April 1993 Issue 07
'It was the least unethical thing we could do'
In the midst of preparations for the new European Ornament Gallery at the Victoria and Albert Museum, a small table clock came to the Furniture Conservation Studio for a quick clean before going on permanent display in the new gallery; rarely, however, are things so simple. This small clock highlights the decision-making process conservators enter into and the principles which they employ in that process, continuing the investigation begun in the last issue of the Conservation Journal.1
The clock is a black-painted birch wood structure with a blue and white ceramic face and a sunflower-shaped dial behind a bevelled glass sliding front. It measures 360 mm in height by 240 mm in width and is 135 mm deep (fig1). It was designed in the 1880s by Lewis F. Day, an Aesthetic Movement designer of wallpapers and ceramics, who was, however, better known for his writings on the philosophy of the Aesthetic/Arts and Crafts Movement.
The case itself has some simple decoration, including carved designs, crude fluting, pierced and shaped galleries and, on the stiles, turned finials and shaped feet. It is obvious when one looks at the case that the primary focus of the clock was meant to be the face, as the case itself suffers from a design which ensured future problems and from generally poor execution.
When the clock arrived in the studio, the briefest of investigations revealed two serious and related problems: first, the stiles were twisting out away from the case; and second, there were splits to the front and back of the top and bottom of the case, running widthwise.
The construction of the case, combined with the nature of wood itself, was the cause of the problem. The top and bottom of the case are attached to the stiles by mortise and tenon
joints. The galleries are glued in housed joints running across and with the grain.
The cause of the splitting and twisting was simply that both the top and bottom had shrunk (fig 2). Wood shrinks principally perpendicular to the grain and only inconsequentially along the length of the grain; the top and bottom had shrunk by four mm while the side galleries, running perpendicular to the grain of the top and bottom, had retained their original lengths. The result was the stiles were held out by the side galleries while the rest of the top and bottom contracted, producing splits. Assuming that reasonably dry wood was used in the construction, it is likely that the shrinkage was caused by exposure to central heating. No matter what the cause, there was no doubt that treatment of some form was necessary
When the necessity of treating an object arises, the choice of treatment is based on principles, or ethics, which have evolved as conservation has developed into a profession. Broadly speaking, the main principle which directs a conservator's judgement is the primary importance of protecting an object's integrity and all the information it contains. Within that broad framework, then, the least intrusive treatment necessary should be used causes problems or a better solution is found in the future. Alongside these principles are the realistic considerations of practical achievability and existing
resources (fig 3).
With these in mind, the choices for the clock were quickly narrowed to four. The first was to simply clean the clock and store it in a stable environment, hoping for the best. The second was to reduce the length of the side galleries to fit the new dimensions of the carcass. The third was somewhat related to this in that it called for the removal of the original galleries and replacing them with new ones made proportionally smaller. Finally the notion of somehow adding four mm to the top and bottom to make up for the shrinkage presented itself.
The 'do very little' alternative was rejected at once. With the galleries in position, the cracks would be under tension and any further fluctuations in moisture content could result in more damage. Reducing the length of the existing galleries would mean not only the loss of original material but also the loss of evidence of the clock's original proportions. Replacement of the galleries would be less irreversible, but there was a fear that they could eastily be lost with resulting loss of information. This left the notion of adding strips to the top, bottom and sides, which had also shrunk but without disastrous results.
This fourth solution had its merits. it would be restoring the original proportions while clearing up the problems of splitting. In principle, then, it was a sound idea. But where should the strips be added? The problems caused by the shrinkage occurred between the stiles. This meant the material would have to be added to the middle of the panels. Sawing apart the top and bottom would be the only way to achieve that, and sawing is arguably the most intrusive thing one can do to an object. It means the loss of original material no matter how thin the saw blade and the possibility of accidental damage during the sawing.
In the end, it was decided to accept, but minize wherever possible, the risks and add the new material. The cuts were made with a thin-bladed handsaw. The edges were minimally cleaned up and peices of birch were added. The two halves were glued together using animal glue and in-painted; finally the clock was reassemble. After all the anguish, the job was relatively straight-forward.
The treatment was intrusive. The glued joint and in-painting can be reversed, but the saw cut will be there as long as the clock exists. Howver, the clock is sound again, and its original idea has been preserved. Perhaps the decision and its rationale can best be summed up by Jonathan Ashley-Smith's observation: 'It was the least unethical thing we could do.'