Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

Van Gogh’s Sunflowers reunited online in live relay

Thursday, August 10th, 2017

Vincent Van Gogh painted five of his most famous works, the Sunflower series, from August 1888 to January 1889 when he was living in Arles in the South of France. Each of the paintings depict a bouquet of sunflowers in a vase using three shades of yellow (there’s blue in the backgrounds and in some accents). This was a deliberate choice by the artist, his attempt to convey the vibrancy and variety of the flower with the color most characteristic of it. He also used thick, layered brushstrokes, a bold impasto that captured the dimension of the sunflower head and seeds as well as their color.

Van Gogh had explored sunflowers before. When he lived in Paris with his brother Theo in 1887, he painted a series of still lifes of sunflowers, two to four cut blooms withering on the floor. They were very different in palette and mood to the bright bouquets of the Arles works. In a letter from August of 1888, Vincent wrote to his brother that he’d returned to the subject with a new approach:

“I am hard at it, painting with the enthusiasm of a Marseillais eating bouillabaisse, which won’t surprise you when it’s a question of painting large sunflowers. […]

Next door to your shop, in the restaurant, as you know, there’s such a beautiful decoration of flowers there; I still remember the big sunflower in the window. Well, if I carry out this plan there’ll be a dozen or so panels. The whole thing will therefore be a symphony in blue and yellow. I work on it all these mornings, from sunrise. Because the flowers wilt quickly and it’s a matter of doing the whole thing in one go”

The new series of sunflowers was meant to be as welcoming and warm as the one he fondly recalled from the shop next door. Van Gogh was expecting a guest in a few months, his friend and fellow painter Paul Gauguin. He had an idea that they might live and work together sharing a studio, a studio that would be decorated entirely with sunflowers, hence his plan for a dozen paintings in the series. He never got that far, nor did the two artists get a studio together, but Gaugin did come to visit him in the aptly named Yellow House at Arles, and Van Gogh hung two of the sunflower paintings on the walls of his room.

Sunflowers by Vincent Van Gogh, 1888-9. The Mr. and Mrs. Carroll S. Tyson, Jr., Collection, 1963. Photo courtesy the Philadelphia Musuem of Art.Paul loved them so much he point-blank asked Van Gogh if he could keep one. Vincent wanted to make his friend happy — they had fought during Gaugin’s stay and he left earlier than planned on a rancorous note — but he was so desperately strapped for cash and so concerned that Theo, who was engaged to be married, have some money to make a home for his new bride, that Paul’s request put him in an awkward position. He wrote to Theo that he would let Gaugin have one of the sunflowers and redo it so Theo could exhibit it and perhaps sell it.

You’ll see that these canvases will catch the eye. But I’d advise you to keep them for yourself, for the privacy of your wife and yourself.

It’s a type of painting that changes its aspect a little, which grows in richness the more you look at it. Besides, you know that Gauguin likes them extraordinarily. He said to me about them, among other things:

“that — … that’s… the flower.”

You know that Jeannin has the peony, Quost has the hollyhock, but I have the sunflower, in a way.

He didn’t know how right he was. His Arles Sunflowers are now in top museums on three continents: The National Gallery, London, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, the Neue Pinakothek in Munich, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Seiji Togo Memorial Museum of Art in Tokyo. The five will be reunited for the first time in virtual space on August 14th in a Facebook Live event. Curators from each museum will speak for 15 minutes about the paintings in a globe-trotting relay dedicated to Van Gogh’s iconic Sunflowers.

This video from the National Gallery gives a brief introduction to the paintings and the #SunflowersLive event:

The Van Gogh Museum, meanwhile, has created a virtual tour of the Sunflowers so you can explore them at your leisure accompanied by Willem van Gogh, great-grandson of Theo van Gogh. They’re also the only one of the museums to have a fully zoomable high resolution image of their Sunflowers painting on their website (see the link above). You can get way, way up in the details of the work, and you can’t put a price on that especially with an artist like Van Gogh whose brushstrokes are so meaningful.

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Cache of WWII Mosquito plans found days before destruction

Wednesday, August 9th, 2017

A priceless collection of technical and engineering designs for the World War II Mosquito aircraft has been discovered hidden in a factory days before its demolition. An engineer found more than 20,000 drawings on microfilm cards in the building at Hawarden Airfield in Broughton, near Chester on the Welsh side of the border with England. This is the only complete archive of Mosquito technical drawings known in the world, all of which were top secret classified material during and after the war. It includes plans for experimental models that never made it to the prototype stage, including one that would carry torpedoes to attack German battleships, a previously unknown photo-reconnaissance plane, and a “Mosquito Mk I, Tropics” model that featured a compartment in the rear fuselage for storing desert equipment. It’s a great stroke of luck that they were discovered by an engineer who had the knowledge to recognize what a massive historical treasure he had stumbled upon and saved it before the bulldozers came in to raze the old factory and everything inside of it.

The factory did not actually make Mosquitos during World War II. It was operated by the Vickers Armstrong company at the time and manufactured Vickers Wellingtons and 235 Avro Lancasters. Only in 1948 did The de Havilland Aircraft Company take over the former Vickers factory and use it to produce Mosquitos and many other aircraft types. The Mosquito was a work of unique genius, designed by aviation pioneer Geoffrey de Havilland (first cousin of legendary actresses Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine, daughters of his father’s youngest brother). The twin-engine two-seater aircraft was so versatile it was immensely effective in combat as, among other things, a tactical bomber, a day and night fighter, a U-boat striker and a pathfinder for bomber squadrons in large raids.

