Joyce Hill Stoner, David Scott, Barbara Whitney Keyser, Pamela Hatchfield, & J. Claire Dean
ERMAHERMENS, ED.LOOKING THROUGH PAINTINGS: THE STUDY OF PAINTING TECHNIQUES AND MATERIALS IN SUPPORT OF ART HISTORICAL RESEARCH. London: Archetype Publications and Baarn, The Netherlands:Uitgeverij de Prom, 1998. 519 pages. Hardcover, $87.95. (AIC Members receive 10% discount.) Available from Archetype Publications, 6 Fitzroy Square, London WIP 6DX.
Scholarship in the field of paintings conservation has been significantly enhanced by excellent publications in the last three years. Looking Through Paintings is one of three collections of papers published since 1995 on the history of artists' materials and techniques, now called “technical art history.” Erma Hermens, the editor, notes that Looking Through Paintings grew out of the great interest in technical history demonstrated by the June 1995 symposium in Leiden, Historical Painting Techniques, Materials, and Studio Practice. David Bomford, in his introduction to Looking Through Paintings credits Joyce Plesters of the National Gallery, London, as the author who defined the parameters of technical art history in the IIC Lisbon Conference of 1972 and one of its finest practitioners. (The Art and the Making and Making and Meaning series, 1989–1997, also from the National Gallery, London, are additional outstanding publications with more specific topics within this tradition.) Bomford himself helped to steer the third recent compilcation, the preprints of the IIC Dublin Congress of September 1998, Painting Techniques: History, Materials and Studio Practice.
All three publications provide must-read material for a graduate student in paintings conservation or any professional interested in paintings of the periods discussed. The best papers of all three are characterized by conscientious study of documentary evidence, including careful combing of contemporary manuscripts or artists' correspondence, combined with sophisticated use of analytical data from microscopic cross sections, media identification, infrared reflectography, and x-radiography, etc. A number of the same authors appear in two or three of these publications, usually on slightly different subjects within their areas of expertise. Some of these authors have earned or are earning doctoral degrees, and the quality of their research design and writing skills reflects a higher scholarly standard than many conservation publications a decade ago. The ante has been notably upped for the degree of research now expected for submission of papers to professional congresses.
Looking Through Paintings contains 21 papers on European paintings largely from the middle ages to the 19th century. Others might choose to fault its Eurocentricity, but this is the subject area in which primary research has focused in some of the most technically advanced museums in the world. The products of these research efforts should provide worthy models for future publications in other disciplines and subjects. (The one paper that is included on contemporary art is not as well organized or researched as most of the other offerings.) There seems to have been an attempt to include papers by conservators, scientists, and art historians, but I regret that the backgrounds of the authors were not consistently provided; this information would have enhanced the publication and further contextualized the commentaries. The worst thing about the book is its physical weight. Due to the high quality coated paper, no doubt greatly enhancing the many excellent photographic illustrations, it is unduly heavy to carry on a train, but certainly worth the effort.
Some of the contributions are outstanding about one artist or one type of material and others have broader applications. Two of the broader articles that I found exemplary are: “Painters' Methods to Prevent Colour Changes Described in Sixteenth to Early Eighteenth Century Sources on Oil Painting Techniques” by Margriet van Eikema Hommes and “French Painting Technique in the Seventeenth and Early Eighteenth Centuries and De La Fontaine's Académie de la Peinture (Paris 1679)” by Ann Massing. If you have only a little time to read, read at least these two papers.
“Painters' Methods” combines illustrative color plates and details, a few cross sections, use of recipes, treatises, and letters, study of guild ordinances, and knowledge of working methods and layering to provide immediately useful material for the understanding of paintings and how they changed with age, and how much artists were aware of these changes during their life-times. It is extensively referenced and demonstrates a wide knowledge of international treatises and artists. The author notes that in order to impede discoloration, painters consciously altered the type of oil employed for certain pigments, limited the percentage of oil, intentionally mixed colors to a lighter shade, adjusted degree of grinding, adjusted porosity of grounds, avoided certain pigments, layered certain pigments systematically, realized the increasing transparency of oil paint, and tested pigments for permanence.
Ann Massing's 60-page paper on “French Painting Technique” could well be a book in itself. Massing spoke on a similar topic at Leiden and also provided a fascinating paper on 18th-century French restoration policy for the Studies in the History of Painting Restoration published in 1998. She first walks the reader through published treatises, providing relevant summaries. Next she describes in detail the painters' tools, how they were used and how they would affect the final product. She provides a chart of pigments and mixtures recommended by various painters, discusses binding media, additives, varnishes, supports, grounds, and panels. She then handles the evolution of the teaching methods of the Academy. At the end, she provides 125 detailed references and a 13-page appendix of the De La Fontaine treatise.
