The manuscript conservators have been enjoying the chance to work on two autograph letters (i.e. documents in the composer’s handwriting) from Beethoven to his pupil and friend Ferdinand Ries in this, the 250th anniversary year of the composer’s birth. Both letters, dating from 1819 and 1822 respectively, are written with iron-gall ink on paper, and still show the creases and wax from when they were first folded up and sealed ready to be posted.
Conservation work was required to stabilise damage to the edges of the leaves and areas of loss where the corrosive ink had eaten through the paper support.
Repairs were carried out using tiny supports of fine (4gsm) Japanese paper coated with a remoistenable adhesive. This allowed us to minimise the amount of moisture we used whilst applying the repairs, an important consideration when dealing with manuscripts written in iron-gall ink.
Beethoven was a prolific correspondent and more than one thousand of his letters survive. The two examples to Ries in the Fitzwilliam Museum demonstrate the composer’s concerns around the business aspects of musical life: the need to make a living from publishing his works as widely as possible and the problems in getting them into print accurately. In the letter of March 1819, Beethoven writes that ‘it is hard to compose almost entirely for the sake of earning one’s daily bread.’ The letter of July 1822 demonstrates Beethoven’s concern to sell the Op. 110 and 111 piano sonatas (rather untruthfully described as ‘really not very difficult’!) to a London publisher for £26, but signals his intention to make a deal with a German publisher for the same material. At this time there was no copyright law to prevent the same composition being published simultaneously in different countries by different publishers, and the extra income from multiple sales was attractive.
Beethoven autographs were sold off after the composer’s death and collected as souvenirs. Our collection also contains two leaves of autograph music manuscript by Beethoven, which were once part of the sketchbooks he kept to record his musical ideas. It is interesting to see how all these documents have been treated after Beethoven’s death, when they changed from being working texts or scores to mementos. The letter of 1822 was mounted between glass and framed, while the 1819 letter is only part of a much longer list of corrections Beethoven needed to have made to the London edition of the ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata. (The other leaves are now in a collection in Germany.)
In more recent times, the music autographs were conserved by the famous Cockerell Bindery in Grantchester. The single leaves which were removed from the original sketchbooks soon after Beethoven’s death were mounted in larger sheets of paper to protect them from direct handling during use, then bound in two slim volumes covered with the instantly recognisable Cockerell marbled paper.
During our treatment, we were keen to maintain the ephemeral nature of the letters by making subtle repairs and providing good-quality archival folders for them, rather than mounting them permanently as leaves of a book.
Two of the autograph sketches, for the ‘Moonlight’ and ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonatas respectively, the two letters described here, and Beethoven’s life mask and pocket watch have just gone on display in Gallery 3 as part of the 250th anniversary celebrations.
International courier trips are often seen as one of the benefits of a museum career. When objects are lent to museums overseas, they are usually accompanied by a member of the collections team to oversee their safe transport, handling, and installation at the venue. It’s an amazing chance to go behind the scenes at some fantastic museums in lovely locations, and you might just squeeze in a few hours’ sightseeing somewhere exotic… Of course, it’s not all glamour! You can just as easily be spending long hours in a cargo shed at an airport, driving long distances in a lorry, or get stuck in customs, without many opportunities for a break or a meal, while making sure your precious artefacts are supervised at all times. But COVID has changed all that; and that is why in June I completed my first ever ‘virtual courier trip’, to the Kunstmuseum in The Hague. The Fitzwilliam has loaned 15 pieces of English Delftware pottery to the Kunstmuseum for a show called ‘Royal Blue: William and Mary’s Finest Delftware’. The objects were sent out to The Hague in early March, accompanied by Tim Matthews from the Applied Arts department at the Fitz. They had just arrived at the museum when the whole of the Netherlands went into lockdown and Tim had to rush back to the UK to avoid becoming stranded. All plans to install the exhibition were abandoned and the ceramics were placed in store in their travelling crates without being unpacked. Ten weeks later, the Kunstmuseum was planning to reopen and install the exhibition. But many institutions have lent objects for the display, sometimes from countries which, like the UK, were still in lockdown, and sometimes from museums with staff on furlough. For the exhibition to be possible, we all had to adapt our usual procedures. In this case, we decided to do the courier trip via a video call. We used FaceTime, which meant I could follow what was happening in The Hague and also look at the loan documents I needed on the computer. (Other platforms could have worked in the same way for a PC.) At the other end, curator Suzanne Lambooy, conservator-restorer Maud Schermer, and the conservation assistant team used phones to video every moment of the process in a live session. After introducing ourselves, we got on with unpacking the objects. The conservation assistants opened the crates and started to unpack, photographing every stage to make repacking easier at the end of the exhibition, and to have a record of anything untoward that might have happened during the journey. Luckily everything was in perfect order.
All the ceramics were laid out on padded tables next to the display cases and Maud started to check them over. The condition of objects when they leave the Fitzwilliam is documented thoroughly in condition reports and photographs, so Maud and I checked each piece carefully against the records to make sure that there was no new damage. Delftware is very fragile and even well-preserved examples almost always have lots of cracks and chips. Delftware needs to be handled very carefully because it is so easy to damage. Happily, all the staff at the Kunstmuseum are very familiar with this material, and everything they did was exemplary! Maud is a specialist ceramics conservator so was also the ideal person to be doing the real-life condition checking. Looking at the objects in detail was one of the highlights of the experience for me. All of them are decorated with images of William and Mary, who ruled both England and Holland from 1689 to 1702. The pieces are hand-painted and have quite stylised motifs – for example, the things which to me look a bit like lemons are actually intended to be tulips:
Similarly, the heavy blue clusters of circles topped with birds on this plate are actually a very stylised version of the rock-and-bird motifs found on some Chinese ceramics which were popular in the same period.
