October 1996 Issue 21
'Sham Columns in a Casing of Crockery'
The refurbishment of the Silver Gallery, due to reopen in November this year, occasioned the conservation and restoration of two of the ceramic columns which had originally lined rooms 65-69. These rooms had formally been the Ceramic Galleries. Since the Gallery's inception the decorative scheme has undergone changes and the present refurbishment project aimed to restore many of the original features of the interior design. This article describes some of the complexities I encountered in the reconstruction of the columns.
'Sham columns in a casing of crockery built up around a brick core'. This description sums up the opinion expressed by 'Building News' 1 in 1870 of the columns that stand in the Gamble Room, once the Centre Refreshment Room of the Museum, which are the same design as those that were to be restored. They were designed and modelled by James Gamble from an idea by Godfrey Sykes and made by Minton Hollins & Co. in the late 1860s. The lettering bands were taken from Sykes' pictorial alphabet which was designed for the frieze in the Gamble Room.
Shortly before World War I, Sir Cecil Harcourt- Smith, the Director of the Museum, had the columns removed. This caused an outcry which led to some pieces being stored. In 1994 it was established that enough whole or near-whole pieces remained to enable the rebuilding of two columns, if missing pieces could be reproduced. 2
The casing of each column consisted of an octagonal plinth, column base tiles, four rows of rosettes alternating with three of dado tiles, a band of lettering with the name of a ceramic artist or producer, followed by 20 rows of lozenge-shaped tiles with a floral relief. To accommodate the tapering shaft, each row of lozenges diminished in size towards the top. The capital consists of a collar decorated with acanthus leaves and egg and dart mouldings, with volutes, flowers and a pier-spanning cap above. The glazes were a bluish white, a warm brown and what has been variously described as grey, blue or green.
The remaining pieces were laid out, and for many elements of the design no reproduction was necessary. For each of the elements that did need reproducing, at least one example existed from which copies could be made. There was one exception - the pier-spanning cap.
There were 591 tiles to be cleaned and repaired. This work was undertaken by a private conservator. The majority of the tiles were in good structural condition although virtually every tile had suffered chipping to the raised decoration and to the outer edges. The most damaged were the dado and lozenge tiles. All of the tiles had mortar round the sides and the back, of varying hardness and depth. This all had to be carefully removed, ensuring that the internal support bridge, or strap, did not get damaged during the process. The glazed surface and break edges were cleaned, and the chips and breaks repaired. 3
When choosing which approach to take in the reconstruction of the missing pieces, a variety of factors were considered. The original pieces were examined visually. This inspection indicated that they had been made from press moulds. A clay model of each element would have been made, from which a reusable plaster mould would have been taken. Clay would have been pressed into the plaster to produce multiples of each design. The plaster draws water from the clay, causing the latter to shrink slightly and thus allowing its removal from the mould. Great care would have needed to be taken at the drying stage to produce an even drying out, as an uneven evaporation rate would result in warping.
Analyses of the clay body and glazes were not undertaken as it was decided to reflect the nature of the original materials and techniques. Modern synthetic replicas were not wanted, nor were copies that were indistinguishable from the originals. Besides, the likely presence of lead and copper in the glazes would have complicated the firing, as these minerals are now non grata in glaze manufacture.
The reproduction to be carried out required an understanding of the nature of terracotta and glazes. The reconstruction of the whole required sympathy for the project's aim of recreating the original design of the Gallery and also the ability to fix historic material in an appropriate and secure manner.
At each step of the reconstruction there were complexities to be overcome. The first to be encountered was the question of space. Sculpture Conservation was in a temporary location whilst a new studio was being built. So for a while, with only one example of each element to copy, I worked in the Stained Glass Conservation Studio.
None of the pieces below the lettering band needed to be remade. 84 lozenges and halflozenges were missing from the shafts; seven of the eight collar-pieces and six of the eight volutes were also missing. Of the 20 rows of lozenges, 13 rows had tiles missing. Each row is characterised by a different flower with its stem spiralling round in a similar manner on each row. This gives the appearance from a distance of the same pattern throughout, and only on closer inspection is the difference noticeable. Measuring the remaining tiles from each row established that the dimensions within each size ranged by 75mm in both height and width throughout. This could be due to uneven shrinkage, or else they may have been made for specific columns within the Gallery although the original positioning of each tile is unknown. A few of the tiles had identifying marks on the back, but by no means all, and their relationship was not established. Whatever the reason, I based the size of each row on average dimensions.