Sally Woodcock and Melissa Katz are authors who appear in all three publications, Looking Through Paintings, Leiden of 1995, and Dublin of 1998. Their entries in all cases are informative, useful, and quite fun to read. For Looking Through Paintings, Woodcock provides a thorough and amusing description of the use of “Life-size Lay Figures” in 19th-century London, including the cost, the advantages of renting and sharing the figures among artists, how folds and drapery were placed on the mannequins, and how lay figures could be substituted for models to maintain modesty and avoid gossip. Her illustrations are also entertaining. Woodcock's other topics included the contents of the Roberson Archive (Leiden) and how painters often avoided discussing technical concerns in their biographies and autobiographies (Dublin). In Looking Through Paintings, Katz provides a scholarly and witty consideration of “Holman Hunt on Himself: Textural Evidence in Aid of Technical Analysis.” She provides an overview of writings relevant to the study and present Hunt's “eccentricities and insecurities” along with his attempts to sculpt his own immortality. Hunt or his wife wrote instructions on the backs of his paintings regarding stretching, framing under glass, varnishing, etc. Hunt expressed virulent concerns over the stability of artist's materials but also contradicted himself. Katz wrote a shorter entry on Hunt and other aspects of the pre-Raphaelite technique for Leiden and presented a paper on Spanish mediaeval polychromy in Dublin, featuring excellent visual use of manuscript sources.
Leslie Carlyle also appears in all three collections. For Looking Through Paintings, she wrote “Design, Technique and Execution: the Dichotomy between Theory and Craft in Nineteenth-century British Instruction Manuals on Oil Painting.” This is an excellent, although short, stand-alone article that explained the heritage we still have today of artists proudly disadaining knowledge of the craft or “mechanics” of their art. She ends with a plea for more collaboration between art historians and technical research. Her offering is grouped with short papers from a scientist and a curator in a section called “interdisciplinary co-operation.” In his paper on “Some Reflections upon the Impact of Scientific Examination on Art Historical Research,” J.R.J. van Asperen de Boer observes, “In art history it is considered legitimate to look only for evidence in support of an hypothesis. In the sciences omitting or not considering unwelcome results from experimental data, for instance, is considered cheating.” It is disappointing that the art historian chosen for this section, John Leighton, does not respond to this observation in “Taking a Closer Look: Art Historians, Restorers and Scientists.” He notes that he offers only a “brief, personal view on this issue.” Since his experience is based only on his work at the National Gallery, London, it is almost as if someone trapped in a bakery has been asked to describe world hunger. This trio was the only grouped section in the book; it is unfortunate they did not cooperate more in creating this section on co-operation. Carlyle, however, has been a dependable source for excellent information at a number of conferences; for Leiden she wrote “What We Can Learn from Documentary Sources on Artists' Materials and Techniques” and for Dublin, she co-authored a paper on the formulation and properties of meglips.
Other more specific papers I found especially useful include: “White and Golden Tin Foil in Applied Relief Decoration: 1240–1530,” by Josephine A. Darrah. It is an excellent, well illustrated discussion of the original building up of reliefs and press brocades on polychrome sculpture and painted furniture; how adhesives, foils, lacquers and glazes have broken down; and how wax was often an integral layer (which would be severely altered by any heat treatments). (Darrah wrote about three “new” pigments for Leiden: tin white, burnt green earth, and cobalt oxide colorant.)
“Thoughts on the Use of the Green Glaze called ‘copper resinate’ and its Colour-changes,” by Renate Woudhuysen-Keller and Paul Woudhuysen, reconstructs variations on the preparation of copper resinate to investigate why it discolors sometimes and not others. Work is still in progress, and she had written earlier about verdigris and copper resinate for Leiden. The copper resinate solutions containing more oil in proportion to resin age into a more solid and elastic layer, which will also be less affected by oxygen from the air.
“The Glow in late Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Dutch Paintings,” by Paul Taylor, takes a very focused topic—the concept of “glowing flesh tints” and a warm “glowing manner”—and discusses the history of Dutch art before and after Badens brought Italian techniques into the Netherlands. The author notes that “warm shadows appear with increasing frequency during the course of the seventeenth century…by the end of the period, there were some who felt that this stylistic quirk had gone too far.”
Nico Van Hout discusses “Meaning and Development of the Ground Layer in Seventeeth Century Painting” and provides a guide for understanding the terms “imprimatura,” “ground,” “gesso,” “tüchlein,” and “sizing,” and pays particular attention to the paintings of Rubens.
Ella Hendricks provides a model article on the techniques of the artist Johannes Cornelisz Verspronk. She notes, “Seventeenth century sources considered that the beauty and vivacity of a painting's colour depended upon a good priming.” She analyzed 19 samples from flesh colors and provided multiple photographic details and clear cross sections to prove her points. Verspronk used more comprehensive underlayers of shading in the backgrounds from the 1640s onward.
Reflecting a portion of her doctoral study, Zahira Veliz contributed “Aspects of Drawing and Painting in Seventeenth Century Spanish Paintings,” discussing the colore-disegno debate and treatises by Vicente Carducho, Francisco Pacheco, and Jusepe Martínez. Veliz also contributed an outstanding paper on the restoration methods used for the paintings in the Spanish Royal Collections following a fire in 1734 to the 1998 publication on the history of painting restoration.
Much assistance with the understanding of Dutch paintings is provided by three articles: Jorgen Wadum lists the different Antwerp brands found on early 17th-century panels, their design, size and other characteristics in chronological order; Erman Hermens and Arie Wallert provide many detailed recipes from “The Pekstok Papers” of the last quarter of the seventeeth century; and Ineke Pey describes in depth the “sample book” of the Amsterdam paintware trader, Michiel Hafkenscheid (1772–1846). Arie Wallert worked with Joris Dik to compare two still-life paintings by Jan van Huysum.
