Archive for the ‘Museums’ Category

Drawing found under Virgin of the Rocks

Friday, August 16th, 2019

Researchers at London’s National Gallery have identified original drawings by Leonardo da Vinci under The Virgin of the Rocks. An earlier examination of the work in 2004/5 had found changes to the Virgin’s pose. Vague indicators of other figures in the composition were thought to be line changes between the original pose and the final one. A new analysis using the latest imaging technology revealed there were two compositions under the painting. In the initial design, the angel and Christ child were markedly different than they turned out to be in the end.

In the abandoned composition both figures are positioned higher up, while the angel, facing out, is looking down on the Infant Christ with what appears to be a much tighter embrace. These new images were found because the drawings were made in a material that contained some zinc, so it could be seen in the macro x-ray fluorescence (MA-XRF) maps showing where this chemical element was present, and also through new infrared and hyperspectral imaging.

Why Leonardo abandoned this first composition still remains a mystery. The new research has shown how the second underdrawing, while aligning much more closely to the finished version, nonetheless displays his characteristic elaborations and adjustments from drawing to painting. For instance, the angle of the Infant Christ’s head was changed so that he was seen in profile, while some parts of the angel’s curly hair have been removed. Handprints resulting from patting down the priming on the panel to create an even layer of more or less uniform thickness can also be seen, probably the work of an assistant – but perhaps even by Leonardo himself.

It’s a particularly intriguing find given the complicated history behind the composition of the piece. Commissioned in 1483 by the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception for their chapel abutting the Church of San Francesco Grande in Milan, the painting as originally envisaged by the confraternity was a traditional Renaissance view of the Immaculate Conception — Mary, angels, an architectural setting — but Leonardo instead went his own way, creating a rocky, humid, cave-like setting and depicting the Virgin, the Christ Child and John the Baptist. This was his first commission in Milan; you’d think he might try to please his clients instead of blowing them off in favor of his own vision. The result caused some consternation among the confraternity and when Leonardo did not get paid the full amount, he sold the painting to a private buyer. That first version of the Virgin on the Rocks is now at the Louvre.

Ten years later, Leonardo began working on a second version, likely because the confraternity paid its balance. It was the exact same dimension (the arch-shaped frame was already made, after all) and the same subject, but with notable differences in composition and palette. The newly-discovered underdrawings are certainly in his hand, which is not the case for the application of the paint itself, so they uniquely show the false starts and evolution of Leonardo’s vision for the work.

Starting November 9, 2019, the National Gallery will host a new exhibition centered around The Virgin of the Rocks. Leonardo: Experience a Masterpiece takes an innovative approach to give visitors an immersive experience into the context of the painting and of its creator.

A wide range of multi-sensory experiences will be presented across four separate rooms. Visitors will be able to step inside a similar chapel setting and see what art historical research suggests the painting’s setting may have looked like. They will be able to explore Leonardo’s own research, which informed the specific compositions in the painting. In addition they will see how Leonardo used his scientific studies to create strong effects of light and shadow in his painting. The modern process of discovery in a conservation studio, where the mysteries and secrets of a painting are uncovered, will also be brought to life with visitors being able to engage in detail with the latest findings underneath ‘The Virgin of the Rocks’.

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Forgotten head of Alexander found in Macedonian museum

Sunday, August 4th, 2019

A long forgotten marble head of Alexander the Great has been rediscovered in storage at the Archaeological Museum of Veroia in Macedonia, Greece, announced Angeliki Kotarides, head of the Ephorate of Antiquities of Imathia. It was found in a corner of the museum’s warehouse, hidden between crates of pottery, old masonry and dust. It had suffered damage from centuries of rough treatment, but Kotarides immediately recognized the “the leonine mane, the dreamy eyes, the ineffable gaze” so characteristic of the iconography of Alexander the Great.

Veroia was an important city in the Macedonian kingdom. Under the Argead dynasty (Philip and his son Alexander were the 5th and 4th to last Argead kings), Veroia was the second most important city after the capital of Pella. Philip’s resplendent tomb in Vergina is just 7 miles southeast of the center of Veroia. Classical and Hellenistic era cemeteries from the 5th through the 2nd century B.C. practically surround the town. Rock-cut tombs, pit and cist graves have been unearthed in cemeteries in northeast, southeast and southwest Veroia.