It was also fun to compare the images of the king and queen, which varied from the frankly jaded…
to the quite frisky…
and, in this case, reminded us rather unfortunately of Jabba the Hutt!
All the designs are unique and quirky, and I could have spent a lot longer enjoying their different characters; but we had to get on with installing the objects in the displays. Curator Suzanne and conservation assistant Bao worked on arranging the dishes and jugs in the display cases, which were painted in William and Mary’s signature orange colour. The blue-and-white ceramics, with their dashes of yellow, really sing out against this background.
Soon the displays were finished and the cases could be closed down and locked: they won’t be reopened now until the exhibition closes and it is time to pack everything for transport home. This adventure in ‘video-couriering’ went amazingly well, not least because the members of the Kunstmuseum team were very experienced and professional, and also lovely people to work with. We had a few challenges with the signal dropping out and batteries going flat – video calls use masses of power so the phone used for the session needed to be on charge for quite a lot of the time. (A portable battery charger would be a big help here!) The video quality is never brilliant so it is also crucial to have good photos of the objects when doing the condition assessments: the main benefit of the video at the condition-checking stage is to help make sure we are all talking about the same thing. Typically, exhibition installations can get pretty hectic, with precision timing needed to install pieces from multiple lenders in a short space of time. The scene at the Kunstmuseum was almost eerily quiet by comparison. This was partly because only about 15% of their staff were on site, to maintain social distancing as the museum gradually returned to work. Naturally everyone was also wearing a mask and gloves at all times. I asked how they were finding using video to work with ‘couriers’. On the plus side, the exhibition space itself does not get too crowded, and if more than one lender needs to supervise a particular display case being closed for the exhibition, they can attend virtually at a time to suit all. This makes some of the logistics easier to arrange, and reduces time pressure. The logistics of organising even virtual installations were tricky at the time because so many museums were closed and had their staff on furlough, but this has now eased. This experience has challenged my assumptions about couriering objects on loan in a very positive way. It is encouraging to realise that by being flexible we can develop safer (at the moment) and also more environmentally and financially sustainable procedures, without compromising the safety of objects travelling on loan. And collaborating with the lovely Kunstmuseum team online was almost as refreshing as actually going to The Hague after so many weeks of working from home!
Sophie Rowe, ACR Conservator of Applied Arts Fitzwilliam Museum
Discussion about replacing the old, worn plinth beneath the Egyptian Shrine (E.40.1902) in the Gayer Anderson Gallery began in 2017 (Fig. 1). We wanted to bring it into line with the other two plinths supporting the largest pieces of sculpture in this gallery. Plinths provide an important protective function. In addition, they help to create a clearly defined, dedicated space which can offer visual emphasis to objects, like frames around paintings.
People had been observed passing this sculpture too closely, accidentally brushing against it. On one occasion, a boy had climbed up onto the front of the shrine and reversed himself neatly into the niche. Although this was an isolated incident, it increased the urgency to make the necessary improvements. Preservation of this ancient sculpture is vital: in widening the footprint of the plinth, a safer distance could be created between the sculpture and visitors.
I contacted the company who had built the two previous plinths, forwarding them a rough sketch to save time (Fig. 2). In follow-up communications, I included static label holders, required for each of the three main sculptures. To achieve design consistency, they were to match the material and design of those in our Greek gallery. For the plinth itself, we chose Corian, a hardwearing and versatile stone-like material, which was also used for the other main plinths.
The contractors visited to make a plywood template in four sections which needed to follow the meandering edges of the base very closely. The aim was to provide a snug fit but avoid contact with the surface of the object. They were confident that they had all the information they needed to proceed, but to ensure accuracy, I asked for a detailed, scale drawing – to quote an inherited mantra, ‘Measure twice, cut once!’. After some tweaking, relating specifically to the angle and height of the label holders and how they connected to the plinth, we were able to agree on the plan and set a date for installation.
Work and time spent on the practical, planning stage of a project is mostly unseen and therefore largely unappreciated. Success, however, is apparent in a job well done. Mistakes can prove costly and exceed time limits, so clear, detailed communication with contractors is key. This technical drawing (Fig. 3), showing various angles, views, and elevations, illustrates the result of this process, which took several weeks.
Fig. 3 Detailed drawings of the final design
A structural restoration had been made on the reverse of the shrine using bricks and poorly applied cement mortar (Fig. 4). This was to enable safe, upright display and it continues to serve this purpose. The shrine was previously displayed up against a wall, so no consideration had been given to the appearance of this practical fix.
When the Egyptian galleries were refurbished and reopened in 2006, the shrine was moved into the Gayer Anderson gallery and placed in a central space where it could be viewed from all sides. During this busy project, the decision was made to hide the unsightly restoration from view temporarily behind a white shadow board, set vertically into the base.
As technicians, our priorities regularly shift around to provide vital support to our rolling exhibitions and departmental needs. Projects can overlap or happen simultaneously so temporary measures are adopted when time is short. This can sometimes move into semi-permanent status, which is perfectly acceptable if the safety and condition of an object is uncompromised.
However, ten years on, with the imminent installation of a new plinth, it was time to remove the painted board from the shrine, and improve upon the ugly restoration beneath. Minimal intervention is always preferable and, as removing the cement would almost certainly have incurred risk to the shrine itself, the plan was to work with what was already there, making the best possible improvements. I estimated the project would take a couple of months to complete as this was gallery-based work and I was restricted to Mondays, when the Museum is closed to the public.