I hope I have provided the details to indicate what a pithy and important collection of information this book represents and also its areas of strength and omission. Except for a fleeting reference to Andy Warhol, this book does not cover American art or paintings from origins outside of Europe. However, it provides a wealth of substantive background for visual understanding of the physical presence of major European paintings. On page 119, Margriet van Eikema Hommes comments, “To an important extent, the knowledge about the durability of materials and techniques was handed down within the studio tradition from master painter to pupil.” I thought to myself how that had also been true in the teaching of methods of the examination of paintings until the publication of such books as this—gloriously illustrated and copiously footnoted.Joyce HillStonerArt Conservation Department, University of Delaware, 303 Old College, Newark, DE 19716-2515JOSEPH B.LAMBERT, TRACES OF THE PAST: UNRAVELING THE SECRETS OF ARCHAEOLOGY THROUGH CHEMISTRYAddison-Wesley, Mass.: Helix Books, 1997. 319 pages, hardcover $30. ISBN 0-201-40928-3.
Traces of the Past is an entertaining book that describes how chemistry has forged our development in the use of materials—from stone to metals. It also describes an ever-increasing array of scientific tools to characterize these accomplishments and provides important data on things as fundamental as human lineage, the spread of disease, and the geographical origin of rocks and minerals. The book is sensibly organized into chapters that begin with the lithic and ceramic and moves via color, glass and organics, to metals and humans. The book also contains a useful glossary, a list for reading, and a combined author and subject index.
Conservators will find the book invaluable in providing a succinct reading on the nature of the materials they often treat, but which they often fail to appreciate in terms of the chemical and analytical potential that the materials represent. In a similar vein, one could say that the author is somewhat unware of the potential for chemical studies of the degradation, deterioration, and conservation that the archaeological corpus represents. As such, there are points of references to Archaeometry but no references to the Journal of the American Institute for Conservation, and only a couple to the international Studies in Conservation. Stone, dyes, pigments, amber, wood and ceramics are subjects often discussed in the pages of these journals, and much of this information is primarily scientific in content and descriptive in the same sense as papers on technological subjects in archaeometric journals.
One of the strengths of the book is a helpful update of the current state of provenancing studies of materials. The author also includes a good description of the analytical information that is necessary to undertake these provenance studies. I found particularly useful the chapters dealing with diet and trace elements, isotopes and food, and genetic history from blood analysis—areas of reading that most of us last tackled during our student days when following general courses on the nature of materials. One of the beneficial aspects of this book is, therefore, the breadth of its coverage. Its lack of depth could be considered a drawback. An example of this deficiency is that no references to the work of Newton on glass, glass technology, or glass deterioration occurs in the text despite the well-known volume on the subject by Newton and Davison. Brill, the other major contributor to glass studies, does get several citations, but this is a typical feature of the book as a whole. Comprehensive coverage is not easy to achieve in one volume covering scores of different materials. Therefore, the book cannot be relied upon to provide an overall view on any particular subject. Rather, its educative strength is the wide net that the author has cats, even though some potentially important things have slipped through.
The publishers are to be greatly commended for being able to produce this hardback volume of 319 pages, including 16 color figures, for an extremely reasonable price of $30. It is a pity that similar conservation texts cannot be produced hardback for this kind of expense. Perhaps the publishers are anticipating a large volume of sales. In which case, let this reviewer help them in their endeavor and finish by saying that for $30 this book is excellent value for the money.DavidScottSenior Scientist, Museum Research Laboratory, Getty Conservation Institute, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Suite 700, Los Angeles, CA 90049DAVIDPHILLIPS, EXHIBITING AUTHENTICITY. Manchester: Manchester University Press/New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997. 234 pages, hardcover $59.95, ISBN O 7190 4796 X; softcover $24.95, ISBN 07190 4797 8.
David Phillips is a former curator who made practical decisions about the conservation and presentation of artworks; he now teaches in the museum studies program at the University of Manchester. He is writing for a broad spectrum of museum professionals and situates the activity of conservation in the context of museum practice. The thrust of the book, paradoxical as it may sound, is to save conservation and curatorship from the threat of absolute relativism by showing the limitations of “authenticity” as a basis for practice. The result is not only a healthy relativism but also a novel way of looking at the aims of conservation in relation to curatorship.
To appreciate Phillips's contribution to the philosophy of conservation, it is important to note current trends in museum studies. Part of the post-modernist movement that swept the humanities in the 1980s and 1990s has undermined simple notions of “truth” in scholarship and in its extreme manifestations considers any interpretation of art or history as valid as any other. It also attacks museums and other cultural institutions as vehicles of social control and political power. (Ivan Gaskell surveys this literature in Art Bulletin 77 (December 1995), 690–5). Phillips points out that the “old” art history and conservation have been dominated by a sort of naive realism, in which good practice in attribution, conservation, or display assumes that the experience of the museum visitor can be an “authentic” experience of the artist's intentions or of the past. Unfortunately, he finds that this basis for authority is fragile if not spurious. Thus he seeks a sounder basis for practice between the extremes of naive realism and absolute relativism.
