This paper reports on the use of electronic speckle pattern interferometry (ESPI) for the measurement of the biaxial tensile properties of English 19th century canvas primings and their constituent materials. Typically, such primings are comprised of a complex structure of layers, each with different mechanical properties. ESPI has been shown to be an effective technique for investigating complex composite structures and it is especially useful for understanding the behaviour of heterogeneous materials in which non-uniform strains can occur. The flexibility of canvas primings presents a more difficult application for both biaxial tensile testing and ESPI strain measurements. A series of experiments have been carried out to measure the Poisson's ratio of the three main constituents of a 19th Century priming as composites and of an original 19th century primed canvas. The samples have been uniaxially tensioned on a biaxial tensile tester designed specifically to investigate the mechanical properties of paintings on canvas. Measurements of deformation have made using a two-dimensional in-plane ESPI configuration. The results have shown that Poisson's ratio decreases as the constituents of a painting are built up. Preliminary tests on thermally aged and original primings suggest that for a painting without cracks it is the embrittled paint which determines the mechanical response of the painting at an relative humidity of 35–40%.
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