I enjoyed the opportunity and challenge presented and began to plan how I could achieve the best result. I reviewed all existing documentation on the shrine to see if I could find information that might reveal less obvious areas of fragility or cracks. I also needed to establish exactly where the actual object ended and where the restoration began. This would enable me to take the new infill just up to the edge of the object without creating too obvious a divide, but make the dividing line apparent on closer inspection. This was to keep in line with a general museum conservation rule-of-thumb that infills and repairs should be imperceptible from a distance of six feet, but clearly distinguishable from a distance of six inches.
After thorough examination and consideration, I collected the equipment and materials I would need. These included:
A good task light and extension lead – essential for fine work in our darkened galleries
Dust masks and gloves, and something comfortable to sit on
Lots of sandpaper, an old chisel, blunt scraping tools, and various brushes (ranging from wide DIY types to thin fine bristle)
Paint, both acrylic and pigment, and a vessel for water
a Henry vacuum-cleaner
…and my personal playlist!
On removal of the painted backboard, it was a nice surprise to discover a more modern piece of history – a handwritten note by my retired colleague, Bob, on the underside (Fig. 5). I posted a photo of it to him, but we are still wondering what he had meant by ‘No 50 pm’!
My first job was to cut away a random, brittle piece of Formica, protruding from the base of the object (Fig. 6). Use of a Stanley knife proved futile, but a quick trip to our friendly Maintenance team produced an essential, sharp, electrical cutting tool. The Formica had been filing a small void at the base of the object, so I made a new fill from pieces of card (Fig. 7).
Next came the use of the filler. The crude surface of the old bricks and cement needed to be covered evenly to reintegrate the area with the sculpture visually, so it was important to make the texture match well with the original surface.
Flugger can shrink a little on drying so needed to be applied quite thinly in stages. It was important to allow it to dry fully before applying the next layer. This fitted well with the rhythm of access that framed the job. At the end of the day, I would re-attach the white board back over my work and have little choice but to allow it the entire week to set before adding another layer.
Regular sanding back of rough, crusty edges (Figs. 8 and 9) and the repeated application of Flugger continued for some time. This resulted in a lot of fine white dust and the regular need to vacuum. Although smoother than the surface of the object, the end goal was not to disguise or confuse but to create a subtle distinction between the object and the new fill.
Once I had completed this stage, I needed to decide on a suitable colour match. I took time to examine the landscape of textures and differing earth tones on the shrine (Figs. 10 and 11). This was a tricky decision, particularly because, when viewed from the side, several different colours and tones were apparent. I made colour tests with a mixture of acrylics and earth pigments, adding a matting solution to prevent surface shine. On comparison of the results, I decided on a muddy combination of them all.
I applied a base coat to the entire area and then began building up layers, stippling with a wide brush to create depth and texture. Challenges arose with the difference in colour of wet, freshly applied paint in comparison to its appearance when dry. This is a common issue, especially with pigments. In order to check on progress with the colour I had to switch off my task light regularly and stand back to judge the effect of how my work would normally be seen by visitors, under the controlled light of the gallery during open hours.
Mixing up a big enough batch of paint and covering it with clingfilm to use at the next weekly application became a helpful time-saver. Although enjoyable, colour matching can sometimes seem never-ending, with a constant potential for improvement; but the fast-approaching date for the plinth installation provided me with a deadline.
Having completed my part of the project, it was great to see the four sections of Corian arrive and fit neatly, jigsaw-style, around the object (Figs. 12 and 13). The contractor made small adjustments where needed and filled the joins, sanding back the filler to an impressive invisible finish.
Now standing on its smart new plinth, complete with a built-in label holder, the shrine has an improved, balanced aesthetic and is better protected from general contact (Fig. 14).
Louise Jenkins, Senior Chief Technician, Antiquities Department
In a previous blog-post about the work I am undertaking on the collection of Dürer engravings at the Fitzwilliam Museum, I discussed the benefits of being able to compare a number of impressions of the same print. I also mentioned the historical practice of trimming sheets along, and sometimes within, the plate-mark. The latest batch of prints I have been working on contains two impressions of the print St Jerome in Penitence in the Wilderness (Fig. 1), which demonstrate this point.
Both are rich, well-inked impressions of the same state1 of the print. When compared it becomes obvious that 22.I.3-65 has had a strip of approximately 15mm cut from the top edge, probably to remove an area of damage. This impression is also interesting because it has a number of tight, diagonal creases in the sheet, extending from the top right corner deep into the printed image (Fig.2). We can’t be certain what the cause was: it is possible that they occurred when the sheet of paper was formed, but I think they are more likely to be printer’s creases2. They have disrupted the printed image, and at some point, a rather crude attempt has been made to disguise them by retouching the areas that didn’t print properly with black ink.
More care was taken to obscure a similar crease in the engraving The Four Witches (22.I.3-94). It is almost invisible to the naked eye, and was only revealed on the back of the sheet once it had been lifted from the mount (Fig.3). A restorer has applied very fine patches of paper to the front of the sheet, covering the area along the crease where the printing has been disrupted. The design was then carefully drawn in ink over the patches to match the surrounding image. This restoration becomes apparent when the sheet is viewed in transmitted light (Fig.4).
In this latest group of engravings there is another example of a very skilful repair which is really only visible under magnification. There is a complex tear to an impression of the print The Temptation of the Idler, also known as The Dream of the Doctor (22.I.3-103). The damage extends from the lower right edge of the sheet to the centre, through the standing figure of Venus at the right. It looks as though the restorer has had to pare the edge of the tear in places in order to achieve this near-invisible mend. When viewed from the back, these areas appear slightly darker as the printing ink is visible through the thinned paper fibres (Fig. 6).
Attitudes have changed and removal of original material, even very small amounts such as this, is not considered permissible in conservation today. But it is difficult not to marvel at these restorations: they clearly required huge skill and expertise.