The book's eight chapters divide neatly into an introduction on the recent controversy about the role of musuems; four chapters on the practice of attribution by art historians; two chapters on conservation, which like art history, has based its standards of practice on the ideal of authenticity; and a closing chapter that presents a positive alternative basis for presentation of artworks in museums. There are detailed references to each chapter, an index, and halftone plates of illustrative cases. Phillips also includes a thematic bibliography under the heads of “The cult of saints,” “Art in specific political or market contexts,” “Traditional art historical methods,” “Decision-making and the law,” “Forgery,” “Conservation,” “The psychology of perception and aesthetics,” and “Representation and framing”—a remarkable array of topics to organize into a single argument. Phillips unifies this diverse material by using a concept of “seeing” as sense data plus knowledge and expectation. He also employs parallel metaphors of “mapping,” “performing,” and “framing” to characterize the work of art historians who identify, conservators who physically intervene, and curators who display artworks.
Chapter 1, “The cult of saints and the cult of art,” notes the parallels between canonizing saints and controlling relics in sacred collections and canonizing works of art in museums. Both church and museum represent values outside the mundane world of economic, social, and political interaction, but in practice cannot remain uninfluenced by these factors. Phillips's point is that the justification of museum practice by “authenticity” only masks problems that lend themselves to explanation by political analysis and burdens good practice with paradoxical meanings.
Chapter 2 sets out the “connoisseurs' paradox”: connoisseurs make attributions in order to identify objects that provide an experience of a kind that no others can elicit (such as the aesthetic experience that can only be evoked by looking at a genuine work by, say, Raphael or Rembrndt). However, the identification depends on properties that play only a minor role in evoking the experience (such as layer structure in a cross section or documents in the historical record). He then invokes the dual nature of “seeing” to ask, “Is it the object (appearance of the artwork) or experience (knowledge about the artwork) that is being evaluated?” Phillips then gives a brief history of connoisseurship, noting the differences in qualities of paintings that have been valued through history, as well as historical hanging practices that encouraged comparisons between what were formerly considered the “excellencies” of paintings.
Chapter 3, “Evidence,” considers the problems of weighting the relative importance of visual/stylistic, historical/documentary, and scientific/analytical kinds of evidence, which are all necessary in attribution. The principal illustrative case is the Rembrandt Project, which was forced to abandon a simple three-category judgment (definitely Rembrandt, definitely not Rembrandt, and “problematic”) in favor of a wide spectrum of degrees of authorship. The notion of “authentic” Rembrandt dissolves into a range of relative probabilities and mixed cases. Chapter 4, “Verdicts,” continues the theme that attributions are never certain because there is seldom sufficient evidence in ambiguous cases to resolve the question. Here Phillips looks at parallel processes involved in making legal judgments and statistical methods of assessing groups of “clues” to establish probabilities of accurate judgment in open-ended situations. Finally, in Chapter 5, “The judges in the dock,” Phillips critically examines the entire attribution process. While its purpose ostensibly is to endow works of art with transcendental properties above and outside of market values, the prestige imparted by pronouncements that certain works are “authentic” cannot help increasing their market value. Furthermore, museum displays of works of modern artists inestimably increase their monetary worth. Finally, curators are shoppers in the art market. In effect, the “map” of attributions cannot help making art—as post-modernists would put it—a “coded classification of social and political power.” However, Phillips concludes that, even so, the work of attribution has value as an increasingly accurate and detailed “map of the production of artifacts” as long as we remember that it cannot help being selective and conditioned by our values. The metaphor of “mapping” is apt because a map resembles terrain enough to orient a traveler, and a map can always be made more accurate and more detailed; but no one mistakes the map for the terrain.
The next two chapters are directly relevant to conservators. Chapter 6, “Conservation and condition,” develops the idea that conservation, like attribution, is based on unexamined assumptions that mask the reality that there is more to conservation than fastidious technical good practice. Paralleling the connoisseurs' paradox is the conservators' paradox: the values of “original condition” are often irreconcilable with respect for the effects of the “hand of time” on artworks. Phillips attempted to define “authenticity” for conservators as a balance of these two factors, but in choosing a state in which a damaged work is to be presented, how do we avoid either “restoring” the work to a near-forgery or exhibiting it in a state that bears little resemblance to its original appearance? Phillips's point may not be new to conservators educated in European traditions, but in English-speaking countries there has been a reluctance to admit that interventive (treatment) conservation not only is not, but cannot be just a matter of technical good practice. Rather, it requires interpretative decisions that impose values of our present on works of the past. Therefore, the naive realist view that we present works “authentically” or choose a treatment “objectively” is impossible in practice. The chapter ends with another key question: If we cannot choose a state or condition of the work without making interpretative judgements, thereby undermining the idea that we can appeal to “authenticity” to ground our decisions, do we have any basis for making treatment choices?
Chapter 7, “Conservation and intention,” continues this analysis of the elusiveness of “authenticity.” Phillips first notes that the very fact that site-specific works have been placed in museums violates their makers' intent. In addition, works are often so altered by natural ageing, neglect, and vandalism—and above all by previous campaigns of restoration—that the artists' intent cannot be retrieved. Finally, the mental world of the original maker is often not available to us.
