's decorative arts heritage – a 105 year-old Italianate plaster ceiling featuring a circular painted reverie on the theme of William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. The dome, along with the rest of the theatre, is currently being restored as part of an ambitious rebuild that is expected to be completed in 2015 at a cost of over $30 million.

The Theatre Royal is no stranger to reincarnation, with two earlier wooden buildings (1863 and 1876 respectively) previously carrying that name in Christchurch. The current brick theatre, with its classically-inspired façade, was a grander presence, designed by Australian brothers Sydney and A.E. Luttrell to include a horseshoe-shaped dress circle and gallery. When it opened to a packed house in February 1908, with a performance of the Edwardian musical comedy The Blue Moon, the theatre was regarded as one of the best of its type in the southern hemisphere and garnered special praise for its acoustics.

Support for the restoration of the theatre following the 2010/11 earthquakes has been vigorous, just as it was when the building last faced the possibility of destruction. In the mid 1970s, its then-owner, J.C. Williamson Theatres, began selling off its holdings, including the Wellington Opera House. When no viable buyer for the Theatre Royal could be found, the company decided to demolish it and sell off the land. A forceful public campaign was launched to save it, and in 1979 a small group of Christchurch citizens formed the Theatre Royal Foundation, which eventually raised sufficient capital to purchase the building just days before it was scheduled to come down.

Since then, the theatre has experienced two significant upgrades. An extensive programme of earthquake strengthening and fire protection work was undertaken in 1998/9, and was almost certainly the reason it withstood the February 2011 earthquake and subsequent aftershocks without collapse. Major renovations were also completed in 2004/5 with the support of Diana, Lady Isaac, whose name the theatre now bears. Although the building remained standing after the recent earthquakes, its interior structure was severely compromised, and the rebuilding project has required it to be almost entirely deconstructed so that a new concrete and steel structure can be provided to house the original façade, marble staircase and painted dome.

Little is known about the artist who painted the dome ceiling, but he has been identified by the theatre's advisors as G.C. Post of the Carrara Ceiling Company in Wellington, which created the ornate plaster ceiling. Carrara, which was established in 1903 and still operates today, drew on the talents of artists, modellers and craftsmen from Australia and England and was responsible for the decorative plaster work in many of New Zealand's public buildings.

Made up of eight separate canvases, four large and four small and installed in an overlapping configuration, the painting presents a selection of images from what is arguably Shakespeare's most whimsical comedy. Given its emphasis on dreams ('rare visions') and transformation, combined with a complicated 'play-within-a-play' narrative, A Midsummer Night's Dream provides a fitting subject with which to decorate a theatre. Its intricate tangle of coincidences, mistaken identities and misunderstandings seems designed to test the audience's ability to suspend its disbelief, with the playwright, via the 'merry wanderer' Puck, finally suggesting that they can, if they prefer, pretend the whole performance was merely a sleep-induced fantasy:

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear.
A Midsummer Night's Dream, act 5, scene 1

A Midsummer Night's Dream (detail). Isaac Theatre Royal dome painting during restoration. Photo: John Collie

A Midsummer Night's Dream (detail). Isaac Theatre Royal dome painting during restoration. Photo: John Collie

Notwithstanding the pale moon that hovers overhead, the Theatre Royal painting is presented as a daylight, rather than nocturnal, vision. A blue sky, wispy clouds, feathery vegetation and diaphanous fabrics provide a delicate and dream-like setting for Titania, Queen of the Fairies, who, under the influence of a magic potion, has fallen in love with the weaver, Bottom (whose head has been changed into that of an ass). Around the circular composition float a host of other characters, including fairies, lovers and the Indian changeling at the centre of the fateful dispute between Titania and her husband Oberon.

After a long period of inaccessibility inside the red-zone cordon following the February 2011 earthquake, the dome was removed from the theatre's ceiling in 2012. This was achieved using a customised cradle designed by Naylor Love, the principal contractor for the Theatre's restoration, in consultation with project manager RCP, structural engineers Holmes Consulting and Smith Crane and Construction. The dome was then wrapped in Tyvek to protect it from further damage from the elements and re-suspended inside the theatre, this time above the stage, to allow the first stages of the rebuild to get underway. In mid 2013, it was lowered onto the rebuilt stage to allow its conservation to be undertaken while the auditorium was remediated around it.

Alongside the stage, a space formerly occupied by the theatre's Green Room became the 'operating theatre' for the restoration of the dome painting. The project has been spearheaded by Carolina Izzo, an internationally renowned, Wellington-based conservator who trained in Florence, Italy, with more than sixteen years' experience working on earthquake-damaged objects (many of which belonged to the Italian state or to international institutions). Izzo moved to New Zealand in 2001 and worked for six years as a painting conservator at the Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa before setting up her own private conservation business. Having previously worked on the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples (which opened in 1767 and is the oldest continuously active venue for public opera in Europe) Izzo was delighted to be invited down to Christchurch by the Theatre's chief executive Neil Cox to prepare an estimate for the restoration of the dome. That first visit, in June 2013, gave her some indication of the challenges posed by the project. She arrived to find the site closed due to freezing temperatures and falling snow, and remembers being surprised that the object to be assessed was suspended many metres overhead. What she didn't yet know was the extent of the damage present after the dome had been suspended in that condition for a year; as she would later discover, although the protective synthetic wrapper had prevented new moisture from getting in, existing dampness inside had allowed mould to grow actively on both the front and back of the painting's canvases.

