Illuminating Objects Archive

Final Chapter

 

Well, my experience at The Courtauld has been fantastic — but it’s flown by so fast!  Before I do anything else, I want to thank Dr. Alexandra Gerstein for her support and mentorship through these past few months.  The Courtauld Gallery staff in general are an amazing group of people to work for, and it’s been an absolute privilege to have had this opportunity to contribute in my own small way to the work of the museum.

My object a book shaped pendant with painted-glass panels depicting religious scenes – was installed in the gallery this morning, and it looks great!  It was amazing to see everything come together so well at the end, including the beautiful labels and plinth, which I hadn’t really been able to picture until today. We were a little concerned about how such a tiny pendant would look in a large case, but I think we made very good use of the space by printing out high-resolution images of the glass panels and putting them on the plinth.  This helps the viewers see the object better and made the space feel warmer.

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When I chose this object way back in July, I definitely did not anticipate all the challenges it would bring. It’s an object that doesn’t yield easy answers, that’s a little mysterious—but this is something we theologians love!  Even now, after five months of researching, consulting experts, and reflecting on the pendant, it still keeps its secrets.

Just a final comment on the research process — one of the highlights of my experience has been speaking with and learning from experts in the fields of art history and curatorial research.  Toward the beginning of my research, I had the opportunity to meet with Dr. Ayla Lepine, Lecturer in Art History at the University of Essex and an expert in Victorian aesthetics, who actually helped me select my object.  I was also very pleased to meet with Kirstin Kennedy, a curator of metalwork at the Victoria and Albert Museum, on several occasions; her insight on the object helped me probe much more deeply into the questions the object raises.  Finally, I was “serendipitously” (thank you, Google) able to track down a doctoral researcher from the University of Giessen in Germany who is currently studying book-shaped pendants from the Renaissance.  This was an amazing coincidence, and Romina was kind enough to fly to London and share her expertise with us.  Meeting these generous scholars has been a delight, and one of the experiences I will treasure from my internship is having been in a truly collaborative educational environment.  In my experience, university academia can sometimes feel resistant to this kind of collaboration, and it was refreshing to be involved in a project in which various perspectives were so vividly able to cross-fertilize and enrich my own study.

Greetings from the new Illuminating Objects Intern

 

Find out about our new Gallery Illuminating Objects Intern, Devon Abts

Still

Hello and welcome to my first blog as part of the Illuminating Objects I’m a PhD student in theology and the arts at King’s College, London. My doctoral project is an interdisciplinary study of theology and literature centered on the poetry of the nineteenth century Jesuit priest, Gerard Manley Hopkins. I am also interested in the intersection of visual art and theology, and by the way that the arts in general open up theological dialogue in and beyond academia.

Since my research centers on these interdisciplinary subjects, I was thrilled to learn about The Courtauld’s as the Illuminating Objects Internship back in May. The opportunity to apply my interest in theology and the arts in a broad educational context was genuinely exciting. And working at The Courtauld is not an opportunity to be missed! I have always been struck by how The Courtauld offers a unique first-class collection and excellent educational programs, while still maintaining an intimate feeling in its galleries. It’s the kind of museum where visitors are invited, not just to look, but to really appreciate the works displayed. I think this kind of intimacy is one of the things that attracted me to the internship, because I love the idea of working closely with a single object for an extended period.

In addition to learning about my object, I’m looking forward to gaining insight into a new kind of research. I’ve never worked in an art museum, and I’m excited to find out how curators learn about artifacts and communicate their findings. It’s a great opportunity for me to broaden my studies of the visual arts. I’m also looking forward to selecting my object. I’ve been behind the scenes to the Museum Stores once already, and there’s a lot of very interesting sacred art from the Victorian collector Thomas Gambier Parry, which instantly sparks my imagination in terms of the nineteenth century religious imagination.

Looking ahead, I’ll be pitching my proposal to Dr. Sacha Gerstein next week, and then starting research on my object straight away. I’ll be going to the V&A to set up a library account, and I’m looking forward to using their resources as part of my research. The installation date for my object is this October, so there’s a lot to do between now and then!

In the meantime, I hope you’ll keep up with the project by checking back here to the blog, where I’ll be posting about my research as I go along.

Finito! – Illuminating Objects

The Courtauld’s newest instalment is finally ready and has now been sitting proudly on display for over a week. The Venetian bowl (I have become accustomed to calling it ‘my’ bowl) is small but a lot of time, consideration and work from many people has gone into its display. From Sacha Gerstein’s curatorial eye to Graeme Barraclough’s experience as a conservator, Colin Lindley’s mount-making efforts and many more, the one tiny bowl had a lot of fantastic people working hard behind it, including my own research!

Elly and her bowl

I arrived bright and early on a beautiful sunny day at The Courtauld on the day of the installation. Due to works being carried out on the galleries lifts, the glass case had to be physically carried up the flight of stairs to its new home. However, this was luckily the last hurdle the project had to make before being completed.

Illuminating objects install

After some adjustments to the mount, and the application of new lettering and positioning of text labels, it was time for the bowl to be installed. The chalcedony glass that makes up the bowl has a fascinating quality of glowing bright red when a bright light is shone directly at it. Because of this, we wanted to get the lights in the case at just the right angle to produce some of this for visitors to see.

