Lessons Learned in London

As Aleedra mentioned, today is officially the last day of the RCWG summer internships. However, I’ll be here for another week, because last week I had the amazing opportunity to travel to London.The purpose of my 9-day trip was a summer course at the Courtauld Institute of Art entitled “Artists’ Materials: Invention and Innovation.” The class had 9 students and was taught by paintings conservator Clare Richardson. We took a quick tour of European artists’ materials, beginning in 13th century Italy, all the way up to the 1920s and the Russian Avant-Garde. We learned about egg tempera’s quick-drying character, the problematic nature of poplar panels, the necessity of seams in large works on canvas, the discoloration of certain colors in oil, the difficulty of obtaining and preserving blue pigments, the relationship of the Impressionists with colormen, and the use of asphalt and sugar in Malevich’s paintings.And that’s only the half of it. The most rewarding parts of the course were the practical sessions and the field trips. Clare taught us how to water gild in the old-fashioned way, which is one of the hardest things I have ever tried to do! We also made red lake pigment from Brazilwood, and combined that and other pigments with egg yolk to make egg tempera like the masters. Additionally, we went to the National Gallery and the Tate Modern to see in person the subjects we had studied. Imagine a group of 10 people, staring in awe at the San Pier Maggiore Altarpiece, not solely at the beauty of it, but also because we recognized the sheer mastery of the gilding compared to our own shoddy attempts. Imagine that same group of people then craning to look at Rubens’ paintings at odd angles, identifying canvas seams and faded pigments in the raking light. Being able to see an identify those little details added such a richness to the art.And of course, all of the time I was not in class, I spent in museums. At my second visit to the National Gallery, I saw “Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes, and Discoveries,” an exhibition about the conservation of their collection. It was interesting to see what goes on in their conservation department, although looking at the painting they had originally attributed to Botticelli, I decided you didn’t need scientific instruments to see that the attribution was false! Overall, the show was an excellent introduction to the field of conservation and the different methods used to analyze and preserve paintings. Among my favorite pieces in the permanent collection were Rubens’ “Samson and Delilah,” Daumier’s “Don Quixote and Sanche Panza,” and of course a couple early Italian paintings of St. Michael.The Tate Modern’s current exhibition, “Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera,” features some fantastic photographs donated by Jane and Michael Wilson, the benefactors of my and Kathryn’s internships. The show traces the camera’s gaze all the way from late 19th century secret lenses hidden in pocket watches to surveillance photos in the 21st century. For me, the gems of the Tate’s collection were a reconstruction of Duchamp’s “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass)” and Rodin’s incredibly sensual marble sculpture of “The Kiss.”The Victoria & Albert museum had two rooms full of adorable Beatrix Potter sketches and prints, as well as the most beautiful collection of jewelry I have ever seen – bling from the 4th century BC, the Victorian period, Art Deco, modern designers, and everything in between.Finally, I could not miss the Elgin Marbles at the British Museum, the locus of so much artworld controversy these days.So that’s a brief summary of my amazing trip! Now I’m back in Claremont with a deeper understanding of the nature of paint – which helps me with my work on St. Michael. I’m currently attempting to identify a red pigment that we believe may be the original color of his clothing. I think it’s vermilion, based on the color and its characteristic purplish degradation where it has been exposed to the air; I found a great article on this exact subject in an issue of the National Gallery Technical Bulletin. I’ve taken some pictures of samples on the light microscope, and I hope to use EDS sometime next week to find mercury in the chemical makeup of the pigment. Had it not been for my travels to England, I may never have known how to identify the paint!