Having shown that “authenticity” cannot serve as a basis for treatment choice, he nevertheless seeks to have responsible practice from the opposite view—that all physical states of the object are irretrievable moments in its life, all ever-changing and all equally valuable. It is here that Phillips presents an arresting and novel contribution to these problems. Hitherto, museum professionals have assumed that there is a simple relationship among the physical characteristics of works of art, their appearance to an observer, and their meaning. Phillips develops this point by returning to the dual nature of perception as sense data plus knowledge. He argues that the link of physical characteristics (or condition) of the work is only weakly connected to meaning, which is socially defined and part of the “knowledge about” side of perception. However, the link between physical characteristics and appearance is strong and it is here that conservators can study and preserve the ways in which artworks achieve their visual effectiveness. These include historical concerns with pictorial effects, such as distribution of light and shade, linearity, and coloring.
Phillips supports this position by proposing that meaningful response to artworks is a combination of perceptual factors that are more or less “hardwired” into our nervous systems and culturally-defined significance that varies in space and time. The former is apprehensible cross-culturally—including past epochs of our own culture. The latter may only be recoverable by scholarship and study. Phillips concludes that “Physical contrivances of perception are not the site of fixed intention, but do serve as the focus for changing meanings” (173). Unfortunately, it is just these “contrivances” (such as tonal balance) that are often changed by natural ageing and deliberate interventions. We must remember that when treatment is being considered, there are three alternatives: preserve the “perceptual contrivances” as they are, retrieve or recover them if they have altered, or change them. In addition, we must consider whether these devices are recoverable (that is, known by scholarship and physically available), disputed (as in debates about artist-applied “patina”), or irrecoverably destroyed and/or unknown (as many early Italian panels). Perceptual devices in artworks, he concludes, provide a more useful focus for choosing an intervention than “intention.” Again, as with attribution, we should begin to think of a range of possibilities for the appropriate “re-presentation” of artworks. Phillips then likens the work of the conservator to the interpreter of period music, in which a score written down by a composer can be realized in sound in a variety of ways, hence his metaphor of “performing” for intervention in the physical substance of artworks. On this view, the conservator embraces the interpretative aspects of treatment and joins the art historian as one of the “qualified persons” who defines the social life of artworks in the present.
In the final chapter, “Curators and Authenticity,” Phillips addresses the question, “If museum experience cannot be literally ‘authentic,’ what kind of experience should it be?” The strength of museums, as opposed to theme parks and other ersatz cultural experiences, is the presence of real artworks and the historical reality of their production. Phillips adds that we should not forget that the third unique reality of the museum is the museum itself, the way it represents its collections, and its visitors. Here he argues that a fitting metaphor for what the museum does is “framing” its contents and the experience of its visitors. As a frame, the museum is indeed unavoidably selective and fosters or channels certain kinds of awareness. However, he concludes, it can do so in a healthy, self-conscious way that steers between the usual poles of “conventional taxonomy” and “aggressive innovation.” Instead of presenting an opaque wall of dogmatism and authority, it can make its visitors aware that it truly does offer an oasis of special values apart from ordinary experience.
The foregoing exposition of Phillip's argument has been detailed to indicate its richness. Much of the importance of Exhibiting Authenticity for conservators is its relating the role of the conservator to those of the art historian and curator and thereby moving conservation past its stereotyped image as a narrow specialty in the museum professions. Some may fear that it weakens the conservator's position by pointing out the relativities and imponderables of our profession. However, Phillips refrains from perpetuating the unhelpful, if not destructive, polarization of “scientific” versus “humanstic” schools of conservation. He does not attack the professional competence of conservators or the value of science in examination and treatment. Rather, he articulates the needs for judgement and scholarship in conservation that many conservators have already quitely acknowledged. Most exciting, he opens up a potentially rich interdisciplinary area of research that would connect technical studies with historical and philosophical scholarship in the history of visual culture. The history of the perceptual devices used in art and the ways these were understood and valued in various artistic traditions is an underworked topic in art history and one that conservators have barely tapped. One fruitful example, now that a wide variety of varnishes are available to the conservator, is the twin realization that there is no single varnish that is suitable for every application and that choice of an appropriate varnish depends largely on the function of the surface of a painting. Historical art theory of pictorial devices such as perspective, color theory, and chiaroscuro can also be examined in terms of their implications for cleaning and compensation. In summary, Phillips reframes the deep structure of activities that conservators perform every day in a way that points toward an enlarged role for conservators—a role that would make us equal partners with curators in interpreting the artworks under our common care.Dr.Barbara WhitneyKeyserArt Conservation Program, Department of Art, Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario K7L 3N6CAROLBROWN, FIONAMACALISTER, AND MARGOTWRIGHT, EDS., CONSERVATION IN ANCIENT EGYPTIAN COLLECTIONS. London: Archetype Publications, 1995. 184 pages, paperback, £17.50 ($26). Available from the United Kingdom Institute for Conservation, Archaeology Section, and International Academic Projects, Fitzroy Sq., London WIP 605. ISBN 1873132 808
In 1988, the archeology section of the United Kingdom Institute for Conservation held a conference on the conservation of ancient Egyptian materials. That small volume of conference proceedings proved to be an important and well-used reference tool for a growing number of conservators who were faced with the treatment of such artifacts. These conservators adapted treatment techniques from related disciplines as varied as ethnographic and architectural conservation, refining them for use on ancient materials. As soon as this area had been presented as a focal point, interest grew dramatically and the second conference on the subject became a necessity.
