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Archive for the 'Conservation' Category

Scenes from the Apocalypse

Monday, December 22nd, 2008

By Stuart Frost

Conservation work on a triptych with scenes from the Apocalypse, Museum no. 5940-1859.Since February 2008 one of the most enigmatic objects in the V&A’s collections, and one of the earliest acquisitions, has been the focus of a remarkable programme of conservation work. The object, a larger central panel with two hinged wings, is an altarpiece. The panels were made and painted in northern Germany around 1400.

The photograph to the right shows the altarpiece in the paintings conservation studio at the V&A. The wings have been detached to facilitate conservation work.

The painting on the front of the altarpiece consists of forty-five scenes illustrating most of the chapters of the Book of Revelation, the last book in the Bible that describes events at the end of the world. The scenes from the last five chapters are missing which suggests the altarpiece is no longer complete. Most of the scenes are accompanied by text taken from the work of a friar who in the mid-13th century attempted to explain the events of the Book of Revelation in historical terms.

The altarpiece will be included in the new Medieval and Renaissance galleries. In preparation for this the painting was the subject of a technical examination and assessment by conservators Lara Wilson, Rachel Turnbull and Nicola Costaras. X-rays, for example, revealed the extent of later over-painting as well revealing clearly the structure of the wooden panels. Tests were carried out to establish the age of the restoration (probably 19th century) and to assess the condition of the original painting beneath the later layers of dirt and varnish.Detail from a triptych with scenes from the Apocalypse, Museum no. 5940-1859.

Conservators and curators discussed different options for conservation work, assessed the consequences of each and then agreed the final programme of work. What conservation work did the object require and how could the object be displayed to best effect? Some of the paint had become loose and needed to be consolidated. The dirt that had accumulated over time and the varnish had both muted the original colours so it was agreed that both would be removed.

The vast majority of the painting is original but some areas where paint has been lost had been restored. The team at the V&A have decided to remove the areas where restorers had painted over losses with their own speculative compositions. Although work is still in progress it is clear that triptych will be transformed by the conservation work. The pictures that I’ve reproduced here show how vivid the colours are once the surface is cleaned. Detail from a triptych with scenes from the Apocalypse, Museum no. 5940-1859.

The close inspection of the painting as work has progressed has provided new insights and raised other avenues for research. The question of the attribution, for example, is being assessed again. The quality of the painting revealed by the recent work suggests that the altarpiece was made in the workshop of Master Bertram and that it should be added to the number of other surving paintings associated with this artist.  A number of articles exploring different aspects of the triptych will be published in due course and I will post-updates here. If you’d like to know more please post questions below and I’ll do my best to provide answers.

Thanks to Nicola Costaras and Rachel Turnbull for providing the information and pictures for this blog entry. I’ve posted additional images on the Medieval and Renaissance V&A site on Flickr. Click on each of the images here to find out more.

Scientific Analysis of a Tunic from Egypt

Monday, November 10th, 2008

By Stuart Frost and Elin Simonsson

Detail of Coptic Tunic, Museum No. 291-1891I posted a blog entry about a conservation work on an eighth century tunic in the V&A’s collections in June 2007. A great deal of work has taken place since then. The red wool tunic, with appliqué tapestry decoration, is a rare survival. It was excavated from a burial ground in Egypt in the late nineteenth century and has been in the V&A collections since 1891 after it was purchased from a dealer. Click on the detail to the right for more information about the object.

From around the third century AD onwards, as Egypt became a Christian society, burial practices changed. Bodies were no longer mummified but were laid to rest dressed in clothes. Many of these textiles were preserved in the dry burial conditions and tunics such as this one were found when the burial grounds were excavated. Although the V&A tunic is in better condition than many of the other textiles excavated at the time, there are many gaps in what we know about this garment. The archaeological techniques used in the nineteenth century were not as thorough as they are today. Excavations were often rushed and minimal information was recorded.