Its service in the RAF began in 1941 and its qualities were immediately apparent. For one thing, it was one of the fastest planes in the world. For another, it was made out of wood. Like Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose, the Mosquito was constructed out of wood to preserve precious aluminum stores. Unlike the Spruce Goose, a giant lumbering folly that barely made it into flight a single time and that after the war, the Mosquito was manufactured quickly and efficiently by joiners and carpenters who transitioned seamlessly from civilian roles into aircraft production. Pieces of spruce, balsa and plywood were glued together and pressed into moulds, which allowed for fast production of a lightweight, nimble plane in factories that before the war had been manufacturing furniture, cabinets and pianos. This earned it the well-deserved moniker of “The Wooden Wonder.”

This 1944 newsreel shows how the Mosquito was made with bendy woods and glue like a theatrical prop, only deadly, fast and, you know, real.

Even the head of the Luftwaffe Field Marshall Herman Goering himself had to admit through gritted teeth that it was freaking awesome: “It makes me furious when I see the Mosquito. I turn green and yellow with envy. The British, who can afford aluminium better than we can, knock together a beautiful wooden aircraft that every piano factory over there is building, and they give it a speed which they have now increased yet again. What do you make of that? There is nothing the British do not have. They have the geniuses, and we have the nincompoops.” His bitterness was informed by personal experience, as a Mosquito raid on a Berlin radio station where he had been scheduled to deliver a speech delayed him by more than an hour.

It was the remarkable wooden construction that shortened the aircraft’s lifespan so dreadfully. Plywood and balsa don’t last long, so while its metal contemporaries like the Spitfire survived for decades after the war, the Mosquitos degraded into nothingness. Production stopped in 1950 and any surviving stock was left to rot in storage. The last airworthy Mosquito in Britain crashed at an air show in 1996, killing both pilots. There are only three Mosquitos in the world today that can fly, one in Canada, the other two in the US.

The microfilm archive was donated to The People’s Mosquito, a charitable organization that seeks to rebuild a crashed Mosquito so that the aircraft that has been credibly described as “the plane that won the war” can fly again over England’s green and pleasant land. The technical drawings will allow them to reconstruct the plane to modern aviation safety standards while ensuring its historical accuracy.

The charity hopes to resurrect the remains of a Mosquito night fighter that crashed at RAF Coltishall, in February 1949, while serving with No 23 Sqn.

Ross Sharp, engineering director for the project, said: “As you can imagine, restoring an aircraft that is 70 years old presents several challenges, one of which is a lack of information on the building techniques, materials, fittings and specifications.”

“These plans enable us to glean a new level of understanding and connection with the brilliant designers who developed the world’s first, true, multi-role combat aircraft.” […]

[The People’s Mosquito chairman John] Lilley said: “No other aircraft has amassed such a remarkable combat record in so short a time, flying so many different types of mission and excelling in each one.

“Even today, it remains one of the world’s most successful multirole combat aircraft, and it was all British, made by men and women who only a few months earlier had been building furniture and mending pianos.”

Despite the great boost the discovery of the archive gives the project, they still have a long ways to go before restoration can begin. Money is the issue. The estimated cost of the restoration is £6 million and only a small portion of that has been raised. If you’d like to pitch in, the People’s Mosquito has some nifty merchandise available in its shop, a club membership with all kinds of perks and takes online donations.

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Is Spain’s first historian of the Americas buried under Columbus’ tomb?

Tuesday, August 8th, 2017

In 1992, workers excavated the tomb of Christopher Columbus in the cathedral of Santo Domingo to translate bones believes to be his (over the centuries, Columbus’ remains were moved over longer distances than any saint’s — from Valladolid to Seville to Santo Domingo to Havana and back across the Atlantic to Seville — so authentication has proven all but impossible) to their new home in the Columbus Lighthouse monument. A few meters underneath Columbus’ tomb, an older crypt was found. It had once had a vaulted brick ceiling, now damaged, but its brick floor and side walls and size (28 feet by 12 feet) attested that someone of importance had been buried there.

Esteban Prieto Vicioso, the cathedral’s head of conservation thinks he knows who that individual may have been: Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo. Oviedo was something of a Forrest Gump figure in his day, not in the “stupid is as stupid does” way, but in the sense that he seemed to pop up regularly in the midst of great historical events and personages. In 1492, he was by the side of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella during their triumphant entry into Grenada after the final defeat of what was left of Moorish Spain. He was present at Columbus’s audience with their majesties when returned from his first voyage to the New World in 1493. He lived in Italy after that, palling around with the likes of Leonardo da Vinci and the notorious Borgia Pope Alexander VI.

In 1514, Oviedo was appointed by King Ferdinand supervisor of gold smeltings at Santo Domingo, a lucrative and enormously important post given the high priority Spain placed on scraping as much precious metal out of America as possible. This would be his first trip to the Americas. He hitched a ride with Pedrarias Dávila on his voyage to the New World, which with 19 ships and 1,500 men was the largest Spanish expedition yet sent to the Americas. He witnessed the Dávila’s replacement of Vasco Núñez de Balboa, the first European to cross the Isthmus of Panama and reach the Pacific Ocean through the Americas, as governor of the Spanish central American province of Castilla de Oro, and five years later, he witnessed Dávila’s show-trial of Balboa on trumped up treason charges and Balboa’s subsequent execution.

Oviedo documented it all. He returned to Spain in 1523 and in 1526 he published Summary of the Natural History of the Indies. Very few eye-witness chronicles of Spain’s colonization of the New World were published, so the Summary would quickly be translated into multiple languages and remain in print for centuries. His contemporary and fellow chronicler Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas, who is far better known than Oviedo today, accused him of being a despoiler and thief who plundered the Americas for all he could steal and then packed his book full of lies. As an advocate of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, de las Casas had good reason to bitterly oppose Oviedo who considered them animals without souls and therefore had no qualms about their being subjected to slavery, abuse and mass slaughter. Yet, Oviedo’s book was the first to introduce indigenous foods, plants, objects and techniques that are now commonplace to European readers, including the pineapple, tobacco and the barbecue.

Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, appointed him Governor of the Fortaleza Ozama in Santo Domingo in 1532. So Oviedo returned to the Americas and lived the rest of his days in Santo Domingo. There he completed A General and Natural History of the Indies, a multi-volume version of the Summary, which wasn’t published in full until the 19th century. He died in 1557 at the age of 80.

By then, the Basilica Cathedral of Santa María la Menor had been completed for almost 20 years. It was the first cathedral built in the Americas. Commissioned by Pope Julius II (who also commissioned a certain Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel) in 1504, the cathedral was built between 1512 and 1540. Oviedo was well into his tenure as governor when the cathedral was finally finished.

“We know that up to the middle of the 16th century there was an altar dedicated to Santa Lucía built on Oviedo’s instructions, and that right underneath he ordered a vault to be constructed, where he was buried,” says Prieto Vicioso. “There is no documentary evidence that his body was ever moved from there.”

The restoration team at the cathedral – the first one built in the Americas – is trying to raise money to excavate the crypt, which they hope will allow them to identify Oviedo. They believe they will find an iron key in the tomb to the fortress of Santo Domingo, of which Oviedo was governor for the last 25 years of his life. A final detail they believe will definitively establish that the tomb is Oviedo’s would be damage to the skull, which was the result of a knife fight with another Spaniard that took place in the Darién Gap, in what is today Panama.

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Luna settlement was the largest in the southeast

Monday, August 7th, 2017

Archaeologists excavating the Santa Maria de Ochuse settlement in Pensacola, Florida, have discovered that it was the largest of Spain’s mid-16th century settlements in the southeast of what is now the United States. Founded by Don Tristán de Luna y Arellano in August of 1559, Santa Maria de Ochuse was the first European (albeit populated by a significant proportion of indigenous Mexicans and African slaves) multi-year settlement in the US. It lasted two years, a not inconsiderable feat considering their supply ships were destroyed by a hurricane a month after they set up stakes. Relief fleets resupplied them, but in 1561 the survivors abandoned the site and Spanish ships carried them back to Mexico. It took another four years before Spain tried again with the St. Augustine colony, founded in 1565 by Pedro Menéndez. That attempt had a far more successful outcome and St. Augustine is today the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the continental US.

Located in downtown Pensacola within view of three wrecks of Luna’s ships just offshore in Pensacola Bay, the Luna settlement was first excavated in late 2015 by University of West Florida archaeologists. Since then, UWF Archaeology Institute teams have returned every summer to excavate the site. Finding evidence of its perimeter was one of their priorities, and with 900 shovels tests under their belt, this season they have accumulated enough information to get a real understanding of the dimensions of Santa Maria de Ochuse.

“We now know that the site really does have a definitive boundary and that encompasses an area of about 27 total acres minimum…and if we turn it into a grid, it’s about 31 acres,” said Dr. John Worth, the project’s principal investigator. “Either one of those numbers makes this the largest mid-16th Century Spanish residential settlement in the entire southeast.”

That makes the Luna Settlement, known as Santa Maria de Ochuse, larger than St. Augustine when it was first established in 1565; and it was bigger than Santa Elena when it was initially established in 1566 on the coast of South Carolina.

“That’s because Luna brought 1500 colonist, whereas St. Augustine and Santa Elena had something on the order of 300-600 settlers (at first),” said Worth in reference to the initial size of those colonies.

“So, we had the largest settlement at the time. Therefore, we have the largest archaeological site of the 16th Century Spanish Colonial era here, which really puts it on the map.”

The excavations have also revealed some of the settlements lay-out. Luna’s colonists choice a bluff overlooking the bay as the main site. It was a level terrace, an advantageous location for construction and for defense. This season archaeologists hoped to discover more traces of a building they believe was the home of a high-status individual, likely the expedition’s treasurer, but did not find the posthole they were looking for. They’ll continue to search in future excavations, because postholes could give them a clearer picture of the precise location and orientation of the settlement’s buildings.

To follow the Luna Settlement Project excavation and read more about the history of the Luna expedition, read Dr. John Worth’s excellent blog. It’s not updated very often, but the posts are very content-rich with bibliographies that can lead you down many a rabbit hole. The project’s Facebook page is more frequently updated albeit in less depth.

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Historic Massachusetts mill helps restore iconic Glasgow building

Sunday, August 6th, 2017

In May of 2014, a 100-year-old architectural gem in Glasgow was devastated by fire. The Glasgow School of Art’s Mackintosh building, was designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, who had attended the Glasgow School of Art as a teenager, and built between 1897 and 1909. The Mack, as it is lovingly nicknamed, seamlessly blends multiple styles — modernism, Japonisme, Art Nouveau — and was enormously influential in its day. Today it is an icon of Glaswegian architecture, receiving more than 20,000 visitors a year, and its library was widely acknowledged as one of the greatest examples of Art Nouveau architecture in the world.

Mackintosh’s undisputed masterpiece, The students were working on their final exams when one of them inadvertently set off a chain reaction that resulted in calamity. The spray foam she was using as part of her project was sucked into a projector’s cooling fan and set alight. The fire quickly spread throughout the west wing via the wooden flues that Mackintosh had installed to keep warm air circulating, reaching from the basement to the roof.

MackIntosh library before the fire. Photo by Alan McAteer.Thanks to the prompt action of firefighters, the 200 students and staff in the building were evacuated and unharmed. By the time the fire was put out 12 hours later, three floors of the building had been consumed in the conflagration. The hard work and dedication of firefighters limited the damage so that 90% of The Mack remained intact, but the 10% that was destroyed unfortunately included two of the most significant parts of the building: the Japanese-inspired Studio 58 and the Mackintosh library, famed for its original built-in wood cabinets, furniture, windows and light fixtures. A long glazed corridor at the roof level known as the “hen run” also suffered heavy damage.