The museum is small but dense with exceptional artifacts excavated in the area that date from the Neolithic through the Ottoman period, with particular emphasis on its rich Classical and Hellenistic history. The Hellenistic-era sculpture of Alexander was discovered in the 1970s in a rubble pile near the town in the Imathian plain. It had been reused as building material centuries ago.

After conservation and cleaning, the rediscovered Alexander will go on display at the museum in 2020. It will join another fine sculpture, a 2nd century B.C. head of Medusa, that was discovered in construction rubble, believed to have been reused in the city’s north wall.

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Unique goods from Iron Age warrior grave to go on display

Tuesday, July 23rd, 2019

The unique funerary furnishings of a late Iron Age warrior found in West Sussex will go on display for the first time at Chichester’s Novium Museum in January 2020. The grave was discovered in 2008 during an excavation  in advance of a new housing development in North Bersted, near Bognor Regis, West Sussex. Archaeologists had found evidence of occupation — boundary ditches, postholes, building remains — from the Bronze Age through Roman times, but the grave was entirely isolated, not part of a settlement or cemetery. It was discovered just 16 inches beneath the surface.

He was buried in supine position orientated northwest to southeast. Aligned at the end of the grave above his head were three large intact pots. Analysis of the pottery, which was new when buried and was probably made in Normandy, dates the grave to 50 B.C. Against his right side were a bronze shield boss, bronze helmet, a spearhead, a sword, deliberated reheated and bent as a ritual “decommissioning,” its scabbard and two sheets of elaborate bronze latticework.

Iron bars and pieces therefrom were found overlying the grave crosswise. These are the remains of iron hoops which bound the deceased’s coffin and an addition iron-framed structure that was placed on top of the coffin. No remains of the wood from this coffin were discovered.

At first archaeologists thought the bronze latticework may have been part of the shield decoration as they were too big to be cheek-pieces for the helmet, but additional study found that it was actually a headdress, a ceremonial modification for a military helmet. In its day, the headdress would have gleamed like gold and been adorned with plumes of horse hair.

Nothing comparable to this grave has been found anywhere else in Britain. The bronze  headdress is unique, and the sword is of a type entirely unlike the ones in the British Isles of the period.

The remains shifted after deposition, but not due to interference with the grave which was undisturbed. The skull was found left of the body and the left humerus had shifted a foot and a half away from the scapula. These shifts could have been caused by the weight of the shield and other bronze pieces after the body had begun to decompose, or he may have been propped up on a pillow, now rotted away.

The skeleton was not in good condition. The surviving bone was soft and brittle, and the cancellous bone (the spongey type of bones found in the vertebrae, ribs, pelvis, hands and feet) was to all intents and purposes gone, extant only as stains in the soil. That soil was lifted for excavation in the laboratory in the hope of finding bone fragments; there weren’t any. The left side of the lower body was in the best state of preservation. The green staining explained why: the bronze of the artifacts he was buried with had helped preserved the bone it touched.

Even with the damage to the remains, osteological analysis determined that the man was about 5’4″ tall and was between 30 and 45 years old when he died. He experienced hardship when he was a boy — grooves on his teeth are evidence of childhood malnutrition or an acute illness like high fever — but his early challenges did not keep him from living an extremely active life as an adult. Strong muscle and ligament attachments on the legs indicate habitual horse riding and on the right humerus indicate his right arm was far more developed than his left. Given the grave goods, this is likely the result of extensive weapons training and use. There was no evidence of trauma, healed or perimortem on any surviving part of his skeleton. Fun fact: he had no wisdom teeth. Not removed or lost; they never existed. It’s a genetic thing.

His origins are unclear. He may have come from eastern England and fought in Gaul, or he may have been a Gaul who ended up in Britain. The design of the headdress is distinctly Celtic. That and the Norman pottery points to him having spent time in Gaul. It’s possible the warrior made his way to Britain from the continent as part of a Roman contingent or as part of the Gallic anti-Roman resistance. Or both at different times, for that matter.

