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.

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.

Coming soon: Panorama in The Drawings Gallery

 

Peter Lanyon may have been one of the first artists to draw inspiration for his paintings from his experiences of flying high above the earth in a glider. But if the technology available to him was relatively new, the practice of painting or drawing landscapes and cityscapes from a lofty viewpoint was not – artists have been doing it for centuries, sometimes by climbing to the highest point available, sometimes using their imaginations to lift them above the landscape.

 

Panorama, the fifth display in the Gilbert and Ildiko Butler Drawings Gallery, uses drawings and prints from The Courtauld’s collection to explore some of the ways in which artists used this enduring format before the age of powered flight to express a range of different ideas, from political and military might to Romantic notions of the sublime.

 

Some of the works on view were made on a scale that mirrors the immensity of their subject matter. Adam Frans van der Meulen’s View of Courtrai, made in 1667 on the eve of the city’s conquest by the French army, records the splendid appearance of Courtrai before its defences were breached on a span so broad that it required three sheets of paper joined together.

 

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Adam Frans van der Meulen (1632-1690), View of Courtrai, 1667, © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

 

Canaletto was no stranger to panoramic views of cities, and the display boasts a handful of his works: an expansive view of London from an imagined vantage point above Old Somerset House (more or less where our current River Terrace now sits), and a pair of etchings depicting the vast square of Prato della Valle in Padua. Canaletto had first undertaken the composition as a painting, but when he decided to include it in his album of etchings, Views of Venice (1741-44), he had to split the view in half so that it would conform to the size and format of the other prints. Put the two prints, Santa Giustina in Pra’ della Valle, Padua and Pra della Valle, Padua side by side and the complete view of the square is reconstituted: the key to the join is a tiny figure in a cloak at the centre.

 

Other artists managed to create a sense of unbounded space on much smaller sheets. The earliest work in the display, Roelandt Savery’s Mountain landscape (1607), is less than 30 cm across, but thanks to his skilful handling of the black and red chalks, the misty atmosphere he conjures up makes the scene appear vast.

Roelandt Savery (1576-1639), Mountain landscape, 1607, © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

Roelandt Savery (1576-1639), Mountain landscape, 1607, © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

Nearly two centuries later, John ‘Warwick’ Smith accomplished a similar feat in his watercolour The Valley of Terni. Smith visited the valley in Umbria, a favourite stop on the Grand Tour, in the late 1770s, but the watercolour was probably made years later, worked up from on-the-spot sketches and the artist’s imagination and memory. The foreground is alive with detail of almost crystalline refinement, but it fades off into the palest and finest of washes in the distance to create a highly Romantic landscape celebrating the awe-inspiring power of nature.

The Valley of Terni smaller version

John Irthington (Warwick) Smith (1749-1831), Valley of Terni with the river Nera after the waterfall of the Marmore and the village of Papigno, © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

 

There’s more to see, including drawings and watercolours by J M W Turner, Francesco Guardi, Thomas Girtin and Francis Towne that explore further possibilities in this unique and long-lived format. We hope you’ll come along and see for yourselves.

 

Panorama opens 26 September 2015-10 January 2016.

Greetings from the new Illuminating Objects Intern

 

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

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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.

From Goya to Gliding – 6 months in the Marketing team

I’ve been the Gallery marketing and communications intern for the past 6 months, and what a six months it’s been!

With a background in History of Art, The Courtauld was the dream location to delve into the world of arts marketing and comms.

Walking through the Gallery before opening (having restocked the all-important leaflet holder) and enjoying a room full of Cézanne’s on the way to the office never gets old. The Courtauld really does have a stunning collection of paintings on the walls, and a great selection of rotating displays in the new Drawings Gallery. There is always something new to discover and I still haven’t settled on a favourite work!

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The location isn’t bad either. Situated in the North Block of Somerset House the Gallery finds itself surrounded by a thriving community of arts and cultural organisations as well as bars, brasseries and coffee shops. And fountains! I have loved sitting outside over lunch watching people race each other through the jets or pose in front of them for instagram-worthy shots and then get unintentionally soaked.

Back to the job – The role allows, and encourages, you to get involved in all aspects of marketing and communications within The Courtauld. From social media promotions, monthly e-newsletters and visitor research to feeding-back on poster designs, collating press packs and press coverage the department is a lively one with lots to get excited about.

Highlights for me include:

Assisting at the press call when the plaster cupid, brought from Cézanne’s studio in the south of France, was re-united with its ‘portrait’.

Photographing and working on the Illuminating Objects series – seeing Elly’s aventurine bowl project through from inception to display. Trips to the stores and conservation studios are always fascinating and remind you that there is always more to learn about the collection.

The Gallery team.  There are lots of friendly faces in the building which forms a great collaborative atmosphere. Everyone has been hugely welcoming and supportive and I’m very grateful for all that I’ve learnt.

In the last 6 months I have seen the extraordinary exhibition Goya: The Witches and Old Women Album open to excellent reviews and the Goya Late events attract record numbers. Unfinished…Works from The Courtauld Gallery seemed a long way off in February but time sped along and now it’s only next month that the Bridget Riley: Learning from Seurat display is installed, followed by Soaring Flight: Peter Lanyon’s Gliding Paintings!

I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction into the world of arts marketing and communications. I’ve learnt so much from the whole team, and in particular from Emily Butcher my manager – thank you. I have been lucky enough to secure a full-time job within marketing and communications, no doubt in part due to my time at The Courtauld.

I look forward to returning to the Gallery to see the displays and projects that I have been working on come to fruition. Until then, nothing beats seeing reviews of the shows you’ve been involved with or your leaflets or posters out on display!