The Hen Run after the fire. Photo by Alan McAteer.Faced with such terrible devastation, the Glasgow School of Art had some hard decisions to make. So much was lost that there were serious questions about what could be recovered and at what cost. The final choice was to undertake the challenges of restoration preserving as many of the original elements as could be salvaged from the smoldering rubble. Volunteers flocked to help remove everything inside the building, from relatively unscathed sculptures and other artworks to charred and water-logged architectural features, decorations and furniture.

What could not be salvaged and restored would be replaced with materials as close as to the originals as possible. The conservation team went above and beyond to rescue everything they could and recreate what they couldn’t. They were able to restore 28 of the Art Nouveau light fixtures from the library out of pieces salvaged from the fire, seven more were Frankensteined together from recovered parts and new parts, and 18 new replicas were made.

Studio 58 posed a whole other kind of challenge. It was built in Japanese-inspired style with a steep pitched roof held up by huge yellow pine beams. Because they performed an important structural function, the columns were made of massive, fine-grained timbers without weaknesses like large knot-holes and cracks. Replacing them was a dauntingly tall order.

That’s when the historic cotton mill complex in Lowell, Massachusetts, the epicenter of the industrial revolution in the United States, came to the rescue. One of the last buildings added to the complex, the 1904 Picker Building, is in the process of being converted into affordable apartments. Last year a section of it had to be demolished, but every part of it that could be salvaged was reclaimed before the demolition. Among the salvaged elements were very high-quality, old growth southern yellow pine timbers used to frame the structure. They were recovered and stored by Longleaf Lumber, experts the salvage of historic woods.

Liz Davidson, Senior Project Manager for the Mackintosh Restoration:

“The original wooden uprights had been made out of American yellow pine which we knew had come from Massachusetts. So when our contractor, Kier Construction, began the search for replacement timber they immediately looked into possible sources in the area where the original timber had come from at the turn of the 20th century.”

“We were delighted to discover that not only did Long Leaflumber have the quality yellow pine in the size that we needed, but that the wood had come from a building which had been constructed at the same time as the Mack,” she adds.

“Longleaf Lumber are truly excited and humbled to be part of such a tremendous restoration project,” a spokesperson said. “It is fitting that these beams, cut from the grand longleaf pine forests and originally milled for a factory in the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution, have been reclaimed and repurposed in a restoration effort that pays homage to an architectural master who was influenced both by nature and the industrial changes of his time.”

Eight 13-1/2 inch x 15-1/2 inch x 23 foot beams were loaded into a shipping container in late 2016 for the trip across the Atlantic and arrived in Scotland at the beginning of this year. After testing and shaping the wood was ready for the final part of its journey from Cotton Mill to Artists studio.

Four massive replacement uprights were finally craned into the Mackintosh Building and manoeuvred into place in a delicate and complex operation. This landmark day cemented the relationship between Glasgow and Massachusetts which had begun over a century ago at the time when both the Picker Building and the Mackintosh Building were constructed.

The restoration of Mackintosh Building is a labour of love, but with more than 30 specialized subcontractors from lead glaziers to horse-hair plasterers involved, it’s far from cheap with an estimated total cost of £35 million ($43 million). A great deal of money has been raised already, but there is still a long way to go. If you’d like to donate to the fund, click here if you’re in the UK, or here if you’re in the US. If all goes according to schedule, the restoration will be completed by February 2019.

MackIntosh Building gallery damaged by fire. Photo by Alan McAteer.

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Gainsborough’s Blue Boy to be conserved in public

Saturday, August 5th, 2017

The iconic painting by Thomas Gainsborough formally titled A Portrait of a Young Gentleman but known worldwide as The Blue Boy will get its first thorough technical analysis and conservation at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. The painting will be removed from public view on Tuesday, August 8th, and will first undergo preliminary analysis. That phase is scheduled to end on November 1st, after which conservators will use the new information to plan an extensive year-long conservation from September 2018 through September 2019. In total, Project Blue Boy will take two years.

The Blue Boy won’t be hidden from view all that time, however, because the year-long conservation will be done in the Thornton Portrait Gallery where the painting usually hangs. That will give visitors, who are probably there in the first place primarily to see the greatest jewel in The Huntington’s crown, a unique opportunity to observe experts at work conserving the art historical masterpiece.

The Blue Boy requires conservation to address both structural and visual concerns. The painting is so important and popular that it has been on almost constant display since The Huntington opened to the public almost 100 years ago. “The most recent conservation treatments have mainly involved adding new layers of varnish as temporary solutions to keep The Blue Boy on view as much as possible,” said Christina O’Connell, The Huntington’s senior paintings conservator and co-curator of the exhibition. “The original colors now appear hazy and dull, and many of the details are obscured.” According to O’Connell, there are also several areas where the paint is beginning to lift and flake, making the work vulnerable to loss and permanent damage; and the adhesive that binds the canvas to its lining is failing, meaning the painting does not have adequate support for long-term display. These issues and more will be addressed by Project Blue Boy.

In addition to contributing to scholarship in the field of conservation, the undertaking will likely uncover new information of interest to art historians. O’Connell will use a surgical microscope to closely examine the painting. To gather material information, she will employ imaging techniques including digital x-radiography, infrared reflectography, ultraviolet fluorescence, and x-ray fluorescence. The data from these analytical techniques will contribute to a better understanding of the materials Gainsborough procured to create The Blue Boy while at the same time revealing information about earlier conservation treatments.

