Illuminating Objects: Observation, Connoisseurship and a bit of Detective Work

Illuminating Objects intern Natasha Gertler tells us about how her research is going. 

As previously touched upon in my last blog post (and frankly, contrary to my natural instinct to apply analysis to any given problem) identifying decorative stones, such as those in the Courtauld’s ornate frame, is actually more an art than a science.

Whereas geologists can use destructive techniques to analyse and accurately identify rocks and minerals from the field – smashing and slicing them to view under a microscope – this of course is not an option when considering valuable objects from a museum collection. Even most non-invasive analytical techniques are inappropriate as the majority of these aim to establish information about the chemical composition and arrangement of a sample but many materials, both natural and manmade, have essentially the same chemical make-up. For example, both quartz and glass are composed of silica (SiO₂) and so cannot be distinguished by such analysis.

Therefore, identifying decorative stones is normally achieved through a mixture of observation, connoisseurship and comparison to stones of known identity. Awareness of such stones, their appearance, uses and provenance, is hence essential for identification. However, this is rather a niche discipline as it lies somewhere between geology and art history but is never fully taught in either field, but instead gained through experience and exposure. There are only a handful of such experts in the UK.

Dr. Ruth Siddall, Senior Lecturer in Earth Sciences at UCL, along with her student, Nadine Gabriel, kindly came to the Courtauld to lay eyes on the frame and carry out a bit of detective work. Armed with a microscope and a wealth of decorative stone knowledge, Ruth corrected our prior suspicions of the inclusion of man-made imitations in the frame, reassuring us that all the segments of the frame were indeed rocks and minerals sourced from around the 17th century.

Ruth Siddall and Nadine Gabriel observing the frame

Microscopic camera taking images of the frame

Natasha Gertler and Nadine Gabriel looking at the microscopic images of the frame

Ruth’s certainty arose by comparing the stones in the frame to the extensive Corsi collection. Housed in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, it is composed of 1000 polished stone slabs of uniform shape and size (145 x 73 x 40 mm). By referring to the online catalogue, she identified the presence of various Sicilian jaspers in the frame.

In particular, Ruth identified what we initially thought was an imitation of tiger’s eye to in fact be a distinct variety of Sicilian jasper characterised by its yellow and black banded appearance. Shown below are images of the Sicilian jaspers in the frame (left) alongside the corresponding samples from the Corsi collection (right).

Corsi 764 © Oxford University Museum of Natural History

Corsi 745 © Oxford University Museum of Natural History

Corsi 776 © Oxford University Museum of Natural History

Ruth Siddall using the Corsi collection online catalogue for comparisonWith such an excellent resource on our doorstep, naturally our next step on the quest for identity was to contact Monica Price, Head of Earth Collections at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History and author of The Corsi Collection website.

Read all about my collaboration with Monica Price and trip to the Oxford University Museum of Natural History in my next blog post.

P.s. As the major contributor of information to the London Pavement Geology website, Ruth also pointed out to us the decorative stones used just on the doorstep of the Courtauld. These are Grey Oland Limestone and Red Oland Limestone arranged in a checkered pattern. Admittedly, I have never noticed these details, so next time you come and visit us make sure to spot the ancient fossils under your feet!

Reading Inscriptions in the Collection

Our Reading Drawings Display, in the Gilbert and Ildiko Butler Drawings Gallery until 4 June, looks at a selection of works from The Courtauld Gallery’s collection which demonstrate the varying reasons both artists and collectors wrote on drawings. These range from straightforward signatures to lengthy captions, invented languages and marks of ownership. However, it’s not just this temporary display that features inscriptions revealing essential information about a work of art’s authorship, dating, subject matter, purpose and history. The Courtauld’s full collection has its own plethora of written word on a variety of materials, detailing an array of interesting snippets of information.

Monumental Inscriptions

Roman funerary altar (1st century AD)

Roman funerary altar (1st century AD)

The inscription here mentions the stone was made by Lucceia Hebene for her husband, Marcus Lucceius Optatus, and daughter, who died at five years and three months. What it does not tell us, but can be deduced from the name itself, is that Hebbene (or Hebene) was a freed slave, possibly a black freed slave. (There is an associated altar, dedicated to Lucceia Hebene herself, in a castle in Scotland.)

The art and craft of lettering

Inscription, 1918, Eric Gill (1882-1940)

This carved limestone inscription reads ‘OPTIMA ET PULCHERRIMA VITAE SVPELLEX AMICTIA’. This is adapted from Cicero’s De Amicitia and means ‘The best and most beautiful support of life is friendship’. Inscribed on the right side is the name of the sculptor and date of the work, ‘EGill 1918’.

Monograms and signatures

Portrait of Mette Gauguin, 1877, Paul Gauguin

The inscription on this bust is signed and carved below the collar: P. Gauguin. Only two marble sculptures by Gauguin are known, this portrait head of his Danish wife Mette and one of his son, Emile, carved in the same year. At the time the Gauguin family was living in an apartment in the Rue des Fourneaux, in Paris, which belonged to a sculptor named Bouillot. Considering Gauguin’s inexperience as a sculptor in marble, and the highly accomplished naturalism of this work, it seems likely that Bouillot assisted Gauguin in the carving, but to what extent is not known.

Virgin and Child, Circa 1365-70, Barnaba da Modena

This small work was made for private devotion. For this purpose, Christ’s scroll is inscribed with one of the beatitudes: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’. The text along the bottom, ‘Barnaba da Modena painted (this)’, is a rare early example of a painter’s signature. Born in Modena in central Italy, Barnaba spent most of his career in Genoa. The heavy shading of the Virgin’s face and the gold striations on her mantle are derived from Byzantine art. This slightly archaic style may account for Barnaba’s success in Genoa, where Byzantine painting had long been dominant.

Enamel plaque painted in grisaille with David and Goliath, probably French 19th Century in the style of the 16th century

This enamel plaque shows David and Goliath, with ‘P.R.’ on the bottom of the triumphal arch. Signed enamels with the monogram ‘P.R.’ usually means they were either made in the ‘workshop of Pierre Reymond’, or by Pierre Reymond himself. However, it is thought that this work is a highly skilled 19th century forgery done in the style of Pierre Reymond.

These are just a few examples of the types of inscriptions that can be found within The Courtauld Gallery’s collection, both online and in the Gallery itself. Next time you’re visiting us, why not take a closer look at the works and delve into the world of writing and markings on works of art, and for all art that is not currently on display, you can find out more on them on our Art and Architecture website.

Visit Reading Drawings, on display until 4 June 2017