In 2019, the V&A acquired a pair of Champagne standard lamps, designed by Salvador Dalí for the Surrealist patron, collector, collaborator and poet Edward James. The two standard lamps were commissioned by James for his Monkton House in West Sussex – a unique property which James had set about redecorating in the mid-1930s in an attempt to create ‘a complete Surrealist house’. (The V&A has in its collection the Mae West Lips sofa, also designed by Dalí for James’ house). One of the Champagne lamps features in the new Design 1900 – Now galleries, but before it could go on display both had to undergo a thorough process of cleaning.
The lamps were manufactured by Green & Abbot, a London-based furniture producer on Wigmore Street, in 1938 – 39. The name of the lamps comes from the fact that the columns are comprised of 10 champagne coupes. These are stacked one on top of the other, all standing on a shallow three-footed base in the shape of a papier mâché tray and decorated with painted tendrils of golden vine leaves. Within some of the coupes are removable ashtray inserts; there are currently eight sets between the two lamps, but it is likely that some are missing.
Upon arrival at the metal conservation studio the lamps were in a poor condition. The original surface coating was breaking down allowing visible brush strokes and oxidation to appear where the coating had been lost. It was also evident that the lamps had been stored in a damp environment in the past. As a result, corrosion pustules were erupting through the coating and spreading across the surface. Additionally, the black painted bases had numerous scratches, paint losses and chips.
When deciding on a course of treatment it is useful to first clarify how the object was made and what materials were used. To aid our understanding of the objects we performed X-ray Flourescence analysis. This process can tell us what the surface composition of the metal is and what coatings may have been applied. The results revealed that the base and ashtray inserts were comprised of pure copper, the champagne coupes and base feet were a cupro-nickel alloy, and the coating was shellac. Metallic finishes are often coloured with metal flakes such as bronze powder, so it is unusual that none were found in the coating.
The conservation aim was to remove and reduce the corrosion pustules without negatively altering the appearance of the surface. It was decided that mechanical removal (using scalpels, abrasive pastes or rubbers) of the corrosion would not be a suitable method due to the risk of damage to the coating, therefore a chemical treatment would be required.
Chelating agents were selected for cleaning trials. Chelating agents bind with the metal ions within the corrosion allowing them to be removed from the surface of the object. Great care must be taken when using these chemicals as they can deplete the metal surface. For example, in alloys containing zinc they can cause ‘de-zincification’, whereby the zinc is drawn out of the alloy leaving the surface disfigured. After trials, a commercial chemical cleaner Biox Conservation Gel® was selected. The Biox was applied to small areas with a brush and left for between 5 – 15 minutes. Once the reaction had occurred the gel was removed and the area was thoroughly rinsed with de-ionised water and then with acetone, which had previously been tested and found not to disturb the shellac layer. Ultimately, the corrosion removal made a dramatic impact on the visual appearance of the lamps and the metal surface is now brighter and chemically stable.
Despite the object being chemically stable, there were still a number of areas that had been irreversibly damaged by the corrosion. Given the decorative nature of the lamps and their purpose as artistic objects intended for display, it was deemed appropriate to conceal the visual damage to the metal surface. Following discussions with the curators, it was decided to touch-in areas where the loss of the coating was most disfiguring. Acrylic paint was used as it is easily reversible in acetone. Three different tones of gold were selected: imperial, classic and royal – all of which were mixed with Vandyke brown loose pigment to match the colour of the lamps. The colour had to be adapted throughout the process due to the variety of tones across the surface of the object. The chips to the paint surface in the tray were colour-matched using Gamblin Conservation Colors® in ivory black and burnt umber. After the touching-in was complete the whole object was given a light coat of clear microcrystalline wax and gently buffed to give an even surface texture.