Because the loss of water content on drying means that clay shrinks, it was not possible simply to make moulds from the original tiles. Each tile had to be remodelled on a larger scale. The amount of shrinkage is determined by the type of clay used. Since the clay used in the originals ranged from a pale grey to a dark cream in colour, a fine-grained, white-bodied clay was chosen, with a smoothness and plasticity that would carry the detail of the floral relief. This clay was known to shrink by 6%. A life-size drawing of each tile was enlarged by that amount and used as the basis for the modelling, bearing in mind the curvature along the horizontal plane necessary to allow the pieces to fit round the core.
From the models, plaster moulds were made, to be used for repeated pressings. The pieces were turned out of the moulds and trimmed back, so that the back edges of the tiles would not throw the circle out when building. They were laid out and supported and left to dry slowly before firing. 4
The reproduction of the collar-pieces and volutes was more complex. There were four collar-pieces to each capital with a span of 40cm on each quadrant. As well as choosing a method that would allow such an arc to dry without distortion, the undercuts of the egg and dart and acanthus leaf had to be accommodated. Trial and error showed that the best way to deal with the combination of elements was to create a piece mould and hollow out the undercuts after the mould was removed. The method used to recreate the volutes involved making four separate moulds and adding the pieces together at the leather-hard stage.
The colour of the background on the original pieces varied enormously from a blue grey to a yellowish green, the colour of the white being fairly uniform although affected by the variable colour of the clay beneath. Again, 'average' colour glazes were produced to mix in with the harmony of the various colours.
I am extremely grateful for the help of Alexandra Kosinova (Senior Sculpture Conservator) who worked with me on the construction of the columns. Although we had been aware of the irregularity of the sizes of the lozenge tiles, at the beginning we spent a considerable time building and rebuilding the plinth and column base only to realise that their elements, as with the lozenges, were not perfectly uniform. With this adjustment made to our expectations of the originals, we built the tiles up around the core that had been erected for us previously. Fortunately, during the refurbishment of the Gallery, the original cores of some of the columns had been uncovered and so a good profile of the internal dimensions of the tiles was established.
The tiles were attached to the cores using a traditional mortar of lime putty and sand, with a quartz aggregate added for bulking out the large cavities in the lower pieces. Above the dado, a row of stainless steel plates was driven into the core to divert the weight of the lettering bands. Building each row on the shaft was a little like solving a puzzle. The trick was to place any slightly larger tiles of the row above over the slightly undersized ones of the row below to compensate for the irregularities in size. We had previously noted that many of the lozenge tiles had been 'nibbled' at the edges, to fit them into the original columns. I was relieved to discover that I was following the original construction method when it was necessary to trim the edges of some of the reproduction tiles.
Above the lozenges, and below the level of the top return on the collar pieces, two further support rows of stainless steel plates were driven into the cores. A small amount of Primal WS24, acrylic dispersion, was added to the mortar to strengthen it since the weight of the collar-pieces was considerable. 16mm stainless steel dowels were set into the volutes using plaster and then set into the cores using polyester resin. The positioning of the volutes meant that the majority of their weight extended beyond the circumference of the collar, and so the force of this weight had to be securely transferred deep into the core.
Since the pier-spanning caps were missing, they were reproduced in situ using plaster and mortar, then painted and glazed with acrylic to fit in with the colour scheme. Finally, after the central flowers were added, the capitals were gilded. The remaining original collar-piece appeared to have been painted with gold, certainly it was not a glaze. Oil gilding was chosen for the reproduction pieces as it linked in well with the regilding on the ceiling mouldings close by.
Certainly a sneer such as that made by 'Building News' in 1870 belittled the range of considerations to be taken into account and the skills involved in producing such decoration. The sneer in one respect has become true - the columns are now only decorative and in that sense have become sham. However, crockery producers would not have had the problems of design that go with the construction of large, multi-element pieces such as the columns. Each element had to be designed to allow for shrinkage in proportion to the curved surface and for the fact that the pieces would be fitted tightly together to build what was in effect a tube around the core. At each step of this challenging project there were complexities to be appreciated, and whatever the merits of the columns as a decorative feature, the balance of design and material has to be admired.
1. Building News, 20 July 1870, p.55
2. Further discussion can be found in Physick, John, The Victoria and Albert Museum, The history of its building, The Oregon Press Limited, 1982.
3. Conservation and report carried out by Judith Larney, 1996, report held in Conservation Department, V&A.
4. Firing carried out by Chelsea Pottery, London SW1.