During my treatment, I removed the lining paper from the print, and it was possible to wash the sheet carefully in order to reduce the discolouration without disturbing the tear. The print was then pressed, inlaid, and hinged into a new museum-board mount.
Another impression of this print (P.3104-R) was given to the Museum by Arthur W. Young in 1934. The old mount carries some more fascinating and revealing inscriptions from scholars that I described in my previous post. In this instance, the notes suggest that both Thomas Barlow and Campbell Dodgson considered this impression inferior to the ‘existing’ one discussed above, and it was therefore a possible candidate for disposal. But there is also a comment from J.W. Goodison who spotted the disguised tear, and this might be the reason that both impressions were fortunately kept3:
‘? Reject. This is a very fine, but your existing impression is also brilliant & I don’t think you need keep both. Existing impn. is clearer & this one has staining top corner v. on the other hand it has a much better margin than existing impn. T[homas] B[arlow] Aug 35’
‘I think this is hardly wanted C[ampbell] D[odgson]’
‘Wd suggest keeping this as existing impn. has a bad damage J.W.G[oodison]’
In Barlow and Dodgson’s defence, some of the tell-tale discolouration along the tear may not have been visible when they inspected it.
Looking closely at these very beautiful prints during the conservation process continues to reveal fascinating aspects of their history.
On 6th January, I started in an exciting new role as an Institute of Conservation (ICON) Preventive Conservation Intern at the Fitzwilliam Museum. I quickly became involved with assisting Helena Rodwell, Assistant Conservator (Collections Care), with the regular environmental monitoring in the Museum and have been participating in workshops to improve and update the Museum’s emergency plan documentation and implementation.
It is imperative that museums assess and mitigate risks to their collections and have a clear, concise and useable Emergency Plan for use during emergencies, where there is potential for confusion when normal working patterns are disrupted
Emergency Planning: Risk Management and Threats
Risk Management refers to the practice of identifying potential risks, evaluating them, and establishing measured, precautionary steps to halt or reduce the risk. Risk is an assessment of both the probability or likelihood of a specific event occurring and the magnitude or extent of its impact. Robert Waller states that ‘the estimation of the magnitude of… [a] risk is highly dependent on statistical information regarding the probability of the event.’
Unfortunately, there have been many high-profile museum disasters recently, from fire at the Glasgow School of Art to flooding at Pontypridd Museum in South Wales. As institutions that safeguard collections for future generations, museums have to be prepared for potentially serious occurrences.
Potential threats take many forms, but include:
Pest Infestation – the inundation by pests, such as the organic-object-consuming Vodka beetle, within a gallery or museum store
Fire – a minor or major ignition affecting museum collections or buildings
Flooding/Abnormally High Relative Humidity – water-damage or dampness caused by natural (e.g. overflowing rivers), mechanical (e.g. leaking pipework) or incidental (e.g. water-damage from a fire hose) factors
Theft/vandalism – the premeditated taking of or damage to museum collections
Terrorism and intentional violence for political or religious reasons
Emergency Plans and Staff Development
Emergency plans vary based on the size and complexity of the individual museum. Staff are well-suited to develop an emergency planning document, as they have intimate knowledge of the buildings and collections and are acutely aware of potential risks.
One of the benefits of staff being the primary drivers in the production of an emergency planning manual is that the documentation can be continuously reviewed to reflect changing exhibition spaces, new collection objects, loans, or major building redevelopments.
Emergency Planning Workshop: Objectives
To assist with an emergency situation and to enable staff to act swiftly to minimize damage to buildings and collections, the Fitzwilliam Museum is holding a series of workshops to review and update the emergency manual and to ensure a large group of museum staff shares the responsibility of the manual’s execution. The workshops also aim to build the confidence and knowledge of the emergency team through continual training and exercises.
The most recent workshop (fig. 1), facilitated by Rosie Forrest, Documentation Coordinator, Sophie Rowe, UCM Conservator, and Helena Rodwell, had the aims of:
Understanding each individual’s role in an emergency situation in relation to other emergency team roles
Refining the Emergency Plan checklists
And identifying and assigning outstanding tasks
Emergency Planning Workshop: Teams and Roles
Our first task was to divide into our designated emergency team groups (I was part of the Collections Salvage Group). During an emergency, a wider Emergency Team with clear, designated roles will be activated and manage the incident (fig. 2). These sub-groups include the Emergency Management Team composed of the Emergency Response Coordinator, Security Manager, Building Recovery Manager, Collections Salvage Manager, and Business Continuity Manager/PR; and the Emergency Response Team, composed of the Documentation Manager and Quartermaster, with the addition of a Flexible Support team.
Provided with a series of paper slips with various tasks written on them, each team was instructed to gather the tasks of which their team had ownership and to clarify if others were required. For example, the Collections Salvage Manager’s main tasks are the protection and avoidance of damage to unaffected collections, the minimisation of future deterioration to the damaged material, and the prioritisation of damaged items for recovery. This was a beneficial and enlightening exercise as it clarified:
What the central tasks within each team are
Where tasks could either be shared between groups or where a single group should have ownership of a task
Where teams could go to for support if a task is too large to tackle alone
Emergency Planning Workshop: Scenario
We were then presented with an emergency scenario (fig. 3). We needed to decide our actions and priorities, the equipment and resources required to enable us to perform our tasks effectively, how best to communicate and coordinate with other teams, and assess any requirements for specialist skills and training.
