This post was written with Valentina Risdonne
A few weeks ago, members of the Science Team (Valentina Risdonne, Laboratory Co-ordinator, and interns Roberta Zanini and Christopher Foster) joined me in the Britain Galleries to conduct new investigations into a large wood panel (185 cm high by 121 cm wide). This majestic panel, depicting The Stoning of St Stephen, was made by the virtuoso carver Grinling Gibbons at the end of the 17th century.
We were keen to explore the panel in a new way – looking into nooks and crannies that until recently were inaccessible. Thanks to a recent AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council) refurbishment of the V&A Science Lab, we were able to deploy a portable Olympus IPLEX G Lite Endoscope, consisting of a long, thin fibre-optic cable ending with a small camera, and a Hirox digital microscope on a portable flexible arm, alongside a range of lenses for selecting different magnifications.
Looking at such a panel, especially because of its large size, a viewer feels drawn into the scene. Our idea was to take that further with the use of the endoscope, as it would literally allow us to enter the scene, look behind the figures and go inside the windows and the loggia.
The panel is made of several limewood boards assembled together. Some boards were carved before being joined, while others were first joined and then carved. The central scene showing the saint being stoned takes place in a grandiose architectural background. Some figures were carved in low relief, others nearly created as individual sculptures. The architecture surround is shown in an incredible simulated depth, with doors, windows and open loggia.
As we had already been able to observe, but not in detail, Gibbons only carved the elements that are visible to the spectator. Areas that are not directly visible from the front were only sketched or simply left with rough toolmarks. Details of the carving and the wood growth rings are visible in the images of the panel surface acquired with the digital microscope.
With the endoscope we began to look at the structure of the panels, and behind several figures on the foreground. One of the most enjoyable parts of the investigation was entering into the loggia at the top. There, Gibbons represented a few figures observing and reacting to the scene taking place lower down: the first figure on the left lifts their hands up in surprise or shock, a man wearing a turban leans on the balustrade looking toward the spectator, while a mother holds her child, both looking down. With the endoscope we looked behind the figures, and saw how the simulated architecture was created to give this incredible impression of depth. Here again, only the upper sections of the pilasters, those visible when looking at the panel, were carved. The lower half of the pilasters were not worked, and not even sketched. With the endoscope the rough toolmarks on the back of the figures’ heads are also visible.
For an investigation of this nature, many logistical aspects need to be planned in advance, such as the temporary closure of the gallery and the opening of the case. We are grateful to our Technical Services team, who facilitate our explorations.