In Book 4 of Commentarii De Bello Gallico, Julius Caesar claims that Britons had consistently sent support to the Gauls during the Gallic Wars, and that therefore he was going to put a fleet together to just check things out across the channel. Ask a few questions here and there, look around, you know, sort of get the lay of the land. Backed by a couple of legions and as many ships as he could lay his hands on, of course. When the Britons caught wind of his plans they sent ambassadors to beg Caesar for mercy in advance, “to promise that they will give hostages, and submit to the government of the Roman people.” Ever magnanimous, Caesar agreed and sent one of his top men, the Belgic chieftain Commius, whom he had appointed king of the Atrebates, to escort the ambassadors back to Britain and keep the locals from getting antsy should a Roman army happen to land on their shores. That was in 55 B.C.

Three years later Commius, betrayed Caesar’s legate Titus Labienus, had switched sides and fought with Vercingetorix at the Siege of Alesia. In 50 B.C., he would strike a deal with Rome and head back to Britain where he founded Calleva Atrebatum, modern-day Silchester in Hampshire, about 60 miles northwest of Bognor Regis. So it’s entirely plausible that the North Bersted warrior was one of Commius’ contingent come to settle only to be thwarted by death.

Dr Melanie Giles, senior lecturer in archaeology at the University of Manchester, told PA: “It really is absolutely a unique find in the British Isles and in the wider continent, we don’t have another burial that combines this quality of weaponry and Celtic art with a date that puts it around the time of Caesar’s attempted conquest of Britain.

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Giant Justinian gets Getty grant

Sunday, July 21st, 2019

A monumental oil on canvas painting in dire need of conservation will get the help it needs thanks to a $176,800 grant from the Getty Foundation. Emperor Justinian, made in 1886 by Orientalist French painter Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant and now in the permanent collection of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida, will be restored as part of the Getty’s Conserving Canvas initiative, which provides funds and expertise in the latest conservation methods that will be taught to the trainees in the program.

For centuries, it was common practice to protect canvas paintings by backing or lining them with another canvas to create a moisture barrier and provide greater structural integrity, but a shift toward minimal intervention has produced a knowledge gap among today’s museum conservators in how to treat lined paintings.

Conserving Canvas aims to ensure that conservators remain fully prepared to care for these important works of art through a combination of training activities and information dissemination. […]

The John F. and Herta Cuneo Conservation Laboratory at The Ringling will partner with Artcare Conservation to carry out the conservation treatment of “Emperor Justinian” in its Miami studio. International collaboration involves four postgraduate mid-career painting conservators from the United States, Canada and Colombia who have been invited to participate as trainees in various stages of the structural treatment. Two junior painting conservators at The Ringling will also take part as trainees.

Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant was a Parisian painter who, influenced by a voyage to Spain and Morocco in 1872, became enamored with Orientalist style and subjects. He was known for large-scale pieces, murals in particular after 1880, and Emperor Justinian is one of his larger works at 13.3 x 22 feet. You can see the influence of Moroccan design in the tile and fabrics. The rich golds and red, characteristic elements of his palette, still manage to shine even after years of neglect and damage.

The work has only been owned by two people. Dry goods magnate and avid art collector Godfrey Mannheimer bought it from the artist in 1887. He donated it the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1890 and for a time at the turn of the century is was prominently displayed there, but in 1928 the museum returned it to the donor’s family, namely Mamie Manheimer (Godfrey’s daughter) and her husband Dr. Leonard Dessar. John Ringling bought the monumental canvas from them in 1928.

Son a German immigrant harness maker, John Ringling was born in Iowa to a large family of modest means in 1866. He was 18 when he teamed up with four of his brothers and an established showman to form The Yankee Robinson and Ringling Bros. Double Show. Less than five years later in 1888, the Ringling Brothers had their own show. They were innovators — the circus first to travel the country by train — and when they bought Barnum & Bailey in 1907, they became the biggest show in the country.

In 1905, John married Mable Burton. His investments in railroad, oil, real estate (at one point he owned 25% of the Sarasota area) and entertainment made him very wealthy, and he and Mable spent lavishly on travel, art and property. John and Mable built a splendid collection, acquiring top quality art works, furnishings and decorative objects on every trip to Europe. They filled Ca’ d’Zan, the sumptuous Venetian Gothic style palace they had built in Sarasota in 1926, with their acquisitions, and the massive 36,000-square-foot mansion gave their collection plenty of room to grow in its 56 rooms.

Mable died in June of 1929 aged just 54 from diabetes and complications from Addison’s disease. John was devastated by the loss of his beloved wife, and his misfortunes would spill over into his finances later that year. The Wall Street Crash hit his investments very hard. Still, he set in motion the vision he and Mable had always had to use their collection as the core of an art museum “to promote education and art appreciation, especially among our young people.” In October of 1931, the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art opened its doors.

