April 1992 Issue 03
The Resurrection of Death on a Pale Horse
In January 1992, an exhibition opened at the V&A entitled 'The Art of Death - Objects from the English Death Ritual 1500 - 1800'. Two stained glass panels were requested for display in the exhibition. This short article will highlight some interesting aspects of the conservation of one of these panels, 'Death on a Pale Horse' (Museum no. C.56-1946). The glass is English and dated 1800. The iconography of the panel derives from an original painting by J Hamilton Mortimer RA of 1775, and is one of a pair donated to the Museum in 1946 from St Mary and Nicholas Church in Leatherhead. The panel depicts Death, wearing a turban, black crown, red robe and blue loincloth, riding half right over various prostrate bodies. Dragon- and frog-like monsters hover at each side of his head. A rushing crowd is seen in the distance to the right.
Fig 1. 'Death on a Pale Horse', before conservation (Museum no. C.56-1946) (click image for larger version)
Initially, the conservation work required seemed to be fairly minimal. On closer examination, however, some interesting problems became apparent. The surface decoration of the glass consisted of oxide paint and enamels, with silver stain applied on the reverse. Although the image itself is fairly sophisticated and highly dramatic, a close inspection of the paintwork shows it to be unusual in technique and very crude in application. The window is also exceptionally large for a single sheet of glass (43.5 cm high by 39.0 cm wide) and had been backplated with a sheet of 2 mm clear glass. The large size and extreme undulations in the original glass made it apparent from the beginning that difficulties were likely to occur during conservation treatment.
Some restoration work had been carried out on the panel soon after it was acquired by the Museum in 1946 but there was no documentation available. Subsequently some minimal conservation work was done in 1987 when the panel was requested for an exhibition at Swansea. Examination of the panel prior to the current conservation treatment allowed a proper assessment of the extent of damage and repair. Notably, two fragments of glass had been attached with lead at diagonally opposite corners to replace missing pieces. There were also two long hairline fractures running horizontally across the surface of the glass which had been previously repaired with a resinous adhesive.
Treatment began with the removal of the leads. The 'foreign' pieces of glass at the corners were removed as they were considered unsightly and were certainly not contemporary with the rest of the panel. The hairline fractures were also considered to be sufficiently stepped to justify taking them apart. Nitromors (water-based), a commercially available paint stripper containing dichloromethane as the active ingredient, was applied on cotton wool swabs using tweezers along the fractures on the unpainted side of the glass. The Nitromors expanded and softened the old adhesive sufficiently to allow the pieces to be dismantled and their edges cleaned mechanically.
When subsequently rejoining the glass along these fractures, three people were needed to help realign the edges accurately due to the severe undulations. When the correct positioning was achieved, they were temporarily secured with Sellotape (on the back of the glass) and then an epoxy resin, Ablebond 342/1, was applied along the joints. With the aid of capillary action, the resin was drawn into the cracks over a number of hours making an effective and permanent bond. Two resin fillings, tinted to match the rest of the glass, were required to replace the missing corner sections. These were adhered directly to the glass, avoiding the use of leads as in the previous repair. These areas and the hairline fractures were later retouched using acrylic paints to match the surrounding areas.
Having removed the original backplate because it provided insufficient support, the next problem was to produce a new and effective replacement. The unusual size of the glass meant that the required backplate would be too large for the kiln available in the Stained Glass Section of the V&A Conservation Department. Fortunately, facilities were offered by Chelsea School of Art where there is a kiln large enough, and where the services of a technician were also offered. Many thanks are due to the staff at Chelsea for their help. An exact copy of the undulations in the panel was first produced using a dry moulding powder. 2 mm clear glass was then cut to shape and placed in the mould to be slumped in the kiln. It had to be borne in mind that several factors, particularly variations between kilns, may produce different results in the glass at the same temperatures. Preliminary tests were therefore essential to ensure that the glass would slump successfully at the first attempt.
As the cast could only be made on site, a major concern was the transport of the object to and from the Museum and all the planning as regards packing and insurance which this involved. Happily, the whole expedition was a success. A precisely fitting backplate emerged from the kiln and was secured behind the panel with aluminium tape for its return to the Museum.
Following conservation treatment in the studio, the next concern was the arrangement for display of the panel in the exhibition. It was most important that clear instructions were given to ensure that the same lighting was used for displaying the glass as was used during treatment. Often there is a tendency to over-illuminate the glass, which is compounded by the designer specifying a light source of the wrong spectral distribution. If this is the case, the appearance of the object may suffer and hours of careful colour matching can be wasted. The position of stained glass on display in an exhibition is often dictated by the architect or designer. The conservator can make suggestions but seldom has the final decision about display.
For exhibition, the panel was mounted in an aluminium frame backed with Perspex. This done, we could look forward to the all too rare event of a stained glass window on display in a special exhibition.