The papers presented at the July 1995 conference span a range of subjects—from textiles, cartonnage, and papyrus, to polychromed wood, human remains, ceramics, faience, pigments, stone, and metalwork. In addition, the papers include information on more general topics such as gallery installations and collections care. The volume represents authors from England, France, the United States, and Egypt. Some of the authors work with Egyptian materials within the context of a much larger and more varied collection. Others work exclusively with the examination and treatment of antiquities from Egypt, both in situ and in the museum. It is somewhat surprising that with the exception of H. Jaeschke's contribution on the treatment of stone on site, and possible causes of deterioration of the sphinx presented by Nakhla and Hubacek, site work is underrepresented—both in the excavation and recording documentation of new finds, and the difficulties in protecting antiquities in their original environment. This subject perhaps forms the basis for an additional conference.
The order in which the papers is presented seems somewhat random. It might have been appropriate to group the general papers together, followed by technical studies, and then treatment-oriented papers according to the materials involved. The book is well designed and pleasing to leaf through. However, in well-used copies, the pages tend to come loose from their bindings.
Gänsicke's contribution on the management of the Egyptian collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is the broadest in scope for this publication, encompassing the history of one of the most well-known collections of Egyptian antiquities in the United States today. It describes some of the problems inherent in housing very large collections in older buildings, and some of the musuem's attempts to solve difficult storage and exhibition problems. These include the use of microclimate technologies, as well as programs developed for collections sharing with other institutions. Pearlstein focuses on the challenges inherent in preparing more than 500 objects for display in new gallery space, and the preparation of safe enclosures for these objects. She also vividly describes the type of extremely complicated treatment history that many excavated objects have, which in itself mirrors the progress of conservation technology and technique. Conservators of ancient Egyptian artifacts frequently find themselves evaluating and treating the effects of previous treatments before they can approach the problems presented by the antiquities themselves. Debate on the subject of what constitutes an appropriate appearance for the materials of antiquity has continued to evolve throughout the history of archaecology, and serves to complicate, or at least inform, the process of arriving at optimal treatment methods.
Simkin and McDonagh briefly describe the logistics of a precipitious relocation of ethnographic and Egyptian collections as a result of urgent problems with the building structure in which they were housed. It is disappointing that details of the analysis of dust generated since 1987 were not provided or compared with earlier samples, and that there was no mention of either the nature of previously deposited pollutants and particulates (presumably significant in a building once heated with coal), or their potential effect on the fragile surfaces of these objects. Although specific objects from the collection are referenced, the materials at risk are not clearly defined. Were many stone and ceramic objects at risk, in addition to organic materials? The papers describe the consolidation treatment of several wood and fiber objects, including coffin lids previously applied with a picture varnish, as well as the minimal treatment of a wrapped mummy.
Although many papers include analytical work, some fall completely under the heading of technical study. Using polarized light microscopy, X-ray diffraction, and X-ray fluorescence, Green has characterized pigments taken from a variety of substrates, including papyri, textile, cartonnage, wood, ivory, ceramic, wall-paintings, and pigment blocks. Her analytical methods are thoroughly described, and several interesting observations on the alteration of pigments used in antiquity are presented. For example, the formation of basic copper chloride or malachite as deterioration products of Egyptian blue (a calcium copper silicate), the darkening of Egyptian blue, accounted for by devitrification, and the sensitivity of orpiment of fading upon exposure to light. She also describes the deterioration of realgar to yellow pararealgar, and orpiment, as it gives off sulfur and alters pigments adjacent to it, itself degrading to white arsenic oxide. Some unusual pigments were also found, including a magnesium calcium carbonate (huntite).
Another technical study identified the use of ground and pigments to decorate the surface of a calcite figure of Pepy I not previously thought to have been painted. Krumrine deduces the long and interesting history of damage and repair of this object in part by the examination of silicone molds of drill holes used in the repair of the sculpture, finding that many date from antiquity. The subsequent reconstruction of the object is sympathetic to the information revealed in its examination, allowing some ancient drillholes to remain visible. Information gathered in the examination of this object informs both the nature of the reconstruction as well as its aesthetics. In another paper on the subject of stone, and one of the only papers dealing with site work, Nakhla and Hubacek identified siallitic weathering as the deterioration mechanism at work on the sphinx, resulting in the enrichment of silicate content of the limestone, and presented the results of trials using alkaline silicate consolidation as a possible method for its stabilization.
Schorsch presents a thorough technical examination of gold and silver beads from the burial of Wah, dating from the early 12th dynasty. In addition to the use of silver in such large quantities, itself unusual before the New Kingdom, the method used to join the halves of the ball beads employs the rarely observed use of flanges, probably to increase surface area and improve the strength of the joins. Although the mechanical attributes of the joins have been characterized, the manner in which the metallurgical component of the join is carried out remains unclear because of the difficulties of conducting technical studies with extremely limited samples from ancient materials. The examination and conservation of an unusually large (82 cm in height) gilded bronze standing female figure was presented by Delange, Mantova, and Meyohas. This figure was brought into the collection of the Louvre as early as 1826, and dates from the 12th to 26th dynasties, a period in which bronze casting flourished. Features such as the eyes were once inlaid, the stones set in calcite tinted with pigments, and the surface gilded in a manner more commonly found on wood in which the surface is covered with a gesso-like white preparation—here, calcium carbonate with an organic binder—to serve as a ground for the gilding. The treatment of this figure included the stabilization and removal of corrosion products and the consolidation of ground and gliding.