John died in 1936. In his will he bequeathed his entire estate, museum and collection included, to the people of Florida. The state didn’t take on the job of administering the museum with enthusiasm in the first decade. It was only open off-and-on and not maintained properly. In 1946, the first Arthur “Chick” Austin, Jr., an expert in Baroque art, was hired as its first director. From then on, the Ringling Museum of Art developed into one of country’s finest.

In 1980 it was declared the official State Art Museum of Florida. Twenty years later, the State gave Florida State University governance of the museum. Today the museum complex (which includes the Circus Museum, the Historic Asolo Theater, the Ringling Art Library and the John F. and Herta Cuneo Conservation Laboratory),  is one of the largest university art complexes in the country.

Emperor Justinian has spent most of its decades in lovely Sarasota rolled up in storage. The paint has flaked very badly and there are a number of holes in the canvas. The flaking on the left side of the work is so severe, protective facings have been applied to the surface to keep any more paint from falling off. The conservation team will first stabilize the paint and reduce the significant distortion in the canvas. Discolored varnish will be removed and areas of paint loss will be judicious filled in. New lining fabric will be affixed to the back of the original canvas to give it structural support.

When conservation is completed, the painting will be given pride of place in one of The Ringling’s largest galleries. I’m eager to see how they frame it. I love a huge frame and a piece that size can take a lot frame.

(Sorry about that shamelessly not-quite-alliterative tile. It was so close, though.)

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Villa of the Papyri

Monday, July 15th, 2019

The Getty Villa in Malibu, built to house oil billionaire J. Paul Getty’s extensive collection of antiquities, is a replica of the Villa dei Papyri, a huge, ultra-luxurious home discovered in Herculaneum in the 18th century. The collection has only grown in size and quality since the Getty Villa was completed in 1974, and the museum has hosted a myriad world-class exhibitions of artifacts on loan from all over the world. Only an exhibition dedicated to the model for the Getty Villa was lacking, and there has never been an exhibition dedicated solely to the Villa dei Papyri exhibition anywhere.

It is more than appropriate, therefore, that the first one of its kind would debut at the Getty Villa. Buried by Vesuvius: Treasures from the Villa dei Papiri runs through October 28th and features a breathtakingly beautiful assemblage of statuary in bronze and marble, frescoes, engravings and artifacts from the villa or associated with its study.

The Villa dei Papyri was discovered by well-diggers quite by accident in 1750. It was excavated by Karl Jakob Weber, a Swiss military engineer who was charged by Charles III of Naples with the first organized excavations of Pompeii and Stabiae as well as Herculaneum. In keeping with his education a an architect and engineer, Weber took a systematic approach to excavation, as opposed to previous diggers who were there to score treasure and gave not a single rat’s ass about the archaeological contexts in which the artifacts they plundered had been found. They used tunnels to break through walls and floors, cleaned out whatever they could and bored into the next space. Weber also had to use tunnels as the ancient city was buried under 100 feet of volcanic ash turned to solid rock and there was a modern city on top of it, but he was cautious and deliberate about it, following the architectural layout of the spaces to minimize damage and maximize understanding of the full scope of the massive villa.

He was also an excellent artist, as luck would have it, and Weber’s drawings of the finds were included in the multi-volume folio of illustrations, Le Antichità di Ercolano, which was a huge hit in mid-18th century Europe and directly influenced the revival of Greco-Roman motifs in the decorative arts.

Weber’s floor plan of the Villa dei Papyri, its accuracy confirmed by more recent excavations even as they expanded into previously undiscovered areas, published in Le Antichità was used by architectural firm Langdon and Wilson to create the Getty Villa in Malibu. The unknown details and additional spaces for the museum were based on fully excavated Roman structures from Pompeii, Herculaneum and Stabiae.

“The Villa dei Papiri is one of the most luxurious private residences of the ancient classical world ever discovered and one which had an important role in the early history of archeology. Especially important are its unique collection of ancient bronze statuary and antiquity’s only surviving library of papyrus scrolls, which provide an unprecedented insight into the philosophical interests of its aristocratic Roman occupant – none other than the father-in-law of Julius Caesar,” says Timothy Potts, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum. “Among the most impressive of these finds is a rare bronze sculpture of a drunken satyr, which, as part of a collaborative conservation project with the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli (MANN), is undergoing analysis and conservation treatment in our conservation studios before going on display in the exhibition.”