X-raying the tunic. From left: Elizabeth-Anne Haldane, Paul Robins (V&A), Dr. Sonia O'Conner (Bradford University) and Sara Gillies.To bridge some of these gaps a scientific analysis of the tunic was carried out earlier this year.  The recent analysis explored the pattern of staining and aimed to provide more specific information relating to the tunic’s age and provenance. The analysis involved a range of different cutting-edge methods, including X-radiography, ultraviolet and infrared photography, scanning electron microscopy, and gas chromatography-mass spectrometry. The research has arisen through a collaboration between the V&A and Archaeological Sciences, Bradford University. Elizabeth-Anne Haldane, Senior Textile Conservator at the V&A, and Sara Gillies, MSc student at Bradford University have been working together. Although the results are still being analysed there are already some interesting findings from the work.

The use of a range of scientific techniques worked very well. The results have complemented each other and have helped build up a more complete picture of the tunic’s life-story.

The tunic is covered in a variety of different stains. A dark brown-green stain, with a red-orange centre, was identified on the inside back of the tunic. Analysis of a sample of these dark deposits revealed degraded cholesterol and fatty acids.These stains were probably created when the body decomposed.  As the body inside the garment rotted fluids seeped through the tunic leaving areas of staining.

The V&A garment has some unusual horizontal striped stains not found on comparable textiles. Scientific analysis showed that these are similar to other stains on the tunic in terms of chemical composition. The pattern of staining was probably determined by how the body and the garment were laid out in the grave. As the body decomposed it is likely that the fluids gathered in pools and were compressed within the textile by the weight of the body.

Mapping the location of the stains has helped to determine the orginal appearance of the tunic. It has become obvious that the tunic was altered after excavation to improve its appearance, probably by the dealer from who the tunic was acquired. The tunic was let down at the waist and some of the appliqué decoration has been moved.

Scanning electron microscope image of several stained wool fibres showing encrustations of organic matter.Isotopic analysis will be carried out later to determine more precisely where the yarns or threads for both the tunic and the tapestry decoration were made. This is a fairly new method for determining the origin of a garment and is based on the idea that the ratios of light isotopes (carbon, nitrogen and oxygen) in wool fibres vary between locations. Wool fibres from different areas will have a unique combination of light isotopes. Samples from the main woven textile body of the tunic will be compared with the applied tapestry decorations as this may indicate whether or not the two parts come from the same location. They will also be compared with modern and archaeological samples of known provenance.

If you would like to find out more about the scientific analysis of the tunic, further information will be published in Spring 2009 in Issue 57 of the V&A Conservation Journal. If you have any questions or queries please post them below and I’ll do my best to obtain the answers.

Many thanks to Sara Gillies and Elizabeth-Anne Haldane for providing a summary of their work the scientific analysis of the Coptic tunic, and to Elin Simonsson for collating information for this blog-entry.

Click here to read the V&A’s Conservation Journal online.

Conservation and Research

Friday, April 4th, 2008

By Stuart Frost

Kuppelreliquiar V&A, Dach nach Abnahme der Beschläge mit GrubenschmelzA remarkable amount of work has been going behind the hoardings in the Museum and away from the public gaze elsewhere. In fact there is so much activity taking place that its impossible to mention it all here.

There is an increasing amount of effort going into the creation of new content for the website with a large number of colleagues across the V&A contributing. Much of this will only go online when the new Medieval and Renaissance Galleries open in 2009.

However we have just added three subjects to the website highlighting recently completed work on a trio of very different objects. These online-only subjects provide short summaries of projects that were extremely complex and which involved wide-ranging specialist expertise.

The deinstallation of the facade of Sir Paul Pindar's House, Museum no. 846-1890Stephanie Seavers, part of the curatorial team in the Metalwork department, has produced a summary of a collaborative research project that focussed on a beautiful twelfth-century enamelled container previously thought to be a reliquary from Cologne. The image I’ve used here, above and to the right, gives a wonderful impression of just how  rigorously and carefully the object was examined. Enamelled panels have been removed exposing the wooden core.

Nick Humphrey, a curator in the Furniture, Textiles and Fashion department focussed on the recent deinstallation of the vast timber façade of a town house built around 1600 for the wealthy merchant Sir Paul Pindar. Visitors to the V&A may remember the façade in its previous location in the old Museum shop. However I suspect that many people failed to notice its considerable presence due to the distraction of all the colourful merchandise at eye level. The façade will be reinstalled in a new daylit gallery which in itself will represent another significant technical achievement.