“One area we’d like to better understand is, what technical means did Gainsborough use to achieve his spectacular visual effects?” said Melinda McCurdy, The Huntington’s associate curator for British art and co-curator of the exhibition. “He was known for his lively brushwork and brilliant, multifaceted color. Did he develop special pigments, create new materials, pioneer new techniques?” She and O’Connell will build upon clues gleaned from previous conservation projects to learn more. “We know from earlier x-rays that The Blue Boy was painted on a used canvas, on which the artist had begun the portrait of a man,” she said. “What might new technologies tell us about this earlier abandoned portrait? Where does this lost painting fit into his career? How does it compare with other portraits from the 1760s?” McCurdy also looks forward to discovering other anomalies that may become visible beneath the surface paint, and what they might indicate about Gainsborough’s painting practice.

Gainsborough painted the work in 1770 on his own initiative. No client commissioned it. The Blue Boy was Gainsborough’s first foray into creating a Van Dyck-style court portrait, hence the characteristic 17th century garb of silk knee breeches, doublet with slashed sleeves and lace collar. His aim was to prove himself against the standards of the previous century’s most illustrious portraitist to Britain’s royalty and nobility and he succeeded. The portrait was a great hit at the 1770 Royal Academy exhibition and Thomas Gainsborough, the son of a weaver whose clientele had been merchants and country squires, was now acclaimed on a par with Sir Anthony van Dyck, son of wealthy parents, child prodigy and portraitists to the aristocracy of Europe since he was 21 years old.

The identity of the sitter is unknown, but one possibility is that its first owner Jonathan Buttall, who was 18 in 1770, is the subject. He was the son of a prosperous businessman (raw iron and retail manufactured goods) and a good friend of Gainsborough’s. They bonded over their love of music and remained close friends until the artist’s death in 1788, so much so that at the end of his life Gainsborough asked Buttall to attend his funeral, an honor he accorded very few people even amongst his circle of friends of family.

The Blue Boy was sold to railway magnate Henry E. Huntington, founder of the museum that bears his name, in 1921 by British art dealer Sir Joseph Duveen who had acquired it that same year from the second Duke of Westminster. Huntington paid the greatest amount ever paid up until that time for a painting — $728,800, about $9 million today — and the sale generated massive publicity and protests. Back then, there was no law that could block export of an object of exceptional cultural significance so Britain lost The Blue Boy to California. It’s been hanging at The Huntington since the museum opened in 1928.

Duveen made a fortune matchmaking American plutocrats with the cultural patrimony of impoverished British aristocrats and would later become notorious for his slipshod, aggressive and damaging “restorations” of artworks to make them shiny (literally) before selling them. The Blue Boy did not escape his less than tender mercies. He told the press shortly after he bought the portrait from the Duke of Westminster that he planned to have it “cleaned and revarnished” before putting it on display. Perhaps Project Blue Boy will discover the remnants of Duveen’s interventions as well.

The Huntington has set up a website dedicated to Project Blue Boy where you can track the progress of the analysis and conservation of this iconic work of art.

The Blue Boy, (ca. 1770), Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788), oil on canvas, 70 5/8 x 48 3/4 in. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

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St. Cuthbert’s treasure is back and better than ever

Friday, August 4th, 2017

The Treasures of St. Cuthbert, a collection of relics of the saint and his medieval sanctuary, have gone back on display at Durham Cathedral after six years out of public view. The exhibition is part of Durham Cathedral’s Open Treasure project, an ambitious £11 million redesign that transformed the display spaces in the 11th century masterpiece of Norman architecture to showcase its exceptional collection including Anglo-Saxon carved stones, original copies of Magna Carta and the Forest Charter and illuminated gospels dating as far back as the 7th century. The new exhibition also opens to visitors previously inaccessible areas of the former monastery like the Monk’s Dormitory and the Great Kitchen, grand medieval rooms that managed against all odds to survive the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the organizational, spiritual and iconoclastic upheaval of the Reformation, Cromwell’s suppression of the church and use of the cathedral as a POW camp for Scottish prisoners during the Civil War and a number of destructive architectural mutilations in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Open Treasure experience has been delighting visitors since July 2016, but St. Cuthbert’s treasures are so delicate they require stringent conservation conditions. Conservators waited a full year, monitoring climactic conditions in the new permanent home for the saint’s relics to ensure they were ideal for their long-term preservation. On Saturday, July 29th, the Treasures of St. Cuthbert reopened in their new abode: the Cathedral’s extraordinary Great Kitchen, a massive space with an octagonal ceiling glorious enough to make numerologist angels weep. For centuries the kitchen produced food for hundreds of Benedictine monks and for the deans and canons that followed them after the Reformation. It was still in use as a kitchen well into the 1940s. That continuous use saved it for posterity and it is now one of exactly two surviving medieval monastery kitchens in the UK. (Thanks again for reducing all those monasteries to rubble, Henry VIII!)

Henry VIII’s dissolution minions are also responsible for the current condition of one of the most important relics on display. The Commissioners ordered that Saint Cuthbert’s tomb in the cathedral, one of the richest and most beloved pilgrimage sites in the country, be destroyed. The employed a local goldsmith sledgehammer Cuthbert’s wooden coffin, carved by the monks of the famous Lindisfarne Priory at the end of the 7th century A.D., open because they were sure there were treasures to be looted inside the wood of the coffin. There weren’t. All they got for their brutality was whatever satisfaction they derived from busting the greatest example of Anglo-Saxon woodwork in Britain to bits.

