British Museum blog

Conserving Dürer’s Triumphal Arch: coming apart at the seams

Agnieszka Depta, Conservator, Western Art on Paper, British Museum

After choosing the smallest possible eraser (yes, that’s the skinny one in the middle) to clean the largest print in the Prints and Drawings collection it didn’t seem like we would ever finish with the mammoth task of surface cleaning, but we did it and here is a picture of some of the eraser crumbs to prove it:

erasers

Before embarking onto the next step, to remove the soiled and degraded textile backing from the assembled pages, we supported delicate-looking creases and other weak areas with tissue and wheat starch paste. Then the print was turned over, which was no mean feat for a print this size (357 x 295 cm) and required all hands on deck.

weak areas

Supporting weak areas before backing removal

First we carried out some tests to establish which method would be most appropriate to soften the starch-based adhesive so as to allow us to carefully peel the linen off the print in small strips. For this purpose it is best to introduce water very slowly, which allows the adhesive to gradually swell and soften without making the paper too wet. We have a choice of conservation-grade powders that will absorb and hold water in a gel or thick liquid, which we apply as a ‘poultice’. We sometimes use a fabric that holds moisture, such as a Microfibre cloth or capillary matting combined with a barrier material such as Gore-TexR which controls the rate of humidification.

Having settled on using a poultice, we removed the majority of the linen backing using this method. Some areas proved more difficult than others – perhaps where the paper was more deteriorated or thinner, or where the paste had been applied more thickly, or maybe different batches of paste were used. Akin to Goldilocks and her porridge, the poultice had to be left on the linen backing for just the right period of time: too short and some original paper fibres might be accidentally removed, too long and the paper would get soft and be at risk of damage. The goalposts changed as we moved across the print because of the variable topography but, as a reward for our patience, we got to know the print and its little quirks like a best friend. Getting up close and intimate with the print and observing the different styles of chamfering, pasting etc. allowed us to discover what a team effort it must have been to assemble and back it originally.

peeling backing

Peeling off the linen backing

We too had to work as a team and during this period we were joined by students who observed the treatments and, for a few days of backing removal, by a fellow paper conservator Harry Metcalf, from the City Museum and Art Gallery, Bristol.

hard at work

Conservators Caroline Barry and Harry Metcalf: hard at work

In order to reach the centre of the print, we started taking the individual sheets apart as soon as enough of the backing was removed to allow us to do so.

Unexpectedly, the joins had been thinned down in the past to the point where only a fragile layer of paper fibres remained, and it proved the greatest challenge of the project thus far to take the printed sheets apart safely. It required all our skill and ingenuity, including sourcing tools used in dentistry and even purchasing antique manicure sets on eBay and treating this like an exercise in micro-surgery. After weeks of painstaking labour the print has been taken apart into its original 38 sheets.

We also experimented with agarose gel strips (agarose is usually extracted from seaweed) to humidify the joins but the poultice applied on top of the linen, along the joints proved to be the most successful method. Most of the linen backing we removed was kept for possible future analysis and experimentation.

So far we have discovered that pieces of old prints were used to infill historical losses; there was also a notation made on the verso in red chalk; and the various watermarks on the different sheets are a lot more visible without the lining in place. Now that every sheet is easily accessible, it is apparent how creased and distorted some of the sheets are and we have an opportunity to note historical repairs of missing areas, other damage as well as record the watermarks in detail. Recording this detailed examination is currently underway.

 

notation

Upper left: discovery of historical repairs using old print fragments under ambient light. Upper right: discovery of historical repairs using old print fragments under transmitted light. Above: historical notation on verso of print in red chalk

Watermark 1

Watermark visible in transmitted light after the backing has been removed

Some of the infill paper at the edges proved very deteriorated and brittle and the adhesive tested acidic, putting the print at risk of further deterioration and confirming that it was high time to carry out conservation and perhaps something to keep in mind for when we might be secretly grumbling to ourselves ‘whose crazy idea was it to take this thing apart?’ when the time comes to fit all those sheets back together…. But before this happens, and after we have completed the documentation, we shall be carrying out treatments to reduce the old adhesive left on the back of the sheets as well as reduce the acidity, about which we will post an update on this blog in the near future.