Three papers focus on the examination and treatment of wood coffins. The first serves as a model for the thorough examination, stabilization, treatment, and preparation of an elaborately polychromed late 4th century sarcophagus for display at the Getty. Presented by Elston, this sarcophagus may be one of the oldest examples of Christian funerary art found in Egypt. Its components were extensively studied, including characterization by C-14 dating of wood and linen, identification of a polysaccharide binder and organic glue for the gypsum and calcite ground and pigments. Its structure and condition were further characterized by radiography and extensive documentation of its condition, old restoration materials removed, the surface consolidated using methyl cellulose, the coffin reconstructed, and linen components humidified, unfolded, and stabilized. An innovative support system was developed as part of the structure of the climate-controlled case housing the object. The discussion of examination and treatment of a 21st dynasty polychromed wood coffin by Watkinson and Brown addressed the challenges presented by materials used in previous interventions and reconstructed the post excavation treatment history of the coffin, portions of which may date from early in the 18th century. A fragmentary coffin lid dating from the 22nd dynasty was examined and treated by Narkiss and Wellman. In a creative use of techniques developed to evaluate food contamination by thin layer chromatography and scanning electron microscopy, this project attempted to determine whether dung was used in the daub filler material employed in the fabrication of the coffin. They identified various plant remains in the filler, and although their observations suggest at least some use of animal waste in the plastering material, their results could not confirm the use of dung. This paper illustrates the potential in studying objects in poor condition or of crude design. These objects have often escaped attention because they are low priorities for exhibition, with the benefit that they tend to be free of contamination from earlier conservation treatments. A great deal can be learned from their examination. For this reason, a minimalist approach toward their conservation seems preferable. Although stabilization is certainly important, the issue of which consolidants might alter the materials least or leave them more easily retreatable is not discussed; we might also question attempts to clean or otherwise alter the appearance of the object if its primary value is in its research potential.
The next group of papers includes mummies and cartonnage. Melville examined a Theban unwrapped mummy from the 21st–22nd dynasty, reconstructing the medical history and aspects of the mummification process by CAT scan and radiography. The paper also discusses the stabilization of the body as well as additional work, but the justification for more cosmetic aspects of the treatment is unclear. The issue of whether to treat human remains, to what extent, and how those decisions relate to the issue of exhibiting them continues to be a subject of great concern. Johnson et al. describe the examination and treatment of a Ptolemaic burial ensemble, also from Thebes, including a body, cartonnage cover and mask. Like many of the treatments described in this publication, this treatment was complicated by materials added in previous attempts to stabilize the ensemble such as beeswax and cardboard. It should serve as a reminder for conservators to remain circumspect about the overzealous addition of modern materials to ancient objects, keeping in mind that the materials we add today will further complicate the needs of collections tomorrow. These considerations are balanced against the need for access and appreciation of objects by the public, and the heroics sometimes required to restore an acceptable appearance. To that end, a technique for reshaping a deformed cartonnage coffin using acrylic resins rather than humidity is presented by R. Jaeschke. Fragments of another seriously deformed object, the linen shroud of Resti, were reshaped and stabilized by Morgan and Cruickshank who applied a lining, reactivating a cellulose ether adhesive on a hot table by controlling humidification levels with minimal application of heat. This presentation includes a thoughtful explanation of the purpose and intent of the treatment and their impact on the information revealed by the object.
A careful study of the potential effects of consolidants on painted papyrus subjected to lining removal is presented by Leach and Green, who discovered, as a fortuitous result of the aging studies conducted, that the use of isinglass as a consolidant had a protective effect against the light fading of orpiment.
In the only paper in the volume that relates to treatment work conducted onsite, H. Jaeschke describe the removal of heavy deposits of soot, dust, and organic material from the surface of limestone and sandstone reliefs at Luxor and Abydos. Some of the limitations of working in the field are clearly evident in the use of materials such as dilute nitric acid to remove deposits from sandstone in order to reveal extant decoration for epigraphic work. However, the paper does not deal with other important issues raised when working onsite. For example, omitted is a discussion of ways in which to minimize the effects of nitric acid or chelating materials when applied in situ, either by pretreatment of surfaces, or low to remove cleaning materials afterward. Further, the question of how to protect freshly exposed surfaces from subsequent damage is also missing. Also working on stone, but in the museum environment, Krumrine and Kronthal present a variation on the technique of using dowels in sleeves for the repair of large stone objects. The authors use sleeves made from epoxy putty set in an easily reversible barrier of B-72, cellulose powder and fumed silica, into which stainless steel pins are inserted.
The complicated nature of treating extremely low-fired ceramics (Quinton) and stucco (in this case gypsum plaster) masks (Clarke) is illustrated in the difficulties encountered in the removal of old restoration materials and their subsequent stabilization. The support of these objects for display or storage plays an important role in the development of their treatments. Similarly, the reconstruction of a fifth dynasty bead net dress (Seth-Smith and Lister) requires that the fragile faience beads not support their own weight.