My group decided that the Collections Salvage Manager would:
Manage the decant of objects to a safe location within a reasonable distance of the incident, but far enough away to ensure the safety of people and objects
Assess the condition of collections and determine quickly which objects are damaged and those that should be prioritized
Determine what sorts of salvage procedures are suitable
Communicate regularly with curatorial and conservation advisors, and present clear instructions to the salvage teams
Emergency Planning Workshop: Outstanding Tasks
We concluded the meeting by discussing issues brought up during the course of the workshop, recorded by Rosie and Helena on sticky notes, and assigned to individual group members to examine further (fig. 4).
The workshop was beneficial in highlighting the importance of teamwork and shared responsibilities during a potentially chaotic situation. Emergency Planning manuals are not static: they are living documents, which are constantly revised. Continual re-evaluation ensures staff remain involved and have confidence in the Museum’s emergency procedures.
I enjoyed taking part in this workshop immensely and, thanks to the Fitzwilliam Museum staff’s passion and enthusiasm, the day was productive and inspiring.
Waller, R. (1994) ‘Conservation risk assessment: a strategy for managing resources for preventive conservation’, in Studies in Conservation, vol. 39, sup. 2, pg. 13.
For anyone working on the topic of early modern portrait miniatures, 2019 was an exciting year, seeing the fruition of much new research in exhibitions and publications, including the large exhibition Elizabethan Treasures: Miniatures by Hilliard and Oliver (21 Feb 2019 – 19 May 2019), which introduced a new generation to this art form at the National Portrait Gallery, London; Elizabeth Goldring’s much-awaited biography, Nicholas Hilliard: Life of an Artist, (New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 2019); and Cambridge’s very own focused display, Secrets of a Silent Miniaturist: Technical Analysis of Isaac Oliver’s Miniatures at the Fitzwilliam Museum. In Cambridge, work on miniatures continues with the technical analysis of Oliver’s work and, as part of this project, the digitisation of the hitherto largely unexplored archive of Jim Murrell (1934–1994), housed at the Hamilton Kerr Institute (HKI).
Vernon James Murrell, known as Jim, was a conservator of miniatures and wax objects at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (V&A) from 1961 until his retirement in 1994. Murrell worked on the V&A’s National Collection of portrait miniatures as well as examples in private and other public international collections. He wrote and contributed towards a number of key publications, in which he shared his technical knowledge of miniatures. These include John Murdoch et al., The English Miniature (New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 1981); Roy Strong and V. J. Murrell, Artists of the Tudor Court: The Portrait Miniature Rediscovered, 1520–1620 (London: V&A, 1983); and The Way Howe to Lymne: Tudor Miniatures Observed (London: V&A, 1983). His edition of Edward Norgate’s seventeenth-century treatise Miniatura, or The Art of Limning, co-authored with Jeffrey M. Muller, was published posthumously (New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 1997). Murrell’s work pioneered the technical study of miniatures and the communication of his findings to non-specialist audiences, and continues to be used today by art historians and new audiences.
The archive contains Murrell’s notes, sketches, slides, and lectures, most of which have not yet been published, as well as secondary reading materials.It reveals adesire to understand how miniatures were made, the materials and techniques which were used to create them, and Murrell’s curiosity concerning the technical interest in miniatures in early modern Britain. His notes reveal how artists created miniatures, what pigments were employed for the paints, and how the artist applied the paint to the support. Murrell transcribed copies of historical manuscripts and annotated them to indicate where recipes were unique, had been copied from other treatises, and where they offered a variation on existing knowledge. These annotations highlight the ways in which information circulated amongst artists, patrons and other interested readers in early modern England. Information about the painting of portrait miniatures can also be found within a variety of written materials on other topics, including commonplace books, books of coats of arms and heraldry, and books on plants.
The archive was donated to the HKI by Jim’s wife, Ann Murrell Ballantyne, a restorer of medieval wall paintings, in June 1999. Access to the archive is currently greatly limited but plans are afoot to create an archive centre at the HKI. In the meantime, however, and for those who are not able to travel to the HKI, it is hoped that the digitised version will soon be available online, providing access to reproductions of Murrell’s notes and sketches.1
Between April and December 2019, I digitised over five thousand images from the archive. The images were captured using DocScan, a free mobile phone scanning app which was installed on a Sony Xperia XA1. Docscan works with the mobile camera and does not require a flatbed scanner. This would make it a good option for researchers visiting archives where no scanner is available or where scanning may damage the original. Often, the DocScan app could detect the outlines of a page and suggested where to crop and edit the images before saving to the phone. I found that this function worked better with pages of typed text than with notebooks of faint, pencilled sketches or notes. Once the images had been captured and edited, they were saved as PDF files and transferred to a computer. This made it easier to view the image to check for focus and cropping. Sometimes images needed to be taken again to ensure legibility, which was the main priority of this project. Digitising the archive will not only increase accessibility, but also help decipher Murrell’s notes: his script is tidy but sometimes very small, and is therefore easier to read once it has been magnified on the computer. Digitisation will also help to ensure the longevity of Murrell’s knowledge, should anything ever happen to damage the original material.
The image above shows a digitised page from one of Murrell’s notebooks in which he has included notes and sketches from the V&A collection of portrait miniatures. The upper image shows Murrell’s sketch of an unknown lady painted by the enamel miniature artist, Christian Friedrich Zincke, c. 1705–1745, 46 mm x 38 mm (P.37-1931). With the benefit of viewing the original painting under magnification combined with his technical knowledge of how these works were created, Murrell has noted that the sitter’s blue dress was painted ‘wet-in-wet’, a painting technique in which paint layers are applied one after the other, before the previous layerhas dried. This technique is used to create a very smooth appearance with no visible brushstrokes. Murrell also noted this highly finished effect in the pale grey ‘floating’ background of the miniature, and the almost invisible washes laid down to create the features of the figure. Below this in Murrell’s notebook is a sketch of a second miniature by Zincke: Charles, 2nd Duke of Grafton, c. 1730, enamel on metal, 45 mm x 37 mm (Evans 320). Again, Murrell’s close observation of the work reveals the techniques whereby Zincke achieved his smooth effects. The background is noted as ‘very softly stippled’,a technique of using small dots or short strokes of the paintbrushwhereas vertical hatching (closely drawn lines) and ‘sharp dotted stipples’ are used by the painter to model the sitter’s face. The different sorts of marks are clearly represented in Murrell’s sketch. The notebook contains further sketches and notes on miniatures by Zincke and his contemporaries.