The conservation of Dürer’s Triumphal Arch has been made possible by the generous support of Howard and Roberta Ahmanson.

You can see an interactive zoomable image of the print here.

You can see the removal of the textile backing here.

Filed under: British Museum, Conservation, , ,

Witches and wicked bodies

Giulia Bartrum, curator, British Museum

The major Prints and Drawings exhibition at the Museum this autumn, aptly timed to coincide with Halloween, will provide a rich and compelling survey of the history of witches and witchcraft from the Renaissance to the end of the 19th century. It has been co-curated by artist and writer Deanna Petherbridge, who has made a lengthy study of the subject in the visual arts. It is a version of the exhibition Witches and wicked bodies at the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, last year, with a focus on prints and drawings from the British Museum and a few loans from the V&A, the Ashmolean, Tate Britain and the British Library.

Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), Witch riding backwards on a goat. Engraving, c.1500.

Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), Witch riding backwards on a goat. Engraving, c.1500. 1868,0822.188 (Cat. no 17). Dürer’s famous image of a shrieking hag clutching her broom and spindle influenced centuries of witch art. The goat, a symbol of lust, was thought to embody the devil, and the rain and hailstones seen above are a reminder that witches raise storms and destruction. The natural order of things is reversed throughout the print: the witch’s hair trails in the opposite direction to her drapery; a putto stands on his head, and even Dürer’s monogram is reversed.

Hans Baldung (c.1484/5-1545), Witches’ Sabbath,  1510.

Hans Baldung (c.1484/5-1545), Witches’ Sabbath, 1510. Colour woodcut from two blocks, the tone block in orange-brown. 1834,0712.73 (Cat. no 19). The artist and printmaker Hans Baldung was Dürer’s most successful pupil. This print is one of the most dramatic witch images ever produced. It shows an obsession with the malevolence of female sexuality, a subject in which Baldung specialised. It is likely that he found a ready market for such subjects in the affluent city of Strasbourg where he lived and worked. The violent Witches’ Hammer, written by Dominican inquisitors Kramer and Sprenger was first published in this city in 1487; by 1520 it had been re-printed fourteen times.

Efforts to understand, interpret, apportion blame and elicit confessions through hideous acts of torture for seemingly malevolent deeds have had a place in society since the world of classical antiquity and Biblical times. Men, women and children have all been accused of sorcery. The magus, or wise practitioner of ‘natural magic’ or occult ‘sciences’, has traditionally been male, but the majority of those accused and punished for witchcraft, especially since the Reformation, have been women. They are shown as monstrous hags with devil-worshipping followers. They were thought to represent an inversion of a well-ordered society and the natural world. Witches fly on broomsticks or backwards on dragons or beasts, as in Albrecht Dürer’s Witch Riding backwards on a Goat of 1501 or Hans Baldung’s Witches’ Sabbath from 1510.

Francisco Goya (1746-1828), ‘There is plenty to suck’, 1799. Etching and burnished acquatint. 1975,1025.128 (Cat.no 11)

Francisco Goya (1746-1828), ‘There is plenty to suck’, 1799. Etching and burnished acquatint. 1975,1025.128 (Cat.no 11). The two hooded crones gleefully sucking finger-bones are joined by a nude bat lady who flies in with her familiars. Splashes of highlight brilliantly left untouched on the plate illuminate the greedy pleasure of their faces and the infant parts packed into a lunch basket. The title depends on wordplay, as in other prints from Goya’s Los Caprichos series. Chupar, to suck is still used colloquially in Spanish to indicate exploitation, as in bleeding someone dry or sucking out their marrow.

Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione (1609-1664), Circe, c. 1650. Etching. W,6.37 (Cat. no. 14)

Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione (1609-1664), Circe, c. 1650. Etching. W,6.37 (Cat. no. 14). This print shares many elements of the large-scale oil study by a member of the Genoese artist’s studio exhibited nearby in representing the classical witch whose magical powers were detailed in Homer’s Odyssey, and later in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The etching is notable for the brilliant use of the untouched white paper, isolating the wand-wielding Circe against the niche as she contemplates the men she has transformed into beasts. As in the drawing, the discarded armour in the centre reveals that her beauty and magical powers have vanquished mighty warriors although she will eventually meet her match in the wily Odysseus.

They are often depicted within cave-like kitchens surrounded by demons, performing evil spells, or raising the dead within magic circles, as in the powerful work of Salvator Rosa, Jacques de Gheyn and Jan van der Velde. Francisco de Goya turned witches into an art form all of its own, whereby grotesque women conducting hideous activities on animals and children were represented in strikingly beautiful aquatint etchings. Goya used them as a way of satirising divisive social, political and religious issues of his day. Witches were also shown as bewitching seductresses intent on ensnaring their male victims, seen in the wonderful etching by Giovanni Battista Castiglione of Circe, who turned Odysseus’ companions into beasts.

Picus and Circe, tin-glazed earthenware (maiolica)  bowl. The ‘Argus Painter’, Pesaro, c.1535-40. PE 1855,1201.89  (not in catalogue)

Picus and Circe, tin-glazed earthenware (maiolica) bowl. The ‘Argus Painter’, Pesaro, c.1535-40. PE 1855,1201.89 (not in catalogue). Circe fell for the handsome Picus, the first king of Latium (a central region of Italy where Rome was founded) while he was out hunting. She created a phantom boar which he followed into the forest. Having fallen into her trap, Circe tried to seduce Picus but was rejected so she turned him into a woodpecker. When his companions complained, she transformed them into animals too. This highly pictorial scene is based on a woodcut in Book XIV of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, first printed in Venice in 1497.

Odilon Redon (1840-1916), Serpent-Auréole (Serpent halo) 1890. Lithograph. 1949,0411.3508 (not in catalogue)

Odilon Redon (1840-1916), Serpent-Auréole (Serpent halo) 1890. Lithograph. 1949,0411.3508 (not in catalogue). This curiously dislocated witch figure, encircled by a huge snake, has her hands on her belly as she balances on a platform of a tall pedestal that suggests a crucifixion. Smoke billows out of a suspended cauldron on the right. Based on an enigmatic charcoal drawing (Musée d’Orsay, Paris) this work illustrates Redon’s investment in ‘everything that is receptive to symbol…the unexpected, the imprecise…the undefinable.’ It has also been interpreted as relating to Redon’s anxiety about his wife’s pregnancy at the time.

The exhibition also includes several classical Greek vessels and examples of Renaissance maiolica to emphasise the importance of the subject in the decorative arts. During the Romantic period, Henry Fuseli’s Weird Sisters from Macbeth influenced generations of theatre-goers, and illustrations of Goethe’s Faust were popularised by Eugène Delacroix. The rise of children’s literature and folklore studies meant that the image of the old hag with a broomstick was appropriated for children’s stories. Witch subjects appealed to the artists and writers involved with Romanticism, from the wild inventions of Delacroix and von Holst, to the mock classicism of late Burne-Jones or Waterhouse. The interest in emotion, poetic sources and a preoccupation with sexuality led the Pre-Raphaelites to the construction of the image of the femme-fatale. These alluring and predatory women range from Lilith and Circe to the Nordic Valkyries. Their danger to men is an expression of the fear of women’s increasing political and social power, but the images concur with the long misogynist tradition of representations of female witches. The international Symbolist movement including Redon, Franz von Stuck and Otto Greiner was profoundly inflected by the interest in the occult and Satanism at the end of the century. The key work was Joris-Carl Huysman’s banned novel Là-Bas (The Damned) 1891. Witchcraft was no longer feared in the same way in Europe, but the danger to society of the mysterious ‘other’ was an endless source of inspiration for artists and writers.