Potts adds, “For several decades, we have worked closely with Italian colleagues and institutions in conserving, protecting, researching and celebrating Italy’s extraordinary cultural heritage. We are delighted now to be collaborating with MANN, the Parco Archeologico di Ercolano (PA-Erco), and the Biblioteca Nazionale “Vittorio Emanuele” di Napoli (BNN) in organizing this exhibition. We have had several successful collaborative conservation projects with MANN over the past few years including, most recently, their monumental funerary vessel (krater) from Altamura in 2018, and three of their splendid bronzes: the Ephebe (Youth) in 2009, the Apollo Saettante in 2011, and the over-life-size sculpture of Tiberius in 2013.”

This video provides a fascinating glimpse into the conservation of the Drunken Satyr. At the end you see a view of the underside which was torn apart by the volcanic impact. It’s amazing how well the bronze survived when you see how Vesuvius battered it.

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Operation Night Watch begins today

Monday, July 8th, 2019

Operation Night Watch, the Rijksmuseum’s ambitious research and conservation project of Rembrandt’s massive masterpiece begins today, July 8th, in full public view. The monumental oil painting will remain in place instead of being moved to a lab. An ultra-transparent glass chamber has been erected around it to allow conservators and the complex technology they’ll be using to work in controlled condition even as visitors get a clear view of the action.

Never before has such a wide-ranging and thorough investigation been made of the condition of The Night Watch. The latest and most advanced research techniques will be used, ranging from digital imaging and scientific and technical research, to computer science and artificial intelligence. The research will lead to a better understanding of the painting’s original appearance and current state, and provide insight into the many changes that The Night Watch has undergone over the course of the last four centuries. The outcome of the research will be a treatment plan that will form the basis for the restoration of the painting.

Imaging techniques, including macro X-ray fluorescence scanning (macro-XRF) and infrared reflectance imaging spectroscopy (RIS), will help determine its current condition, and macro X-ray fluorescence scans will analyze the chemical make-up of the paint literally millimeter by millimeter. Each scan takes 24 hours and the team will have to do 56 of them to cover the whole work. The data will allow researchers to create an insanely detailed map of the pigments used in every layer, revealing any changes in composition and shedding new light on Rembrandt’s painting process.  

The high-resolution photography will be absolutely unprecedented. There will be 12,500 photographs taken ranging in resolution from 180 to 5 micrometres. No painting this size has ever been photographed as so high a resolution. Researchers (and the rest of us peering over their shoulders) will be able to study details invisible to the naked eye. 

The Night Watch will be removed from its frame for the initial research phase and placed on a bespoke easel. It will keep the work stable while experts study the entire canvas using two platform lifts to access every part of the masterpiece. 

For those of us who can’t attend in person, the Rijksmuseum website will offer video of the work in progress. There will also be special events on social media for the public around the world to learn more about the project. Those kick off today with an Instagram Live chat with Katrien Keune, head of Science at the Rijksmuseum. It starts at 5PM (11AM EST). If you have any questions about the research into the Night Watch and the conservation, pop over to Instagram and ask it.

You can see the extremely cool glass-walled enclosure built and the painting mounted in this time-lapse video:

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Ruby Slippers conserved, reunited

Wednesday, June 26th, 2019

The iconic Ruby Slippers worn by Judy Garland as Dorothy in the 1939 cinematic classic The Wizard of Oz now in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (NMAH) have been conserved using funds raised in a Kickstarter campaign. The fundraiser was launched on October 17th, 2016, with a goal of $300,000. More 5,300 leapt at the chance to help revive the shoes and the goal was reached in less than a week.

In the two and a half years since the Kickstarter, backers have been getting regular updates on the conservation process, glimpses into a very complex, painstaking approach to studying, cleaning and stabilizing the Ruby Slippers. The NMAH blog has posted an overview of the painstaking conservation of the shoes.

When examined under a microscope, the sequins show themselves to be more intricate than they seem at a glance. They are composed of four layers: two outer layers of red cellulose nitrate coating with a silver backing under the top layer and a gelatin interior. The silver backing is what makes the sequins sparkle in the light. The nitrate coating has flaked off some of the sequins with time and use, but the museum did not repair the loss as it is part of their history as a working costume and witnesses to their age.