This volume of conference proceedings represents the wide spectrum of problems encountered by conservators treating Egyptian materials today. Although a discussion of the ubiquitous problems presented by salty and weakened stone and ceramics is missing, these issues have been discussed in other venues. We hope that the tradition of conferences on Egyptian materials will be continued and we will be the recipients of another such volume within the next five years. Perhaps funding sources can be identified to include color photographs in the next volume, and some papers included from conservators and scientists known to be working in important areas related to Egyptian collections. We would encourage the publisher to consider a second printing of the first volume of proceedings, as it remains a well-used reference in many conservation libraries today.PamelaHatchfieldHead, Objects Conservation, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 465 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA 02115A. ELENACHAROLA. DEATH OF A MOAI. EASTER ISLAND STATUES: THEIR NATURE, DETERIORATION AND CONSERVATION. Easter Island Foundation Occasional Paper 4. Woodland: Easter Island Foundation, 1997. 50 pages, paper cover, $15. Available from Easter Island Foundation, P.O. Box 6774, Los Osos, California 93412-6774; firstname.lastname@example.org ISBN 1-880636-11-5
The slightly scary faces of the Easter Island statues glowering from the pages of National Geographic were among the first things to fire my imagination toward being an archaeologist. Shortly afterward, my parents introduced me to the exciting writings of Thor Heyerdahl and his adventures into experimental archaeology, where once again the mysteries of Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, were mulled over. By this time I was hooked and was freely dreaming of embarking on my own archaeological expeditions. So now, about 30 years later, as an archaeological conservator and during a period when I am spending over three quarters of my time dealing with the conservation of rock art, there is something oddly familiar and pleasurable about finding myself encountering Rapa Nui yet again by reading Elena Charola's recent book on the Easter Island figures, more correctly known as moai.
This extended essay offers an overview of the issues surrounding the current state of the moai. Its numerous chapters address such topics as the original formation of the island, the technology and methods involved in the creation of the statues, the weathering of the figures, the general deterioration of them, and recent conservation and management efforts. In addition, the author has included a chapter on the condition of the many, but less well known, petroglyphs associated with the figures, images the author refers to as “mini-moai.” Each chapter is written in a general manner and includes an appendix addressing a specific aspect of the chapter's topic in detail. Some of the more technical content has been separated out, making the first part of each chapter more digestible to the casual or nontechnical reader. Each chapter also includes an extensive list of associated further readings. A comprehensive bibliography and “Lexicon of Geological and Mineralogical Terms” closes the book. Numerous diagrams, line drawings, and black and white photographs illustrate the text throughout the publication, although the quality of several of the photographs has suffered in reproduction.
In order to trace the common history of one of the figures from its creation to its re-erection, Charola uses the convention of a “virtual moai,” an idea that works to a certain extent, but one that I found confusing at times due to the necessity to introduce actual examples to illustrate various points. The account of the life of the virtual moai is told using somewhat dramatic language that at times I found incongruous in the context of a very valuable, academic paper. However, this criticism is based more on personal taste than anything else.
For the conservator, the strength of this publication perhaps lies in the technical appendices that are brief but thorough and well laid out. The chapters on the formation of the island, the stone itself and its deterioration, provide an invaluable summary of the material found in this part of the world.
The stated aim of the book is to help us understand the nature of the stone from which the statues are made, and this the author accomplishes with obvious use of her background in chemistry and stone conservation. With this aim in mind, it is perhaps not surprising that the chapter on the actual conservation treatments of the figures is a little thin. It concentrates on the treatment of one specific figure that was carried out in 1986–87, providing an outline of the consolidation treatment itself and the methodology and research behind it, but this summary leaves us wondering about the details. For example, there is no mention of whether or not the final depth of penetration of the applied consolidant was actually measured or otherwise assessed—the extent of penetration being known to be a very important factor in the performance of any consolidation treatment. The appendix for this chapter is a “Brief Introduction to the Chemistry of Stone Treatments,” which is informative, but conservators may have appreciated this space being used to give more detail about the treatment itself.
As a conserator working with rock art, I was delighted to see substantial attention paid to the major source of all deterioration of rock art—the intentional and unintentional actions of man around these monuments. More rapid damage is done to these resources by well-intentioned individuals (for example, making latex molds of the carvings in an effort to record them, and crowds of visitors thoughtlessly walking over them), or by deliberate vandalism in the form of scratched or painted names and dates, than by nature slowly wearing away the stone over centuries. Easter Island is no exception to this rule and, despite its remote location, the figures and petroglyphs have suffered more from removal to museums, recording practices, and the wear and tear of visitation, than by any other source of damage. Charola also mentions the efforts to manage and protect this resource, an area of land and monument management practice that is rapidly developing worldwide and can be seen as the “preventative conservation” of archaeological site preservation.
One aspect of rock art conservation and protection that has gained long overdue attention in recent years is the need to consult with indigenous peoples who are the traditional creators and caretakers of these images. As a conservator in this field, an important part of my work, and one of the most challenging aspects of it, is this process of consultation. Charola's book mentions the Rapanuian islanders, but does not tell us whether or not they were formally approached for their opinions on the preservation efforts described, and if so, how this process was conducted, and with what results. Such information would have been invaluable to those of us involved in all forms of consultation with native peoples.
Charola is very familiar with Easter Island and its history, and she cares deeply for its preservation. This small offering is unique with regard to the published literature on the rock art of Easter Island, and it adds another little stone to the pile that is slowing growing to fill the huge hole in the conservation literature concerning the conservation and preservation of rock art.J. ClaireDeanDean & Associates Conservation Services, 3438 NE 62nd Avenue, Portland, Oregon 97213