Zoe Allen, a specialist frames conservator in the Conservation section has written about work she undertook on a frame associated with a magnificent panel painting of the Virgin and Child by an artist known as Peregrinus (or Pellegrino di Giovanni). Here there were questions about whether the frame associated with the panel painting really belonged with it. There was also a significant amount of work needed on the frame which had become very fragile and warped over time. You can see the painting minus the frame in the image below.

Painting by Peregrinus (without frame), dated 1428. Museum no. 6559 and A-1860I’m very grateful for all the work that colleagues have contributed to the website. We’re hoping to add more online subjects to the website as the project develops. I’ll also continue to use this blog for more updates on object-based work taking place in the Conservation Studios and elsewhere.

Click here to see the recently added content about a Medieval Tabernacle from Cologne.

Click here to see the recently added content about the façade of Sir Paul Pindar’s House.

Click here to see the recently added content about a painting by Peregrinus of the Virgin and Child with Angels.

Polishing Up the Past

Wednesday, August 29th, 2007

By Stuart Frost

I think most visitors would be staggered by the amount of work that is involved in pulling together museum displays. When visitors walk around a successful new exhibition or display I’d hope that they’re completely absorbed with looking at the objects within them, rather than thinking about what has gone on behind the scenes. It is probably only when displays don’t work that visitors begin to contemplate the processes that the exhibition team have gone through to get to that point! Conservator cleaning a candlestick from a choirscreen from 's-Hertogenbosch.

I wrote about the choir screen (or roodloft) from ’s-Hertogenbosch earlier this year. If you go back to the blog entries posted in February and March you’ll find pictures that give a good impression of the scale and complexity of this vast architectural piece. Room 50 has been closed to the public for sometime now. The large number of objects that were once in Room 50 have now been removed altogether. A few, like the choir screen, remain where they have always been but are now fully enclosed in protective hoarding.

Candlesticks from 's-Hertogenbosch before conservation treatment.The choir screen originally had ten candlesticks placed on its balustrade. These haven’t been displayed with the object for sometime but we’re keen to ensure that they are returned to their original position when the choir screen goes back on display in November 2009. In preparation for this they have been assessed by a conservator, and as a result they’ve now undergone treatment. The image to the right shows two of the candlesticks before conservation work began. Can you guess what they’re made of? There is little in this picture to indicate that they’re made of brass.

The image below shows that the candlesticks have been transformed but there is still work to be done before the choir screen is ready for the public. Inevitably polished metal tarnishes over time. In order to minimise this natural process each candlestick will be treated with a protective coating. The candlesticks originally had plinths which were then attached to the balustrade.Candlestick after conservation treatment The original plinths weren’t acquired by the V&A and the solution used previously, shaped plaster-blocks painted black, isn’t ideal. The blocks are heavy and there is no easy way to firmly fix them to the balustrade. There is also some doubt as to whether the colour of the original marble blocks (red or black). In addition one of my colleagues, Melissa, has been sourcing black and white marble flags for a new area of flooring beneath the choir screen. The current surface comprises of modern grey concrete slabs. I’ll write more about the floor surface later.

If I mention that the choirscreen is only one object of approximately 1,800 destined for the new Medieval and Renaissance Galleries I’m sure that will give you a good indication of why a gallery project on this scale takes what might seem like such a long time to develop.

Labour of Love: The Trojan War

Tuesday, August 14th, 2007

By Stuart Frost

Conservation work on a magnificent tapestry continues in the Textile Conservation Studio. The tapestry is approximately 4.20 metres high, just over 7 metres long and depicts a scene from the Trojan War. The tapestry is part of one of the most important sets still surviving from the latter part of the fifteenth century.

War of Troy Tapestry, 1475-1490, Museum no. 6-1887The Trojan War tapestries were made in Tournai (now in Belgium) between 1460 and 1490. Several sets were woven for some of the most powerful and wealthiest men in Europe including King Charles VIII of France, Charles the Bold of Burgundy and King Henry VII of England. The complete set consisted of eleven hangings. The tapestry in the Conservation Studio is the ninth in the series and is thought to have come from the first set. Click on on the images for a better view of the scenes depicted on it and the conservation work.

