Chemistry at Work: How Science sees art

Collections Care and Access
February 26, 2019

The Royal Society of Chemistry has been running Chemistry at Work events since 1991 to give school children the opportunity to meet scientists and see how chemistry and other natural sciences are used in the real world. Myself and Senior Scientist (Object Analysis) Dr Lucia Burgio (and student placements Mark Kearney and Maria Ines Carvalho), of the Science Section at the V&A, have collaborated with Derek Jones of Chemistry in Action in running events in Milton Keynes and Harlow for the past few years. Chemistry at Work events are a fantastic opportunity for children to see science applied in the context of art and design, perhaps inspiring them to consider a career in chemistry or conservation where science plays a vital role in the protection of art. My presentation called ‘How Science Sees Art’, shows how science is used to protect museum objects and how science reveals hidden stories within objects by using spectroscopic techniques and X-rays. There is also a short activity at the end showing how colours are used by artists and designers to hide images within their artwork.

Students doing some practical chemistry and science © SphereScience

Here is a short section of my presentation given at a Royal Society of Chemistry ‘Chemistry at Work’ event.

What colour is Jesus' cloak?
The Miraculous Draught of Fishes, cartoon, Raphael. The Royal Collection © 2017, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

At first glance looking at the Raphael Cartoon ‘The Miraculous Draught of Fishes’, on loan from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, the image shows Jesus’ cloak to be a creamy white colour. But take a closer look and pay particular attention to the reflection in the water.

The reflection in the water reveals the original colour
Detail of The Miraculous Draught of Fishes (The Royal Collection © 2017, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II) and Tapestry located opposite, lent by the Trustees of the 9th Duke of Buccleuch’s Chattels Fund © Victoria and Albert Museum

Now consider the question what colour ‘was’ Jesus’ cloak? The reflection in the water suggests that the original was likely to be a scarlet colour, as shown on the tapestry located opposite in room 48a of the Raphael Galleries at the V&A. The production of the tapestry was based on the Cartoon by Raphael and is a mirror image of the latter. Two different pigments have been used in the Cartoon, the pigment used in the cloak is fading faster than the pigment used in the reflection in the water. The original colour in the cloak of the Cartoon has been lost due to centuries of ageing and exposure to light. In terms of preserving the object for future generations, heritage scientists consider fading to be ‘damage’.

One of the roles science plays in the museum is to limit damage to objects by the effects of temperature, humidity, light, insects and pollutants, whilst still providing public access to the collections. Scientists use environmental monitoring equipment wherever objects are located.

Monitoring the museum’s environment

Monitoring only tells part of the story and by applying science we can reveal more of the hidden story. For example, below is an image of a gallery showing a heating pipe that is hidden behind the wall and is revealed using an infrared camera.

A heating pipe is revealed using a thermal camera

Scientists use different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum to gain more information from the object. The visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum is the range that humans can see in and is simply perceived as light and colour. Other animals have eyes adapted to see in other parts of the spectrum. For example, some snakes and fish can see in the infrared region and some birds, honeybees and crustaceans can see in ultraviolet. These animals see colours we can only imagine.

The electromagnetic spectrum

By using imaging techniques from other regions in the electromagnetic spectrum, more of the story of an object can be revealed. A routine X-ray of ‘View in a Garden with a red house beyond’ by John Constable uses X-rays to reveal the under-painting. How unexpected! And possibly a story for the junior scientists to uncover.

X-ray imaging reveals an interesting story
View in a Garden with a red house beyond, John Constable, and X-ray image showing the under-painting. © Victoria and Albert Museum


I would like to thank Paul Robins of the Photography department of the V&A for the X-ray imaging and Derek Jones of Chemistry in Action for his hard work in organising the events and all the inspirational talkers at these events. Please feel free to contact Derek or the Royal Society of Chemistry if you are a scientist and wish to present your work or if you are a teacher and want to find out more information regarding the Chemistry at Work events.


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