Underside of the painting during restoration. Photo: John Collie

Underside of the painting during restoration. Photo: John Collie

When Izzo was advised that she had been selected to lead the conservation project, she set about assembling her team. First, she looked for a conservator with an established career and experience with damaged heritage objects who could lead the team whenever she needed to return to Wellington. Ideally, she was looking for someone adaptable, who was used to working on site, away from the conservation laboratory. She found these qualities in Emanuele Vitulli, a fellow Italian with considerable experience in conserving earthquake-damaged objects and buildings.

Given the extensive and meticulous cleaning required, it was clear to Izzo that she and Vitulli would need help to complete the work within the required timeframe. Having previously worked with assistants drawn from the local community on a project restoring a monastery in Italy, Izzo put out a call via email and Facebook, inviting local people to join the project. The subsequent team, though drawn from Christchurch, has a distinctly international flavour (the presence of two Italians and a Brazilian may explain the excellent coffee always available on site). It also includes Julia Holden, a contemporary artist who recently moved to the city from Melbourne and who couldn't resist the opportunity of being involved with the restoration of this unusual piece of Christchurch's artistic heritage:

I thought, 'Oh I've got to do that!' I've absolutely fallen in love with the paintings, they are so beautiful, so lightly painted, so deft and confident and incredibly loose, up-close. I've been surprised by some of the colours that have been used – it's obviously been painted by someone who knows about painting things to be seen from a distance.

Restoration work in progress. Photo: John Collie

Restoration work in progress. Photo: John Collie

The task the team faced was far from simple. Though the painted canvases were designed to be bonded firmly to their plaster backing, it soon became evident to Izzo that there was a greater separation between the canvas and the ceiling than was usual. She began to be concerned that large sections had delaminated. During her first week inspecting the painting, she took samples of the adhesive on the back of the canvas and discovered that it was not animal glue as had been previously thought, but gum arabic, a natural adhesive made of hardened acacia tree sap. Primarily now used as a thickening agent in the food industry, it has many other uses, including binding watercolour paint and acting as edible glue on the backs of 'lickable' postage stamps. It is easily soluble in water and, in the case of the Theatre Royal ceiling, this had caused the canvases to partially detach. As part of the conservation treatment, the eight canvas sections were carefully removed from their plaster supports and the residual glue washed off with warm water. Areas of mould were laboriously cleaned from the front and back of the paintings and surface damage, including cracks, tears and marks caused by singeing from light bulbs installed around the edge of the dome, was repaired. Because of the size and fragility of the paintings, some of this work had to be undertaken while lying suspended over the canvas, using a platform designed by Vitulli (drawing upon the knot-making skills he developed as a sailor).

Along the way, the team uncovered a few surprises, including an unexpected original layer of real gold on the central plaster rosette decoration that had been subsequently covered with layers of white enamel. Unfortunately, the gold was so thinly applied – 'they were thinking of economy', says Izzo – that it was impossible to remove the paint on top without pulling it off too, but she is proposing that it be recreated in the final restoration. The next stage of the project will involve the construction of a new backing support to replace the original one, which was applied by hand, creating a uneven surface. Over the many years since it was installed, the canvas stretched to accommodate these imperfections, so any new stabilising surface will need to mirror these irregularities exactly. As part of the conservation project, the canvases will be relined to protect them against any further damage; each will be able to be removed individually, in any order. The final completion date for the dome project is currently unknown, as it depends on the progress of the overall rebuild of the theatre. For now, Izzo's team must wait until the dome structure can be returned to the auditorium. They will then reattach the canvases to it before it is lifted into place, ready for any final retouching that may be needed.

Team Scugnizzi at work. Photo: John Collie

Team Scugnizzi at work. Photo: John Collie

Early on in the project, the conservation workers were dubbed 'Team Scugnizzi' – a name that came from Izzo's and Vitulli's experience of the social impact of conservation when working in Italy. Izzo recalls an early project in the streets of Naples:

I was often dealing with tough areas where conservation or restoration wasn't something that was known to the local people. There was a door from a royal palace that for some reason was moved to a normal building which is now in a difficult area. We were just approaching the cleaning of this beautiful door and the first day on the scaffolding I put my bag down... gone! My workers were running behind these guys who had stolen the bags. [It turned out that] they used the door as a goalpost for playing soccer. So that's how we started. But then they watched us working every day, just scratching at the door, doing our work all the time. And they began to appreciate what they had. If people were working so hard on it, then maybe they had something of value there. The best result for me was when we were leaving the scugnizzi (street kids), these young fellows, they were saying 'don't worry, we are going to look after the door!'

For Izzo, the reaction she has experienced in Christchurch when people hear what she is working on has reconfirmed her belief in the power of conservation to connect people, especially, perhaps, those who have shared traumatic experiences: 'Sometimes we become too pragmatic, we just look at one side without looking all the other parts of it. It's better when you can have an impact on people's everyday life and they have an opportunity to participate.' Vitulli, who, back in Italy, works with at-risk children to restore old boats and put them back on the ocean, agrees: 'Restoration, it's clear, is not just about buildings.'

Felicity Milburn
Curator

Felicity spoke to Caroline Izzo, Emanuele Vitulli and Julia Holden in September 2013.

Appeared in
B.174
B.174

4 December 2013

Felicity Milburn

Curator

Felicity Milburn has curated numerous projects for the Gallery’s acclaimed post-quake ‘Outer Spaces’ programme, including the Rolling Maul series (which featured work by 18 local artists). Other exhibitions include Tony Oursler: Bright burn want (2013), Sian Torrington: How you have held things and the nationally-touring Séraphine Pick exhibition (2009). She writes regularly on contemporary art for Gallery catalogues and books and also contributes to local, national and international publications.