Illuminating Objects: More Than Meets The Eye

Our Illuminating Objects project for 2017 is now underway. In a series of blog posts postgraduate intern Natasha Gertler will share her discoveries as she chooses and researches the next Illuminating Object.

With an academic background in physics and an unwavering curiosity for crystals since, well, forever, it was only natural for me to choose the intricate frame bearing the double sided Aertsen painting for my ‘Illuminating Objects’ internship. Acquired by Count Seilern in 1969 from Alessandro Orso in Milan, the frame is beautifully inlaid in pietra dura with a multitude of semi-precious stones.

Or so we thought…

Upon initial inspection (which, by the way, was true love at first sight) and discussion with Sacha, Curator of Sculpture and Decorative Arts with whom I am working on this project, and Graeme, Chief Conservator, we had speculations of the material composition of the frame; that the central upper disc showing concentric red and white rings was pink agate, the two purple columns either side of the painting were amethyst and the several rich blue segments, lapis lazuli. But, as with most scientific investigations, things are not often as they seem and we needed to perform analytical experimentation to be sure.

In order to gain some insight into the constituent elements of the stones, we ventured down to the conservation laboratory of the Courtauld to use the X-ray Fluorescence (XRF) facilities, with the expert guidance of Professor Aviva Burnstock and Silvia Amato.

Having used spectroscopy many times in my undergraduate physics experiments (albeit on far less beautiful objects!) I felt quite at home and even a little nostalgic in the Courtauld’s lab. XRF works by shooting X-rays at a sample and then analysing the energies of the X-rays reflected back to the detector, which are characteristic to each individual element.

As expected, areas of red colour showed a dominance of iron (Fe) in their spectrum, and the dark blue areas exhibited the presence of Calcium (Ca) which is typical of lapis lazuli. However, many different stones as well as manmade materials also have several elements in common with each other. For example silicon (Si) is present in both agate and glass. Therefore, XRF cannot be used as a conclusive method of material identification, but rather as a further analytical tool.

Red, round element in the central upper area. Presence of silicon and iron.

Central blue segment below the painting. Presence of calcium.

Purple element, middle horizontal element below columns. Presence of silicon.

For that reason, we turned to visual analysis instead. Dr. Emma Passmore, a senior teaching fellow in Earth Sciences at Imperial College London with experience in object analysis for the British Museum, kindly came to the Courtauld’s depot to help us identify these mystery materials. She agreed with our initial theories and added that the mirroring light blue elements on the lower panel were also agate.

However, she also suggested that some of the segments might not be semi-precious stones at all, but rather synthetic imitations. These included for example the panels that look like tigers eye and the red ovals at the very bottom, as well the orange and purple coloured banners across of the top and bottom of the painting, respectively.

Professional geologists identify stones by smashing and slicing them to make slides which they can then analyse under a microscope to a very high degree of accuracy. However, in the case of historically important and valuable objects such as this unique frame, this of course is not an option and alternative, non-intrusive methods must be used instead.

Will we ever be able to know the materials present in the frame with absolute certainty? Perhaps. And so the quest for identity continues…

 

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

Bloomsbury Art & Design

Our special display Bloomsbury Art & Design opened last month. It brings together a wide-ranging selection of work by the remarkable Bloomsbury Group. We asked exhibition curator Dr Rosamund Garrett to tell us about curating the display. 

Bloomsbury Art & Design installation.

In November I was appointed the new Bridget Riley Art Foundation Curatorial Assistant at The Courtauld Gallery, a unique role that allows me to work across the entire collection. With Dr Barnaby Wright, the Daniel Katz Curator of Twentieth-Century Art, I was charged with curating our current Special Display: Bloomsbury Art & Design.

This display brings together the highlights of the Courtauld’s collection of paintings, design drawings, ceramics and furniture by the artists from the Bloomsbury Group to look at the movement that shaped early twentieth-century modernism in Britain. It was my first project after having been completely immersed in my doctoral research in a rather different field – Renaissance tapestry – so I was eager to take up the challenge.