Saint Cuthbert was Prior of Lindisfarne when he died on March 20, 687. His cause of death is believed to have been tuberculosis. He was buried in the priory and slumbered peacefully for 11 years until the monks reopened the coffin and found his body had not decayed. The discovery of the incorrupt body launched the cult of Cuthbert and garnered him a sainthood. Unprepared for an intact body (they likely had planned to transfer his bones into a small ossuary only to find a fully enfleshed corpse instead), they hastily scared up a new coffin made of oak and carved with simple but elegant linear drawings of the Evangelists and their symbols, Christ, saints and angels. The figures are labelled in both Latin and Anglo-Saxon runes. These are the earliest carvings depicting Christ found outside of Rome.

When the Viking raiders struck the priory in the 9th century, the monks took Cuthbert’s coffin and his relics with them when they fled in 875. The traveled extensively, stopping at major cities along the way so pilgrims could flock to see the saint’s miraculous body. Cuthbert’s posthumous itinerancy came to a close in 995 when his remains were settled in Durham. Just over a century after that, his body, still in the Lindisfarne coffin, was placed into a new coffin and installed in a new shrine in the Norman cathedral.

After Henry’s pillage crew came away empty-handed from the destruction of the shrine, Cuthbert’s remains, still undecayed and still inside the damaged coffin, were placed inside yet another coffin and reburied in the cathedral. The tomb was opened again twice in the 19th century, mainly out of sheer curiosity. It was the first of these reopenings in 1827 that discovered the saint’s gold and garnet pectoral cross deep in the folds of his garments (turns out Henry’s Commissioners sucked at looting, despite their extensive experience in the field), a silver portable altar and Cuthbert’s elephant ivory comb in the coffin.

After the second reopening in 1899, the remains of the Lindisfarne coffin, now in fragments, were removed. Restoration attempts, one as recently as the 1980s, used damaging methods that today’s conservators eschew. Still, the coffin was on display for many years in Durham Cathedral, set high up so the carving was all but impossible to see in any kind of detail. The fragments have been re-conserved now, puzzled together using a non-invasive, reversible approach and put on display in a bespoke, climate-controlled case at eye level so visitors can revel in the unique decoration of the most important surviving wooden artifact from the Anglo-Saxon period.

Also on display in the Great Kitchen is the pectoral cross, one of the greatest and most significant examples of Anglo-Saxon metalwork marking the transition from their traditional iconography and decorative style to Christianity and bearing the wear and tear of Cuthbert’s constant use of the piece. The comb, which looks a tad on the grubby side but must have been quite a fancy thing in the saint’s day because it was likely manufactured in North African in the 4th century, and the portable altar.

Original 12th c. sanctuary knocker. Photo courtesy Durham Cathedral.Then there are the artifacts associated with the shrine that aren’t directly connected to Saint Cuthbert in person, for example an incredibly rare group of embroidered silk and gold vestments donated to the shrine in the 10th century by King Athelstan and a magnificent 12th century knocker from the door of the sanctuary in the shape of the head of a leonine hellbeast complete with a little guy’s legs sticking out of the fearsome creature’s mouth. The legs are each devoured by the mouths of the double-headed snake which form the knocker itself.

There’s even a dragon-slaying sword, the Conyers Falchion, a 13th century sword that legend has it was used by Sir John Conyers to kill the Sockburn Worm. This is the story that inspired Lewis Carroll’s poem Jabberwocky. Decorated with the coat of arms of the Holy Roman Empire on one side of the pommel and that of England on the other, the falchion was for centuries ceremonially presented to the new bishop of Durham when he first crossed the boundary into his diocese. The last bishop to be so fortunate is the current one, Bishop Paul Butler, who crossed the River Tees into his new diocese in 2014. From now on, the dragon-slaying sword is staying put in the Great Kitchen. Future bishops will have to make do with a replica.

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Oldest wooden railway section saved, displayed

Tuesday, August 1st, 2017

Willington Waggonway excavated in 2013. Photo by North News.In 2013, an excavation in advance of future construction at the site of the Neptune Shipyard in Newcastle upon Tyne unearthed a unique survivor of Newcastle’s early industrial history: an 80-foot stretch of a wooden railway dating to the 18th century. This railway wasn’t used by trains as they hadn’t been invented yet. It transported wooden “waggons” (chaldrons) pulled by horses. Supported by the sturdy tracks which ran at a slight incline to take advantage of gravity, the waggons were able to carry far heavier loads of coal far more quickly from local collieries straight to the docks of the river Tyne. It was identified as a section of the Willington Waggonway built in 1785.

Detail of timbers in situ. Photo courtesy Beamish Transport Online.The railway has double height rails — a common feature in the Tyneside area where there was soggy terrain to overcome and hard wear on the tracks was a constant problem — and is made of an eclectic mixture of wood sources. There are rough-hewn sleepers that are basically intact tree limbs, cut and planed pine sleepers and repurposed ship planks.

It’s the most intact segment of wooden railway ever discovered and, thanks to the waterlogged riverside environment, the best preserved. Those elements alone would suffice to make it a find of international significance, but the Willington Waggonway has another remarkable feature: it’s the earliest Detail of wash hole section, lined with stone pavers. Photo courtesy Beamish Transport Online.railway built to the international standard gauge (4’8.5″) which spread from England’s 18th century wagon rails to its 19th century steam engines and was then exported around the world by the British Empire. It’s also the only railway ever found with a surviving “wash hole,” a stone basin in the track where wagon wheels were cleaned and soaked in water to prevent shrinkage and cracking from friction and heat. Wash holes were known from historical records, but this is the first one to be discovered.

Excavating the Willington Waggonway. Photo courtesy Beamish Transport Online.These precious archaeological remains were in danger from the moment they were unearthed. As soon as the timbers were exposed to the air, they began to decay. Organic materials that have been preserved for centuries in waterlogged soil need immediate conservation once they’re excavated to keep them from drying out, rotting and/or being devoured by an assortment of critters. You can’t leave them in situ unless you rebury them for their own protection, and because the site was going to be redeveloped, the reburied waggonway could easily have been damaged, even destroyed, by construction.