Objects conservator Dawn Wallace instead cleaned every single sequin on both shoes. The loose dirt was removed with a small, soft brush. The deeper-set grime was sucked up using a tiny vacuum attached to a pipette. Every thread tying the sequins was examined for weakness and when necessary strengthened with a single strand thread of red silk. They’re invisible to the naked eye and can only be seen in extreme close-up. Wallace also flipped upside-down sequins so that the reflective side was up and realigned ones that had shifted in position.

There were several pairs of Ruby Slippers created for the movie by famed costumier Adrian. The Smithsonian’s was used for the dance sequences and skipping down the Yellow Brick Road. They have felt padding on the bottom of the soles to muffle the sound of them striking the wood set. The ones used to click the heals together for the camera close-ups had no felt.

The different materials of the shoe — the leather, the netting, the threads — even the layers of the sequins all have different preservation needs. That makes determining the proper light, temperature and humidity conditions extremely challenging. A portion of the $300,000 raised was dedicated to the design and production of a new display case with sophisticated environmental controls to preserve the shoes.

The refreshed Ruby Slippers returned to public display in their new state-of-the-art case on October 19th, 2018.

One of the happiest ancillary benefits of the years spent conserving the Smithsonian’s Ruby Slippers is that the very specific expertise developed in the process could be used to confirm the authenticity of the pair stolen from The Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, in 2005. The Smithsonian does not authenticate artifacts, but when the FBI asked them to compare the ruby slippers recovered in 2018 to the ones in the NMAH agreed.

Investigating the materials and their condition, Wallace noticed many consistencies with the museum’s pair. But it was a clear glass bead on the bow of the left shoe that, for her, confirmed her initial reaction.   

Wallace had also spotted clear glass beads painted red while peering through a microscope during conservation work on the museum’s pair. Analysis and interviews with Hollywood costumers indicated that the painted-bead replacements were likely repairs made on-set during filming. 

“To me, the glass bead painted red was a eureka moment,” Wallace said. “That’s a piece of information that hasn’t been published anywhere and, as far as I know, isn’t widely known. It’s a unique element of these shoes, and spotting that bead was a defining moment.” 

Wallace also found that the wear, fading and flaking on the sequins of the recovered shoes matches that on the museum’s shoes, something that could not be counterfeited. 

But the most amazing discovery was the two pairs are even more closely related than anyone imagined they could be.

The museum’s pair is not identical. The heel caps, bows, width, and overall shape do not match; the shoes were brought together from two separate sets. But in examining the recovered shoes, conservators found the left to the museum’s right and the right to the museum’s left. When temporarily reunited, the four shoes created two matching pairs.

Conservators suspect the two pairs were mixed up by those nimcompoops at MGM when the studio sold off its patrimony at the 1970 auction.

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Chippendale tables, mirrors accepted in lieu

Tuesday, June 18th, 2019

A set of matching pier tables and mirrors by Thomas Chippendale have been acquired for the nation under the Acceptance in Lieu scheme. The pair of marquetry inlay tables and Neoclassical looking glasses were given to government by the Trustees of the 7th Earl of Harewood’s Will Trust in lieu of inheritance tax. They have been allocated to the Victoria and Albert Museum, but will not budge from their current location, the Music Room at Harewood House, Yorkshire.

Chippendale was commissioned by Edwin Lascelles, 1st Baron Harewood, to furnish and decorate his newly-built estate. Harewood House was constructed from 1759 to 1771, and the nouveau baron spared no expense on his new seat. Lascelles hired Thomas Chippendale, recognized as the greatest furniture-maker in England, in 1767, before the mansion was even complete. Chippendale visited Harewood that summer and began making preparatory designs.

Chippendale’s Harewood House commission was the most extensive in range of objects, quality of materials and decoration of his career. It was also the most expensive. The surviving records are spotty, but estimates place the value of the contract to more than £10,000 (about $2 million in today’s money).