Given my specialisation in tapestry, I was keen to display the large rug designed by Duncan Grant, with its bold colours and eye-catching geometric design. Rugs are usually displayed on the floor, but with several large pieces of furniture featuring in the display, floor space was at a premium.  To ensure the rug could be shown I asked our Head Conservator, Graeme Barraclough, if we could do things a bit differently.

Tapestries are often displayed on slant boards: a board at a slight angle that allows the tapestry to be viewed vertically whilst its weight is gently supported across the entire surface. I thought that Grant’s rug would look striking displayed vertically on one of the short walls, and would complement the series of abstract rug designs that we intended to display beside it.

We started drawing up the plans for the slant board, but, after a thorough examination by conservation, the rug was found to be too fragile to be displayed in this way. Graeme, however, is never deterred. He and our technician, Matthew Thompson, devised a new method of display that combined a slant board with a roller, allowing us to display a section of the rug vertically whilst the roller holds most of the weight. Exhibitions always rely on the expertise, creativity and skills of many individuals, not to mention their physical presence – lifting the roller with the heavy rug onto our adapted slant board was no mean feat!

We are fortunate at The Courtauld to have such an extensive collection of Bloomsbury objects, many of which were given to us directly by one of the leaders of the Group, the artist and art critic Roger Fry. Why not pop in to Bloomsbury Art & Design to see the rug on our new display method as well as other works by the group of artists whose radical and experimental art introduced bold colours and dynamic abstract designs to the domestic interiors of Edwardian Britain.

Book Now: Bloomsbury Art & Design
Until 21 September 2017

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.

Goya under the microscope

Kate Edmondson, The Courtauld Gallery’s paper conservator, talks us through her fascinating discoveries whilst examining the works which form our current exhibition, Goya: The Witches and Old Women Album.

Kate, what techniques did you use to study Goya’s drawings?

To forensically study the works I focused on using a high magnification. This was essential in revealing Goya’s drawing technique, and the way he layered the black ink in different concentrations skilfully with a brush.

Goya under the microscope
Also by use of transmitted light through the paper, and raking light across the surface of the paper, I could see clearly how Goya had scraped the surface, a technique which was key to his practice, to either make alterations or to create highlights to his drawings.

Kate

Transmitted and raking light

Transmitted light and raking light

What did you discover?

Close examination of the paper furnish, colour, plus measuring the distance of the vertical chain lines in the paper, confirmed that the same paper had been used for all 22 drawings. Identifying the watermark and countermark from the fragments of watermarks which were consistently positioned in the lower left corner of most of the drawings, revealed the paper manufacturer  Blauw & Briel Company at De Herder  (The Shepherd) mill at Zaandijk, Holland. Now knowing the approximate original sheet size, Dutch Royal, helped us calculate the untrimmed size of Goya’s paper for the drawings, as 1/8th of a full sheet.

watermark

Paper size

It’s possible that Goya could have worked on single sheets, but we wanted to investigate into the theory that he worked in a sketchbook. The full sheets of paper could in fact have been cut and folded into folios or sections and sewn together to form a simple binding. We found no evidence of sewing holes but did discover some slightly rounded and worn right corners, often a result of handling book pages, which strongly suggests that the drawings could have been part of a book.

Rounded corner

After discovering that you were most likely looking at a sketchbook of Goya’s, how did you work out the original sequence of the drawings?

A really exciting discovery was ink off-set marks on the verso of some of the sheets.

Not only did this strengthen the argument for Goya working in a book, where transfer of media from one page to another is common, but by tracing the marks we could marry up the pages.

Using this techinque and by cross referencing the works that had page numbers we were able to plot the possible order of drawings in Goya’s album, which can be seen in the Gallery today.

Ink off sets

Left: Verso of unnumbered Visiones with brown ink off-set marks at top
Right: Recto of Locura, with Goya’s number 11 which matches the ink marks on verso of Visiones

 

This was a ground-breaking study into the works and practice of Francisco Goya. We hope we have revealed a deeper understanding of the works and the artist himself.

Further information about reconstructing Goya’s album can be found in the exhibition catalogue, available in the Gallery shop.