Willington Waggonway timbers in storage. Photo courtesy the Willington Waggonway Research Programme.With the clock ticking, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums (TWAM) was able to secure a grant of £20,000 from the Arts Council’s Preservation of Industrial and Scientific Material (PRISM) Fund for the immediately removal and storage of a 20-foot section of the Willington Waggonway, timber and stonework. The National Railway Museum stepped into the breach and collected the remaining timbers. They are being conserved together with their TWAM brethren at the conservation laboratories of the York Archaeological Trust which has extensive expertise in and specialized equipment for the preservation of ancient wood.

York Archaeological Trust's specialized freeze dryer capable of holding pieces 5 meters long. Photo by Beamish Transport Online.Trust experts analyzed samples from the wood to determine their individual conditions and preservation needs. The diagnosis was that the timbers needed long-term soaking in a Polyethylene Glycol (PEG) bath followed by freeze-drying. The PEG replaces the water molecules in the wood with a waxy material that maintains the structure without contracting and expanding the way water does. Once the PEG has taken hold, a bout in the freeze-dryer finishes the job of sucking out the last drops of moisture, making the wood stable for display. The whole process can take up to 36 months.

Ian Panter, Head of Conservation, York Archaeological Trust said: “The conservation of the waggonway timbers has been a challenge, not because the wood was very decayed, but the opposite. Many of the timbers were very well preserved but with with pockets of more decay.

“This type of wood always represents a challenge but one which we relished getting to grips with. It is good to see something dating to the early stages of the industrial revolution being conserved, and this makes a refreshing change from the very ancient timbers that we’re usually involved with.

“Having personally been involved with the Lambton trackway, of similar date which was reburied, it is a step forward that something as important as the waggonway is being preserved for future generations.”

Eighty-seven of the timbers have been conserved already. They are now at the Regional Museum Store at Beamish where they are being studied for what they can tell us about 18th century railway construction and maybe even shipbuilding. A few of the preserved timbers, timbers awaiting conservation and stones from the wash hole went on display Friday at the Stephenson Railway Museum as part of the national Festival of Archaeology.

Not all of the timbers are out of danger yet. Fifty of them remain untreated and are at risk of decay unless another £10,000 can be secured to fund their conservation. A campaign with a target of 5,000 has been launched. You can donate to it here. Once the Willington Waggonway remains have been conserved and researched, the plan is to reconstruct as much of it as possible (mostly the intact 20-foot section) for permanent display at the Stephenson Railway Museum.

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New imaging approach reveals hidden text from two eras

Tuesday, July 25th, 2017

In the Middle Ages, old manuscripts were recycled for their valuable vellum and parchment pages. The writing was washed or scrubbed off and the leaves filling with new content. Because so many ancient works have been lost, scholars have for centuries attempted to recover the original texts from these medieval palimpsests, often using caustic materials that damaged the pages in the long term. Nowadays researchers have much better options thanks largely to a panoply of imaging technologies that have been a godsend to the study of palimpsests, revealing erased and overwritten text that cannot be seen with the naked eye. Synchrotron imaging is better than Superman because it can see through lead boxes.

Some of the recycled parchments pose greater challenges than others. With the introduction of the printing press to Europe in the 15th century, the demand for bookmaking materials soared. Not only were medieval manuscripts cannibalized for their pages, but the bindings were reused to bind newly printed books. This was a common practice well into the 18th century, so there are a lot of old printed books out there with fragments of medieval and ancient texts hidden in the binding. Scholars knew there might be literary treasures in there, but were stumped by the difficulty of accessing and reading binding materials.

Now researchers at Northwestern University have made a breakthrough. It was a book from the university library’s collection that inspired the new approach. It’s an edition of the Works and Days by the Greek poet Hesiod that was printed in Venice in 1537. Northwestern acquired it in 1870 and out of the 30 known surviving copies of the edition, this is the only one that still has its original slotted parchment binding, a widely used technique in Venice from 1490 to 1670 in which slots were cut into the binding parchment to match the shape of the book spine.

Slotted parchment bindings often used recycled parchments. The ink was usually removed for aesthetic purposes, to make the outside surface of the parchment a uniform color. In this particular book, the ink on the interior parchment surface was not removed. Iron gall ink is acidic and over time, speeds up the oxidation and decay of the parchment.

The Northwestern librarians noticed the slotted parchment binding in the Hesiod and realized its significance. They also saw the faintest hint of text on the book board. Researchers from the Northwestern University-Art Institute of Chicago Center for Scientific Studies (NU-ACCESS) examined the binding in greater detail and found evidence that the writing on the book board had been removed, likely by the bookbinder, by washing or scraping. His efforts weren’t entirely effective, much to our advantage. Over time the gall ink that wasn’t removed had degraded the parchment and the writing began to re-emerge. NU-ACCESS researchers found two columns of text plus marginalia were very dimly visible through the parchment on the front and back covers of the book.

The writing wasn’t legible with the naked eye, so scientists Marc Walton and Emeline Pouyet turned to imaging, starting with visible light hyperspectral imaging. The writing became a little clearer, but it still couldn’t be read. X-ray fluorescence imaging gave the team new information about the chemical composition of the ink, but again, it wasn’t able to bring the ancient text out of hiding. They were going to need a bigger boat, to paraphrase Jaws, and the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source (CHESS) was that boat.

[T]he bright x-ray source and fast detection system allowed for a full imaging of the main text and marginalia comments in the entire bookbinding. When the researchers sent the more clearly imaged writing to [Northwestern history and religion professor Richard] Kieckhefer, he immediately recognized it as sixth-century Roman Law code [the Institutes Justinian], with interpretive notes referring to the Canon Law written in the margins.

