Many of you may have had a glimpse of the Spirit of Gaiety statue from the Painting Galleries (Figure 1): it is a very large, carved and gilded angel blowing a trumpet, originally designed for the dome of the Gaiety Theatre in London and erected there in 1904 (Figure 2).
Although any visitor can view it at a distance, the Angel (as we informally call the statue) stands in a ‘staff only’ area, which many of us in the Conservation Department pass by when we go to our mess room for lunch. The first thing you notice when you get close to the Angel is that the gilded surface is rather patchy and there are several deep cracks which expose the statue’s wooden substrate (Figure 3).
Not that this is unexpected: the poor Angel stood on top of the dome of the Gaiety Theatre from 1904 until 1957, exposed to the weather, the winds and the pollution, and simply shows the effects of years of environmental abuse.
The Angel has a long and complex conservation history, which will be described elsewhere together with the repair work it is undergoing at the moment. It has now fallen to us in the Conservation Department to bring the Angel to its former glory, but in order to do that we need to find out more about the way it was originally decorated, what painting technique was used, and along the way find out if and when it was re-gilded to refresh its golden surface. As a matter of fact, we don’t even know for certain if the Angel was golden to begin with: there is some intriguing evidence that a silvery finish was present at some point!
On a bright January day I slid under the barriers set around the Angel and inspected the statue with Zoe Allen, V&A Senior Furniture Conservator. We took two paint samples from damaged areas and selected a large piece of paint that had already detached from the statue (Figure 4).
These samples are going to be investigated with the scientific techniques we have available at the V&A, in the Science Section. We will study the overall layer structure of the paint, and analyse the components of each layer.
Watch this space, we will update this blog with our results as we go along!