The first furnishings arrived from Chippendale’s London workshop in April of 1769 and kept coming, literally by the ton (the transportation bills have survived), on a regular basis for years. We know from Chippendale’s records that his team fully furnished three major rooms on the principal floor (the State Bedchamber, State Dressing Room, the Yellow Damask Sitting Room ) and the main staircase area. Harewood’s Day Work Book, kept by steward Samuel Popelwell, record the Chippendale workmen installing furniture in the Dining Room, Library and Music Room. A 1795 inventory records Chippendale pieces in the entrance hall, back stairs and passages, the superior rooms in the basement (Billiards Room, Coffee Room, Stewards Room) and top floor apartments for family and guests.

He didn’t just make the furniture. Chippendale was also tasked with creating window cornices, borders and finishes on the wall coverings, paper and damask (which his workmen hung in all the main rooms), and chimney pieces. While the elaborate plaster moldings in the Music Room were designed by Robert Adam, Chippendale collaborated with Adam and carved the gilded reliefs of the tables and frames of the mirrors to match the ones in the room.

The table tops are rosewood with satin-wood, tulip-wood and other veneers inlaid in patterns of acanthus and anthemion leaf spirals. Marquetry inlay in floral patterns became fashionable in the mid-1750s in France, but it didn’t cross over to England until the dawn of Neoclassicism a decade later. Thomas Chippendale was one of the pioneers of the technique in England. The legs and frames are gilded in a two-tone style, gold and silver, that was popular in French furniture of the time. The mirrors frames also match the plasterwork motifs with carved anthemion and scrolling acanthus leaves on the apron and cresting.

The views of ancient ruins reflected in the mirrors are by Neoclassical painter Antonio Zucchi who collaborated with Robert Adam on the decoration of several stately homes. They can be seen in Adam’s original plan for the room. The mirrors are in the plan too, with only small differences from the final pieces.

Over the centuries pieces of Harewood House’s Chippendale furniture have been sold, chipping away (no pun intended) at the greatest single collection of his works in their original context. The Acceptance in Lieu scheme allows the Trust a financial benefit without losing the pieces Thomas Chippendale made specifically for the space. The V&A has formalized the arrangement with a long-term loan that will keep the Music Room almost exactly as Robert Adams designed it.

The tables and glasses will undergo a programme of conservation by the V&A’s conservators to restore the surface finish closer to Chippendale’s original intention.

Tristram Hunt, Director, V&A said: “It is exceptionally rare to find Thomas Chippendale furniture as well documented as that at Harewood House – the most lavish commission Chippendale ever received. Of superlative quality, the tables and glasses are welcome additions to the V&A’s world-class collection of English furniture. We are delighted that they can remain in their original location to be seen and appreciated by visitors to Harewood House for years to come.”

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17th c. Samson restored to strength

Monday, June 17th, 2019

A 17th century wood statue of Samson, last judge of the Israelites, single-handed slayer of the entire Philistine army armed only with the jawbone of an ass, has been restored to its former strength. It wasn’t a stealth haircut from a temptress that enfeebled him this time, but years of exposure to the less-than-dulcet elements in Norwich covered up with thick layers of paint.

The statue of Samson and a matching figure of Hercules were commissioned in 1657 by Christopher Jay, the mayor of Norwich, as atlantids (carved columns) to flank the entrance of his new home facing Norwich Cathedral in the city’s historic center of Tombland. (Jay had the house built in 1656 incorporating a 15th century home on the site that had belonged to Sir John Fastolf, the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Falstaff.) So iconic did the two statues become that despite the mansion’s many illustrious owners over the years, it became known as the Samson and Hercules House.

Christopher Jay enjoyed his fine guardsmen for twenty years. After his death in 1677, the house lived many lives. It was used as a private home, a surgery, a wool-combing concern, among other functions. In the 20th century, it was a YWCA for a spate before turning into a dance hall in the 1930s, which is what it would remain in various iterations of the concept until 2003. Today it is a Mexican restaurant franchise.

After Samson’s right arm, the one holding the jawbone of the ass, fell off 1992, residents rallied to the heroes’ defense and in 1993 Samson and Hercules were replaced with fiberglass replicas and the originals removed to the care of Norfolk Museums. That’s when researchers discovered that while the old Hercules was also a replica — a late 19th century replacement for the decayed original — Samson was the original 17th century piece. X-rays showed that under the thick layers of white lead paint were intricately carved details long obscured.