Walton and Pouyet hypothesize that the parchment originally might have been used in a university setting where Roman Law was studied as a basis for understanding Canon Law, which was a common practice in the Middle Ages. The legal writing was then possibly covered and recycled because it was outdated as society had already struck down the Roman laws to implement church code.

It was an exciting find, but the NU-ACCESS team had greater ambitions. Synchrotrons aren’t exactly a dime a dozen, and most researchers don’t have access to the powerful (and expensive) equipment. Even if they do, rare old books in delicate condition can’t always be shipped to a synchrotron facility. For conservation reasons, they often can’t be shipped anywhere at all. Walton and Pouyet turned to Northwestern’s computer scientists to seek a cheaper, more readily available technology that would be able to read challenging palimpsest texts trapped in bookbindings.

“There is a vast number of wavelengths in the electromagnetic spectrum, and each wavelength has its advantages and disadvantages,” said [Aggelos] Katsaggelos, the Joseph Cummings Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “Some of them can penetrate deeper into the specimen, some of them have better resolution, and so on.”

Using a machine-learning algorithm developed by his team, Katsaggelos discovered that not one imaging technique but a fusion of two would yield the best results. His team combined visible hyperspectral imaging, which includes wavelengths within the visible light spectrum to provide high spatial resolution, with x-ray fluorescence imaging, which provides high intensity resolution. The algorithm informed the researchers of the relative contribution of each modality to produce the best image.

“By combining the two modalities, we had the advantages of each,” Katsaggelos said. “We were able to read successfully what was inside the cover of the book.”

Katsaggelos’ data fusion image was so clear that it rivaled an image of the main text produced by the powerful x-ray beams at CHESS.

Walton and Pouyet plan to take this show on the road. They want to examine books in museums and other institutions using the combination of hyperspectral imaging and x-ray fluorescence to read hidden texts on pages and bindings. You can read the team’s publication of their results in the journal Analytica Chimica Acta here.

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Quilts made by men at war to go on display

Sunday, July 23rd, 2017

Three years ago, St. Paul’s Cathedral in London restored and displayed a hand-made altar frontal that had been by intricately embroidered by 133 convalescing soldiers during World War I. Sewing was considered a highly effective form of occupational therapy for soldiers because it could be accomplished while seated, improved manual dexterity and mental focus. The notion of occupational therapy was birthed in the crucible of World War I which left so many men physically and psychologically disabled, but it was a new name for an old practice.

Soldiers and sailors have been stitching masterpieces of the sewing crafts for hundreds of years. It was a longstanding tradition that during lulls in fighting, while prisoners of war or over extended hospital visits, they would hand-stitch quilts, wool work seascapes and embroider their own uniforms. Sailors maintained ships’ sails as part of their duties and therefore had basic sewing skills. Soldiers didn’t have the same job requirement, so if they knew how to sew it was either fortuitous or professional; i.e., they had been tailors in civilian life and were often employed as regimental tailors in the military.

Some of the earliest surviving examples were made in the 18th century using the intarsia technique in which fabric pieces are cut in precise shapes and sewn together so that no seams show. These types of quilts are so difficult to produce that it’s likely they were created by professionals. The imagery is often related to the wars being fought and national identity — comrades, the fatherland, traditional folk tales, etc. The quilts produced in wartime by military men of all levels of stitchcraft experience often used uniform pieces, blankets and random snippets of whatever other textiles they could get their hands on to create geometric designs of dazzling intricacy.

The American Folk Art Museum in New York is putting on the first US exhibition of quilts made by fighting men in wartime from uniform fabric. Most of the quilts on view in the War and Pieced exhibition come from the private collection of Australian quilt expert, historian Dr. Annette Gero. Others are on loan from public and private collections. Many of them have never been publically displayed before.

Immigrant tailors, such as Hungarian-born Michael Zumpf, introduced the intarsia technique into Great Britain. Two masterworks, exhibited to great acclaim in London during the late nineteenth century, feature minutely detailed representations of British military and political leaders, and members of the House of Commons. These elaborate pictorial panels were made using popular etchings of those subjects as templates.

Perhaps the best-known quilts that were made by soldiers and regimental tailors are the complex geometrics fashioned from felted military uniforms. Hand-stitched by nineteenth-century British soldiers, sailors, and regimental tailors during periods of conflict in the Crimea, South Africa, and India, some of these mosaic-like quilts contain as many as twenty-five thousand pieces of fabric. They were once called “convalescent quilts,” it was believed they were made as occupational therapy by wounded soldiers recovering in hospitals. Quilts pieced in simple geometric patterns may indeed have been made in such circumstances, but it is now recognized that the most elaborate quilts were most probably stitched by tailors and soldiers to pass the time and stay out of mischief, to give as gifts to loved ones at home, or were made upon a soldier’s return.

“In the context of war, quiltmaking becomes a life-affirming testament to bravery, loyalty, and an act of redemption for darker human impulses enacted under dire circumstances,” says Stacy C. Hollander[, chief curator of the American Folk Art Museum]. “Memory and experience are fragmented and brilliantly reconstructed through tiny bits of cloth. The uniforms, associated with the best and worst of humanity, are thus transformed into testaments of sanity and beauty, even as the highly organized geometry grants the soldier an illusion of control over the predations of war in which he has both participated and witnessed.”

War and Pieced will run at the American Folk Art Museum from September 6th, 2017, through January 7th, 2018. Next year the exhibition will travel to the International Quilt Study Center & Museum at the University of Lincoln-Nebraska where it will run from the May 25th through September 16th, 2018.

But enough of my yakking. This post is all about the cornucopia of quiltly goodness and there’s so much more bounty to enjoy I had to put it after the jump to keep load times from going insane.

(more…)

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