Back to the Future: revisiting Richard Redgrave’s condition reports

Clair Battisson, Senior Preservation Conservator

Louise Egan, Condition Report Liaison

There have been several previous articles and comment made on what is thought to have been an early use of a photographic image in checking and monitoring the condition of an object at the Victoria & Albert Museum (formerly known as the South Kensington Museum). By employing the latest available technology as a practical tool, in 1865 Richard Redgrave (then Inspector General for Art at the Science and Art Department at the SKM) was able to produce effective reports for the Raphael cartoons when moved from Hampton Court Palace to the SKM. Redgrave’s reports consist of large format photographs and the efficient use of simple annotations and concise statements to describe surface and structural concerns (Figures 1 and 2). For reference, Redgrave’s report images measure approximately 640 x 790mm with the corresponding cartoon dimensions approximately 3400 x 4400 – 5600mm, which demonstrates just how economical he was with his observations. Documenting object condition through images and annotations is still in use today internationally; though the markings and statements are often far more elaborate and subjective than the prudent comments found in Redgrave’s reports:‘…it is only the most noteworthy injuries that could be registered, and that extensive injuries of minute nature – such as abrasions of their surface or scaling of tints – could hardly be included, although using the photographs as the basis of the registry has been a great aid…‘1.

Charles Thurston Thompson, Photograph of the Raphael Cartoon ‘Paul and Barnabus Rejecting the Sacrifice at Systra’ annotated by Richard Redgrave (Museum No.76597)

Figure 1. Charles Thurston Thompson photograph of the Raphael Cartoon ‘Paul and Barnabus Rejecting the Sacrifice at Systra’ annotated by Richard Redgrave (Museum No.76597) ©Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Detail of Figure 1 showing Redgrave’s annotations

Figure 2. Detail of Figure 1 showing Redgrave’s annotations ©Victoria & Albert Museum, London

There was also valuable accompanying documentation that provided an insight into the forward planning essential for the safe shipment of the cartoons. This was overseen by Captain Fowke of the Royal Engineers and includes clear communication, the logistics of transportation and the necessary employment of skilled specialists to advise and carry out the move, as described by Captain Edward Festing of the Royal Engineers in the extract below (Figure 3).

The removal of the Raffaelle cartoons from Hampton Court Palace to the Museum took place at the end of April 1865, under the direction and superintendence of Captain Fowke. The first operation in moving the cartoons was taking them out of their frames, which occupied two days. A large van carrying, by India-rubber slings, a case of sufficient size to hold all the cartoons was specially made from the designs of Captain Fowke; it was bought down by night to the palace, and soon after daylight the following morning we commenced work lowering the cartoons from a window of the room in which they were, and packing them in the van. Captain Fowke superintended the latter part of the operation, having stationed me on the scaffolding outside the window to see that they were carefully taken down. We both accompanied the van on its journey by road to London, which was performed without the smallest accident, and by four o’clock in the afternoon the cartoons were all safely lodged in their new gallery without having sustained the slightest injury, the whole of the work having been done under the direct supervision of Captain Fowke and myself, and every precaution taken that the faces of the cartoons should not be touched. The extent of this work may be judged from the fact that the case for cartoons measured 18 feet by 12 by 4 and the van was 20 feet long by 8 wide and 18 feet high to the top of the framing, and was drawn by eight horses. About 40 workmen were employed in the work.2

The case and van transporting the Raphael Cartoons from Hampton Court to South Kensington in May 1865. Photo: Anon. (Museum No. 44413)

Figure 3. The case and van transporting the Raphael Cartoons from Hampton Court to South Kensington in May 1865 (Museum No. 44413) ©Victoria & Albert Museum, London

This meticulous organisation and planning by Henry Cole (then Director of the SKM), Redgrave and Fowke is similar to that undertaken by an experienced project team (consisting of Exhibitions, Conservation and Technical Services) in relation to the installation, deinstallation and subsequent touring of a V&A exhibition. And, as Fowke and Festing demonstrate, the ability of the experienced team to plan, resource, oversee, execute and document complicated projects under challenging deadlines should not be underestimated.

The V&A’s ambitious public programme (exhibitions, displays, loans and tours) demands the continual review and improvement of processes. In order to minimise the risk of damage during transit, installation and deinstallation, an object will be accompanied by some or all of the following:

  • Crate packing notes (produced by Technical Services)
  • Object packing notes (produced by Technical Services/Conservation)
  • Condition Reports (produced by Conservation)
  • Installation/desinstallation notes (produced by Conservation /Technical Services)

Given their legal status (necessary to fulfil Government Indemnity obligations) and as recognition of the Museum’s duty of care, a hierarchy has evolved between condition reports and other supporting documentation. The procedure of checking an object has gained significant status but it should be noted that when it comes to duty of care and safe handling, all supporting documents provide equally relevant information, and are interdependent. Democratising supporting documents presents an opportunity for far greater consistency and efficiency. An experienced courier will always work with the project team, communicating issues and concerns prior to any handling. They will examine the object in an overall way at the outset, investigating the immediate area/packing/crate prior to display or packing. Unless there is specific new damage or change to an object where handling, packing or display issues are causing damage, adding an annotation of obvious previous wear to a condition report is redundant. On occasion there can also be a marked inconsistency in the time ratio allotted by couriers to the process of condition checking one or two straightforward items in comparison to the expedience of installing several complicated or multi-part objects. This varying approach is also sometimes evident when dealing with high value art items as opposed to objects which have a less significant status.

With the public programme ever increasing while resources remain the same, efficiencies are constantly being sought. The traditional approach is to push for results through change in processes. New technologies are helping and efficiencies are being made but the most important change is a more pragmatic attitude to documentation and approach. As Redgrave pointed out ‘… extensive injuries of minute nature … could hardly be included’3.

References

1. Report of the Commission on the Heating, Lighting, and Ventilation of the South Kensington Museum. London: HMSO. Appendix C (3), p.7

2. Ibid. Appendix C (6), p.8

3. Ibid. Appendix C (3), p.7

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