The archive now exists in its original state and, largely, as a series of digitised files. With further funding, it will be possible to make these digitised files available for public viewing online. It is hoped that providing the Murrell archive with an online presence will provide an ongoing legacy and foster the revival of interest in miniatures. The funding for the digitisation work undertaken so far was granted by the British Academy Small Research Grant scheme and the Fitzwilliam Museum’s Marlay Group, as part of an ongoing technical research project on Isaac Oliver.
If you want to know more or contribute to the project, please get in touch by emailing email@example.com.
The Fitzwilliam Museum holds an exceptional collection of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts, representing all major schools of European illumination from the ninth to the sixteenth century. In the last decade, hundreds of volumes have benefited from interdisciplinary study undertaken as part of two ongoing projects, Cambridge Illuminations and MINIARE.
In this context, the Fitzwilliam’s scientific team recently analysed some fifteenth-century English manuscripts in order to investigate the illuminators’ materials and techniques. Among them, we took a close look at a volume which attracted our attention for its dimensions, only about 10 x 7 x 3 cm! (Fig. 1).
The manuscript (MS 2-1967) is a Book of hours dating to c. 1420, written in Latin on 184 folios of parchment. It contains seven historiated initials, numerous minor decorated initials, pen-work infills of different colours, and borders with golden ivy leaves and coloured acanthus leaves (Fig. 2). Most folios display some level of degradation, in the form of darkening of the red-orange areas and flaking gold leaf, which has significantly changed the original appearance of the decorated borders.
The results of the technical investigation revealed a rich palette, which includes lead white, carbon black, vermilion red, and red lead. The latter has often degraded, especially in the borders, and now appears black. An organic red dye was used to paint pink and red passages, whereas a purple dye was employed for lilac pen-work infills surrounding small gilded initials and to rule the pages.
Ultramarine is the main blue pigment used within the illuminations and the text, e.g. to paint all the blue garments and the acanthus leaves. Interestingly, XRF analysis revealed that the ultramarine employed for the small initials within the text contains more calcium than other blue areas analysed. Calcium may derive from calcite, one of the most common minerals associated with the natural stone lapis lazuli, from which ultramarine is made. Its presence may suggest the use of a low-quality ultramarine, prepared or sourced differently than other batches of the same pigment1.
Blue azurite mixed with lead white was found only in small passages, such as the light blue armours of the soldiers witnessing the resurrection of Christ on fol. 40r (see Fig. 2). Azurite was also mixed with an earth pigment to obtain the dark green used in the foreground of all scenes depicted in the historiated initials analysed. An earth pigment, mixed with various compounds, also yielded yellow and brown hues.
A copper-based compound was employed to obtain the bright green leaves of the borders. Its reflectance spectral signature most resembled that of a mineral compound – such as malachite or a copper sulphate – rather than a synthetic product, such as Verdigris.
Gold was found to be used as shell gold (i.e. powdered gold used as ink or paint) and as gold leaf (i.e. gold beaten into thin sheets), which was laid over a raised white ground. Lastly, iron-gall ink, containing copper and zinc, and red vermillion were used in the text.
Along with the imaging and spectroscopic techniques listed above, microscopic observation helped clarify the illuminator’s painting techniques. Flesh tones were painted using lead white, in addition to a copper-containing compound, an iron-oxide pigment, and small amounts of a calcium-based pigment (such as chalk or gypsum). Outlines and facial features were likely to have been drawn with iron-gall ink; lips, cheeks, and noses were enriched with dabs of red lead, and highlights were then added using lead white.
Among the materials detected, two are of particular interest: the copper-containing mineral used for bright green areas, and ultramarine. Both pigments are not commonly encountered in fifteenth-century English manuscripts, which often contain Verdigris and azurite2 instead. Ultramarine remained the standard blue pigment used by illuminators until the late thirteenth century, when it was replaced by azurite, possibly due to the disruption of trade routes between Europe and Asia – the primary source of this pigment – after the disintegration of the Mongol Empire3. The extensive use of precious ultramarine within the manuscript therefore raises questions about the context of its production and the patron’s social status, potentially suggesting a prestigious commission. Additionally, observation under magnification revealed the artist’s ability to portray different expressions and ultimately suggest emotions, such as joy (Fig. 4), astonishment (Fig. 5) or sorrow (Fig. 6), in very tiny faces – they are only a few millimetres long!
Overall, the results of the analyses allowed us to gain insight into the material choices made by a fifteenth-century English illuminator to enrich a book of private devotion. In addition, they will broaden knowledge about English manuscripts produced in that century which have not yet benefited from in-depth examinations.
Even if at first glance the manuscript seemed easy to handle and examine, and the original palette easy to identify, this research taught us that sometimes small objects contain unexpected treasures!
Osticioli, I. , N.F.C Mendes, A. Nevin, F. Gil, M. Becucci, E. Castellucci, ‘Analysis of natural and artificial ultramarine blue pigments using laser-induced breakdown and pulsed Raman spectroscopy, statistical analysis and light microscopy’, Spectrochimica Acta Part A 73, 2009, 525-531.