Another difficulty was how to angle the bowl. The inside of the bowl has a milky pale green colour, nowhere near as beautiful as the swirling patterns on the outside, which is much more interesting to look at, and relevant to the bowl’s history. This faced us with a small problem, because short of displaying the bowl upside down (in which case it would cease to look much like a bowl), one side of the cabinet was going to have a view of the inside of the bowl.

In a last-minute change (quite literally, just minutes before the glass hood was secured into place!) we decided to try turning the bowl round by 90 degrees. It sounds silly, but having the bowl side-on wasn’t something that had occurred to us! This way, both ‘viewing’ sides of the case, where the text panels are, get a brilliant view of the bowl’s exterior.

And with that, we ushered ourselves out of the gallery as the first members of the public arrived for the day.

The whole process of completing the Illuminating Objects internship has been eye-opening to a whole world I had never truly contemplated before. It has been hard work, but also fascinating, and immensely rewarding.

Thank you to everyone at The Courtauld (and beyond) who has given their time and assistance to this project. Special thanks to Sacha Gerstein for her guidance and expertise, and for giving me the opportunity to take part.

Up close and personal – Illuminating Objects

Illuminating Objects is a series of displays that shines a light on unexpected objects from The Courtauld’s decorative arts and sculpture collection.

In a series of blog posts postgraduate intern Eleanor Magson will share her discoveries as she chooses and researches the next Illuminating Object.

After having spent several weeks researching my Illuminating Objects glass bowl, I got the chance to see it in the flesh again for a bit of a scientific investigation. I felt quite at home visiting a lab and using a microscope, but seeing the Courtauld’s conservation labs, filled with paintings hundreds of years old, was a different experience!

microscopic investigation

I had come across an article published in 1894 by a mineralogist, Henry Washington, who was a descendent of George Washington. His interest in minerals led him to Murano, in Venice, the centre of the glassmaking industry, as this was where man-made imitations of natural stones were being developed. Washington managed to procure some samples of aventurine, ‘through the kindness of Signor G. Boni of Rome’ – both a prime example and a failed attempt – for his investigations.

Washington says that aventurine was one of the first ever substances of a mineralogical nature (that is, its structure) to be studied under the microscope. So, 121 years after Washington peered down the microscope at a chunk of aventurine, I did the same to the aventurine samples in my bowl.

The following pictures are taken at 120x magnification:

Copper Crystals

Looking closely, you can just make out individual crystals of copper, which give the aventurine its sparkle. They form triangular and hexagonal crystals, something noted by Washington back in 1894. Unfortunately, Washington was slightly better equipped than the Courtauld in terms of his microscope’s power, and was able to see up to 200x magnification, while 120x was as close as we could get (Such high magnification is unnecessary for the work the Courtauld needs the microscope for, but is rather low for today’s capabilities).

Washington diagram

While we were looking at the bowl under the microscope, I noticed a peculiar phenomenon of chalcedony glass. I had read once or twice in my research about a ‘red glow’ that was characteristic of chalcedony glass when a light was shone on it, but it hadn’t been described any further. Where the spotlight used to illuminate the bowl for the microscope was aimed, the glass beneath it shone red! With a bit of rearranging of the light source, we captured these amazing images of the glowing bowl.

Aventurine red glow

Getting a closer view of the bowl under the microscope has really let me see the object in a new light (pun intended!). This little bowl certainly has more to it than first meets the eye, and as I approach the end of the project I am eagerly awaiting its installation in the Courtauld Gallery.

Keep an eye on the Gallery blog to find out more about my Illuminating Objects project.

Decisions decisions – Illuminating Objects

Illuminating Objects is a series of displays that shines a light on unexpected objects from The Courtauld’s decorative arts and sculpture collection.

In a series of blog posts postgraduate intern Eleanor Magson will share her discoveries as she chooses and researches the next Illuminating Object.

It is now time to select my object to illuminate!

Perhaps embedded with a genetic interest for ceramics, I had initially thought about selecting some albarelli, earthenware pharmacy jars, some of which are already on display in the Courtauld. These objects were ceramic, something I had a childhood relationship with, and had a clear link to science – I had even studied pharmacology as part of my undergraduate degree.

Pharmacy jars trio

Maybe it was because the link was just too clear, but, already a little out of my comfort zone in an art gallery, I thought I might as well jump in the deep end with a beautiful Venetian glass bowl.

I can admit that I was initially drawn to the bowl for shallow reasons – it is beautiful glass swirling with browns and greens and small inclusions of deep caramel sparkles – rather than knowing anything at all about glassware. In fact, I was completely in the dark, but armed with a folder on the object’s history and details, I began working my way into writing on Venetian glass. I soon discovered the names of the two techniques that gave the bowl its stunning aesthetic appearance – calcedonio, which is a type of glass that gives swirling colours, and aventurine, the golden sparkles.

Aventurine bowl trio

As my research continues, I hope to be able to enlighten myself about the processes of glassmaking, as well as the culture surrounding the craft in the 18th century. Eventually, I will be able to call myself an expert on this very small area of art history, and look forward to sharing this newfound knowledge with the visitors of the Courtauld Gallery.

Keep an eye on the Gallery blog to find out more about my Illuminating Objects project.