At some point in its history the V&A’s tapestry was cut into five separate parts. Not surprisingly for a textile that is over five hundred years old it has required conservation work from time to time.  The tapestry is currently undergoing a programme of treatment so that it will look at its best when it goes on display to the public in November 2009.Troy Tapestry

The tapestry has already been wet cleaned in Belgium using a special installation that uses water vapour and suction to ensure that the textile fibres are supported at all times and are not wet for too long. You’ll find more information about this stage of the work on the Conservation Department’s web-pages - follow the link below.

It is has been estimated that in total the work on the tapestry will take up to 3,500 hours. Expressed in different terms that’s one conservator working on the tapestry for two years!  At the moment the conservator in question is Albertina. She very kindly provided me with an update on progress. As you can see from the picture I’ve included here the cleaned tapestry is now being conserved on a frame in the Textile Conservation Studio. It is in the process of been given a complete support of fine linen scrim. Larger areas where loss is more pronounced are being supported with heavier linen.Troy Tapestry

I’ll add further updates about progress on work on this tapestry, and on other objects, in due course.  If you have any questions please feel free to post them below and I’ll do my best to answer them for you.  If I don’t know the answer myself, I’m sure that one of my colleagues will.

Click on the link that follows to view a short-film about conservation work on the War of Troy Tapestry

Conserving the Collection

Friday, June 29th, 2007

By Stuart Frost

With over 1800 objects to prepare for installation in the Medieval and Renaissance Europe galleries in autumn 2009 it isn’t surprising that there is a enormous amount of activity taking place behind the scenes at the V&A. 

IMG_9458Each object destined for the new displays will have been the focus of many different meetings and discussions before it finally takes its place in the galleries. How should the object be mounted, at what height and in which position? Which objects should be displayed with it and of these which is the most important? Does the object need additional lighting, and if so which is the best strategy for this object?  How long can the object be displayed for? Which aspects of the object are the most important to engage the visitor with? Where should the labels go and what additional graphics may be required?

Every object will undergo a conservation assessment. Many objects have already been assessed and as a result some of the larger artefacts have been undergoing conservation work for well over a year. There are two particularly interesting objects in the Textiles Conservation Studio at the moment.  One is a large tapestry featuring a scene from the Trojan War – I’ll write about that later. The other textile is a remarkable survival, a tunic of red wool with appliqué tapestry decoration. This is shown in the photograph above laid out in the studio for assessment, inspection and study. The tunic has been opened out to show the inside of the garment. If you look closely you may notice areas of brown staining on the back of the garment. The tunic was used to a dress a corpse and as the body decayed the fluids seeped through the woven woollen threads of the textile.

The tunic was worn by a man who lived and died in Egypt at some point during the seventh or eighth century AD. The image to the left shows a detail of the tapestry decoration. The colours are remarkably vivid for a textile of this date. You can see in the other images here that the tunic has been patched and repaired in recent times. Some repairs may be ancient and careful study of the stitching has already yielded a great deal of information. For example, in antiquity the areas of tapestry decoration may well have been taken from an old tunic and reused on the front of this one. Click on the images for a closer view and additional information about what you can see.

Coptic Tunic Museum No. 291-1891Tunics were a long-standing fashion in Roman and Byzantine dress and one that was adopted in Egypt. Close inspection of the tapestry shoulder-bands on this example has revealed the name of Allah in Arabic script, perhaps indicating that the male owner was a Muslim. Arab armies conquered Egypt in AD641 but Roman and Byzantine fashions like this co-existed alongside those of the new rulers for a long period of time.

Conservators and curators have been making the most of the opportunity to study the tunic in detail, and the results of this close scrutiny will be fed into the new displays.  You can see textile conservator Elizabeth-Anne Haldane at work in the picture to the right and curator Helen Persson is also currently researching the object. My thanks to both of them for taking the time to talk to me about the tunic.

In 2009 the tunic will be a centrepiece of a new subject display, Adorning the Dead 300-900, which will provide a moving insight into life in early medieval Europe through the objects that people were buried with.  If you have any questions that you’d like to ask about the tunic post them below and I’ll do my best to obtain answers for you.