Panayotova, S., L. Pereira-Pardo, P. Ricciardi, ‘Illuminator’s Materials and Techniques in Fourteenth-century English Manuscripts’, in Manuscripts in the Making: Art and Science, eds. S. Panayotova and P. Ricciardi, London and Turnhout: Harvey Miller/Brepols, 2017, vol. 1, 46-64.
In 2016 the Fitz made the headlines with a remarkable discovery: a miniature Egyptian coffin (E.43.1907) that had been thought to hold mummified organs was found to contain an embalmed human foetus, probably the youngest ever known to be buried in Ancient Egypt.
The coffin had been X-rayed in preparation for the Death on the Nile exhibition, but when the results appeared inconclusive it was decided to CT-scan 1 its contents. This revealed a mummified foetus only 18 weeks into gestation, its arms ritually folded over its chest. It was wrapped in bandages, over which molten back resin had been poured before the coffin was closed.
The coffin that holds the bundle is of interest in itself. Excavated in Giza by the British School of Archaeology in 1907, it came to the Museum in the same year. Though the wood is poorly preserved and the painted surface entirely lost, surviving details of the face and ears show that it was skilfully carved. Measuring only 43cm in length, it is a fine example of an anthropoid coffin of the Late Period (664-525 BC), built on a tiny scale.
I recently re-examined the object with the aim of completing its technical study and assessing the condition of the fragile surface.
X-ray examination confirmed that box and lid are each carved out of a single piece of cedar wood2, joined by four pegged tenons on each side (Figs. 3 and 4). The deterioration of the wood is so severe that deep crevices are visible in X-rays of the box (Fig. 4).
A powdery white material can be seen on the ears, face, chest and feet (Fig. 5), particularly in recessed areas. This shows that the surface would have been covered in a white preparation layer (typically calcite mixed with animal glue), applied over the wood to create a smooth surface for painting. Traces of black resin are also visible, which may be unintentional splashes from when the burial bundle was coated.
Although to the naked eye the surface appears to be bare wood, microscopic examination reveals occasional loose pigment particles. The main colour visible is blue, seen on the wig and the collar. This is likely to be Egyptian blue3, a glassy, copper-based frit4 commonly used in the ancient world, and one of the earliest synthetic pigments. Red, yellow, and green pigment particles are also visible under the microscope, but it is hard to be sure that these are original.
Close examination also reveals signs left by craftsmen at the time of manufacture: a fingerprint in black (Fig. 6), probably left at the time the coffin was closed after the molten resin was applied within; and chisel marks on the wooden surface around the head (Fig. 7), which might have served to roughen the surface before the preparation layer was applied.
The surface was investigated further with an imaging technique known as Visible Light Induced Luminescence5 photography (VIL), used to detect the pigment Egyptian blue, and ultraviolet6 light (UV), which helps reveal the presence of varnishes and resins, but no further traces of the original decoration could be seen.
The fibrous structure of the wood is severely weakened by what appears to be brown-rot, a type of fungal degradation, also responsible for the pronounced fracturing of the surface (known as ‘cubing’). Entire sections of the surface are lost, particularly on the sides, but the head is better preserved. The surface layer easily crushes and powders on touch, a symptom of degradation of the wood structure at a cellular level.
The conservation treatment aimed to reinforce particularly degraded areas of the surface to avoid further losses. After cleaning with a soft brush, smaller wood fragments and highly deteriorated, fibrous areas were consolidated with a cellulose-based adhesive7, selected after testing due to its compatibility with wood and the fact that it did not change the appearance of the surface. Larger fragments were secured in place by inserting tabs of a long-fibre paper tissue soaked with a strong cellulose starch paste8. The powdery plaster and pigment residues had to be consolidated without touching the surface, as any contact with a brush would have picked up the loose particles. This was achieved by applying a consolidant9 in a mist using a nebulizer. For this treatment I chose Funori, a polysaccharide derived from dried red algae that has been used in Japan as an adhesive for over 300 years and is known for its excellent ageing properties and suitability for matte surfaces.
Though the coffin remains one of the most fragile objects in the Antiquities collection, the surface is now significantly stronger and less prone to losses, allowing for the coffin to be moved safely when needed for further examination and display.
The mummified foetus was discovered by Helen Strudwick, Associate Curator (Egyptian Antiquities), and Julie Dawson, Head of Conservation, both from the Fitzwilliam Museum, in collaboration with Dr Tom Turmezei, Honorary Consultant Radiologist at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, and Dr Owen Arthurs, Academic Consultant Paediatric Radiologist at Great Ormond Street Hospital, London. Technical investigation of the coffin was carried out by the author and by Jennifer Marchant, Conservator of Antiquities and Assistant Keeper at the Fitzwilliam Museum. The wood species was identified by Caroline Cartwright, Senior Scientist at the British Museum, in 2006.
Jillian, H. and Z. Wyszomirska-Noga, ‘Funori: The use of a traditional Japanese adhesive in the preservation and conservation treatment of Western objects’, in Adapt & Evolve 2015: East Asian Materials and Techniques in Western Conservation. Proceedings from the International Conference of the Icon Book & Paper Group, London 8-10 April 2015. London: The Institute of Conservation, 2017. 69–79.
Strudwick, H. and J. Dawson (eds.) Death on the Nile. Uncovering the Afterlife of Ancient Egypt. The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. London: Giles, 2016.
There are 374 prints by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) in the Fitzwilliam Museum, many of which are fine and rich impressions, and a further 251 sheets attributed to followers of Dürer. I have recently enjoyed the opportunity to look closely at some of these prints as part of an ongoing project to conserve and remount them.