Witches and wicked bodies is in Room 90 from 25 September 2014 to 11 January 2015. Admission free.

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One night at the Museum: moving Dürer’s paper triumph

Joanna Kosek, conservator, British Museum

Preparing for the move.

Preparing for the move.

Once the final visitor had departed from the Museum on Monday 14 July 2014 at 5.30pm a sizable team of specialists consisting of heavy-object handlers; exhibition designers, curators, conservators and photographers assembled in Room 12a in front of the world-famous woodcut of the Triumphal Arch by Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528).

Albrecht Dürer, The Triumphal Arch, woodcut print on paper. (E,5.1)

Albrecht Dürer, The Triumphal Arch, woodcut print on paper. (E,5.1)

One of the largest prints ever produced, this fantastic arch on paper was commissioned by the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I (r. 1486–1519) to rival the arches of the ancient Roman Emperors as his own propaganda piece. Unlike the stone forerunners of antiquity, his print came in multiple copies out of Dürer’s workshop for distribution throughout the Holy Roman Empire. The giant print measures nearly 4 x 3 metres and was originally printed from 195 separate woodblocks. The copy in the British Museum’s collection arrived in 1834, and was eventually housed in its current enormous metal frame in the 1970s.

Now it was needed to be the star in the new Asahi Shimbun Display Dürer’s Paper Triumph: the arch of the Emperor Maximilian in Room 3. Our task that night was to take it out of the frame and remove the glass in preparation for its move across the Museum. There were many unknowns ahead of us – we didn’t know precisely how the frame was constructed or attached to the wall. All we knew for certain was that the whole thing was extremely solidly made and incredibly heavy.

The glass taped up and the print in the process of being detached from the wall.

The glass taped up and the print in the process of being detached from the wall.

Fig 2 ii_544x725

This operation was preceded by months of planning and generated the fattest risk assessment folder ever seen. We began by taping the glass using the toughest tapes in the building, after which we had to lift the frame from the wall. This turned out to be fixed to large steel brackets bolted to the gallery wall and must have weighed nearly half a tonne. This first operation took at least four hours and we all held our breath until the frame, ingeniously, was raised and detached by a large lifting frame, normally used by the National Gallery to take their largest altarpieces off display and kindly lent to us for the job.

Removing steel frame components

Removing steel frame components

We could then dismantle the frame into four separate components. Once this was done we could assess the construction of the mount and backing. It was at this stage that we also realised that we were dealing with 10mm thick plate glass weighing about 150kg in total.

It took some four hours of carefully considered steps before, at around 3am, the glass was finally separated from the print with full precision and total control. The print, escaped from the green-tinted glass, turned out to be a beautiful impression on choice early 16th-century paper.

The plate glass detached from the print.

Plate glass detached from the print.

The plate glass swivelled to lay flat on the floor.

Plate glass swivelled to lay flat on the floor.

At last Dürer’s masterpiece could be fixed to a temporary aluminium support frame and screwed onto the wall without the threat of the glass breaking. Meanwhile, glass experts attached massive spider-like suckers to the centre of the glass, swivelled it flat on the floor, and cut it into metre-square pieces for safe disposal. It was now around 6am.

The print protected and ready for hoarding.

The print protected and ready for hoarding.

Hoarding being built around the Triumphal Arch.

Hoarding being built around the Triumphal Arch.

The moment the glass was wheeled out and we were all ready for bed, a team of joiners arrived to put up a protective hoarding around the print. They had exactly three hours before the Museum opened and worked like the flying squad, assembling 20 large panels into a neat white enclosure within the Minoan Gallery. I was handed the key to the great treasure chest just as the first visitor arrived at 10am on Tuesday morning.

The Asahi Shimbun Displays Dürer’s paper triumph: the arch of the Emperor Maximilian is in Room 3, from 11 September to 16 November 2014
Supported by The Asahi Shimbun

Filed under: Conservation, , ,

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