He was in such fragile condition — dismembered arm, literally rotten at the core — that it was not possible to put him on display, so Samson would remain in storage for another 20 years. After much negotiation and back-and-forth, Norfolk Museum Services officially acquired the statues in the late 1990s, but the ambitious project of restoring Samson to his 17th century glory would have longer to wait. The lead paint made him heavy  and as long as he was coated in it, assessing the true extent of the rot would be difficult. You can’t just strip off lead paint, however, as it is a hazardous material, and the need to preserve any original features and traces of original color required extreme caution.

In 2014, the Norfolk Museums Service finally got the funding for essential conservation of the Samson statue. It engaged restorers Plowden & Smith to take on the dangerous and daunting task of removing the gross, bulbous cocoon of lead paint and enamel that had made the Biblical hero look like an amorphously lumpy Michelin Man. He was moved to Plowden & Smith’s conservation studio in London and experts embarked on the difficult job.

Conservators discovered a sizeable gap between the outer core and the inner, which they presumed had been caused by the figure drying out over time indoors. There was now a gap wide enough to fit a pencil into at some points, making it possible to remove much of the paint in fairly large pieces without using toxic and messy paint strippers. This was done rather like removing a plaster cast from a broken leg, by cutting carefully in the right places, in this instance with a hammer and a sharp chisel rather than an electric saw. Latterly, a scalpel was used for the finer work.

After four years of painstaking efforts by decorative arts and wood conservators, Samson’s features, carved from a single piece of oak, were seen once more: the long curls spilling down his back, his ripped, veiny forearms, the fine hairs of his moustache and beard, the bushy-tailed fox carried in his left arm, a grotesque-like head serving as the clasp on his robe, even traces of early gilding and colored paint. The crumbling, spongey areas of the wood were injected with a liquid consolidant and areas of loss filled with cellulose fiber to make him structurally sound again.

In February of 2018, the museum launched a crowdfunding campaign with a target of £15,000 for a new custom-built, environmentally controlled display case that would allow Samson to stand guard again, secure and stable inside the museum’s first gallery. The humidity and light controls of the new case would allow curators to keep the wood from expanding and contracting and highlight his fine features for visitors. A rod inserted through the core of his body would make it possible for him to stand, even though his feet have rotted away. The target was achieved before the deadline.

The restored Samson was officially unveiled to the public in his new display case at the Bridewell Alley Museum of Norwich on April 3rd of this year.

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Museum acquires USCT battle flag for $196,800

Friday, June 14th, 2019

The battle flag of the 127th Regiment United States Colored Troops sold at auction yesterday for $160,000 hammer price, just above the low end of its pre-sale estimate. The total cost including buyer’s premium is $196,800. The winning bid was made by the Atlanta History Center, home of the newly restored Battle of Atlanta Cyclorama (which is up and running as of February, btw). This is the most the AHC has ever paid for a single object.

The Atlanta History Center is one of the largest museums in the country in terms of square footage, a 33-acre campus that features thousands of artifacts in the museum’s permanent collection, extensive gardens, the historic Swan House, Smith Family Farm and the Wood Family log cabin. Objects associated with the United States Colored Troops are extremely rare, and the museum has very few of them.

Objects specifically identified with soldiers or regiments of the United States Colored Troops are extraordinarily scarce.  Atlanta History Center Military Historian and Curator Gordon Jones called this flag the definition of rare. “It’s an iconic knock-your-socks-off artifact,” Jones said. “Even an enlisted man’s USCT uniform wouldn’t be as historically significant as this flag.”

Black soldiers in the U.S. Army were issued the same uniforms and equipment as white soldiers, making collecting to interpret the USCT story a significant challenge. “So unless a soldier put his name on a piece of gear or it came down through the family, we will never know who used it,” Jones noted. […]

Among at least 11,000 Civil War objects in the Center’s collections are a dozen objects identified specifically with African American soldiers or regiments. These include a brass drum belonging to a drummer boy of the all-black 55th Massachusetts Regiment, a knapsack used at the Battle of Olustee, Florida, by a soldier in the 8th USCT, and a recently acquired canteen bearing the stenciled mark of the 15th U.S.C.T., which guarded railroad lines in Tennessee during the 1864 Atlanta Campaign.

The acquisition of the battle flag dovetails neatly into the Center’s long-term strategical goal of making the museum an inclusive representation of city’s demographics with a focus on attracting new members and visitors among non-white people under 50 years old who live inside the perimeter of metro Atlanta.

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