The prints come from a number of sources, including a core group of 127 engravings owned by Lord Fitzwilliam. These were bound together in an album (22.I.3) by Henry Woodburn in 1811, with Lord Fitzwilliam’s inscription on the fly-leaf title sheet, ‘Oeuvres / d’Albert Durer’. In 1876 the prints from this album, along with etchings, engravings and woodcuts from five others including Rembrandt and Martin Schöngauer, were sent to the British Museum for conservation and re-mounting. The sheets were mounted individually in ‘sunk mounts’ of a standard Royal size (559mm 406mm), with gilded edges, and stamped with the lettering ‘Albrecht Dürer’ and a number corresponding to catalogue raisonnés of Dürer’s prints (Ottley and Bartsch) (Fig. 1). This type of mount was devised by the Department of Prints & Drawings at the British Museum around the middle of the 19th century in an effort to limit unnecessary handling of the sheets and reduce abrasion to the surface of works of art on paper that were previously stored loose in portfolios. A bevelled opening was cut in a piece of cardboard slightly larger than the print, a second ‘backboard’ was pasted to it and the print mounted in the aperture. The surface of the print sits below the surrounding board thus protecting it from wear.
‘Today, the availability of paper board is taken for granted, but until the beginning of the 19th century it had been neither a widely used nor a readily procurable commodity […] In the British Museum, pure quality, stiff rag cream-coloured board from J M Whatman had been utilized from the 1840s. The high quality of this board is certainly a major factor in the fine condition of the Museum’s collections today.’1
The opportunity to look very closely at these prints has revealed other work that appears to have been undertaken at the British Museum during remounting. It was common practice to adhere the prints to a thin machine-made paper; this lining supported torn or weak areas of the print and made it easier to attach the print to the mount without causing distortion. I have discovered examples where small losses to the original engravings have been very skilfully recreated, hand-drawn in ink on the lining paper (Fig. 2).
It is not uncommon for intaglio prints such as etchings and engravings, especially those by Old Masters, to be trimmed to the plate-mark (the indentation around the image created by the metal plate being pressed into the dampened paper as it moves through the press). There is often a printed ink line along this indentation created either by the artist as a drawn border to the image, or a result of ink residue not wiped from the extreme edge of the plate. Trimming of the sheets was often surprisingly haphazard with the very edge of the printed image sometimes being removed in the process. As a result, prints with a complete margin, even when very narrow, are highly prized. The recent study of the Fitzwilliam’s Dürers has revealed some instances where missing sections of platemarks have been re-touched in ink, either on the primary support or the lining paper. We can be fairly confident that this was carried out when the objects were re-mounted as there is an example where the line has slipped slightly onto the mount (Fig. 3).
There are also examples of prints that have a curious pink line at the plate-mark (Fig. 4). It is thought that these marks were made with a copying pencil.2 When dry, the marks of a copying pencil resemble graphite, but they contain an aniline dye that is soluble in water and permanently changes colour if it becomes wet. While purple/violet is most common, a range of colours has been noted.3 It is possible that the colour-change occurred due to moisture from the mounting adhesive.
Not all the prints are in good condition. For example, when viewed in transmitted light it becomes apparent that the impression of St Thomas (AD.5.22-201) is only a fragment of the original sheet and very thin in places (Fig. 5). It would have certainly sustained more damage without the support of the lining paper carefully applied at the British Museum.
There are fascinating inscriptions on some mounts where scholars have noted the merits or flaws of various impressions. Describing an impression of the engraving Virgin and child with the pear (P.3092-R), given to the Museum by Arthur W. Young in 1934, Thomas Barlow writes, ‘It seems to me an unusually brilliant impression with this mark (anchor in a circle watermark). It is more like a Bull’s Head impression. Your existing impression is excellent and a more pleasing impression, this is rather over inked on the right side. But a very interesting impression. I should be very chary of disposing of it.’4 Campbell Dodgson added his agreement below: ‘It is very fine, shows platemark more completely, and ought to be kept.’5
Subtle differences between impressions can be noted within the collection. The ink is a little blurred in places on the impression of the Virgin and Child with the Pear on the right, where the plate was less thoroughly wiped (Fig. 6). The dramatic loss of richness and detail, the result of a worn printing plate, becomes apparent when comparing two impressions of St. George on Foot (Fig. 7).
The mounts are now nearly 150 years old and, while the materials used were the best available at the time, they are showing their age. There are handling marks which would be distracting if the works were displayed, and the mounts are also generally much thinner than those we would use today. The linings make the prints look unnaturally flat and prevent access to the back of the sheets, which can often provide valuable information to researchers. A number of pale brown/orange spots have also developed over time. They occur on both the prints and mounts which suggests they are a result of either impurity in the board or in the adhesive used to attach the prints (Fig. 8).
Inevitably with a collection of this size, the documentation and conservation project will take some time to complete and I hope to update this blog with further observations as the work continues. The approach to treatment is dictated by the condition of each print, but in many cases they are being lifted from the old mounts once all the original inscriptions have been recorded.
Where possible, the linings are being removed (Fig. 9) and the adhesive used to attach them is reduced or removed. This process has already revealed some interesting inscriptions and collector’s stamps. The papers used to make these prints are beautiful and very good quality: they have responded well to washing treatments and the spotty discolouration has reduced to a point where it is no longer distracting (Fig.10).
Tears and losses are repaired and the original British Museum retouched fills are being retained in-situ where appropriate. Once the prints have been lightly pressed they are inlaid into a slightly larger sheet of paper, a technique that allows access to the back of the sheet, and remounted in 100% cotton Museum-board mounts.
I am hopeful that this work will continue to protect these beautiful prints for another 150 years.
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