Conservation Department


There are times that the Conservation Department works on whole collections or groups of objects, or single objects, all of which require particular research on the part of the conservators. This research may require them to research the techniques needed to create certain objects, or perhaps research display materials (such as display cases or lining textiles) to ensure compatibility and that there are no preservation issues that may occur, or even discover more about an artists techniques. The following are examples of some of the projects the Conservation Department have worked on in the recent past.

Restoration of the Piranesi Candelabra

Piranesi candelabra
Piranesi candelabra

The TEFAF Museum Restoration Fund has awarded The Ashmolean Museum a grant for the restoration of two candelabra, by the Italian artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778). The Ashmolean is currently carrying out this conservation project, alongside specialist conservation consultants Cliveden Conservation. The intricately carved candelabra are some of the finest examples of neo-classical sculpture in the UK and form a key element of the collections displayed in the Ashmolean’s impressive Randolph Sculpture Gallery.

The candelabra have become structurally unsound because the plaster bonding in the joints between each vertical section has failed during the 100 years since they were last restored. Until they were re-plinthed on pallets in 1991, these vulnerable objects were traditionally moved by masons dragging them across the floor, using winches, rather than lifting them. Although they are now mounted on pallets, disguised as plinths, moving them still puts them at risk as they comprise many loose components. For that reason the Museum has developed this project to dismantle, conserve and structurally stabilize these remarkable objects.

The candelabra in the Radcliffe Camera
The candelabra in the Radcliffe Camera

The candelabra were purchased from Piranesi by Sir Roger Newdigate, who made two Grand Tours in 1739-40 and 1774-75. They were shipped in component form from Italy to Oxford with instructions for their re-assembly provided by Piranesi. Given to the University of Oxford by Sir Roger Newdigate in 1775, the candelabra were originally erected in the Radcliffe Camera, a library designed by James Gibbs. From there they were moved to their present location in 1846, upon the opening of the new galleries built to exhibit the University of Oxford’s collections of Greek and Roman sculpture. They have remained important focal points ever since. The Randolph Sculpture Gallery, one of the Ashmolean’s most iconic galleries, is currently undergoing renovation. The candelabra are important part of the collection displayed in the gallery and will enjoy a prominent position within it. We look forward to reopening the Randolph Sculpture Gallery and exhibiting the newly conserved candelabra restored to their former glory in the spring of 2013.

Watch a video about this project

3D Object Conservation Project

Sackler Gallery Project

Bunch of glass grapes
Bunch of glass
Polychrome faïence shabti
faïence shabti
Bronze situla
Bronze situla
Final treatment of model boat before installation
Final treatment of model
boat before installation

The Objects Conservation Department was heavily involved in the recent refurbishment of the Sackler Gallery of Egyptian Antiquities. Over 1000 objects were assessed to ascertain their suitability for display and any conservation treatment required.

Cramped, out of date storage.
Cramped, out of date storage.

Many objects on display were in a good condition and only required removal of light surface dust and dirt. However, others needed more in-depth examination and treatment research. Treatments included the stabilization of corroding metals, removal of unstable adhesives from ceramics and re-joining fragments, removal of ingrained dirt from a variety of different materials, and re-stringing hundreds of beads.

Conservation staff also worked with a specialist mount-maker to find the safest way to display the objects whilst minimizing visual intrusion from the mounts. Ensuring that fragile items are safely supported whilst on display is very important to their long-term stability.

Beads repacked in space-saving but safe storage.
Beads repacked in space-saving but safe storage.

Making sure that safe environmental conditions (including light, humidity, temperature and pollutants) were maintained throughout the gallery was another important part of the project.

A large part of the collection had been in cramped storage conditions beneath the display cases. These objects had to be removed during the refurbishment program and were re-installed using more up to date storage methods and materials. This was a time consuming process that involved the move of about 1500 objects and is an example of behind-the-scenes work that, though not obvious to visitors, is extremely important to the preservation of the collections.

The Virgin of Mercy: a marble sculpture

WA1937.91. Virgin of Mercy during treatment.
WA1937.91. Virgin of Mercy
during treatment.

The Virgin of Mercy was one of the sculptures used for the Catalogue of Medieval and Early Renaissance Sculpture and therefore became a priority for conservation treatment. Although it was structurally sound, it needed extensive surface cleaning. The entire surface was covered with a layer of dirt. A mixture of dark fingerprints, patches and accretions varying in size as well as colour were present all over the sculpture.

Extensive research had to be carried out to determine the nature and cause of the discolouration. Such a procedure is necessary for the choice of conservation treatment. With the aid of ultraviolet light as well as optical microscopy, it was revealed that many patches (especially the round ones) were of microbiological origin - some sort of algae, which is rather unusual for indoor sculptures; the stains are quite often confused with iron stains. Such findings are also important as they can lead to a better understanding for the way in which an object ought to be stored.

Regarding conservation treatment, dry as well as wet cleaning methods were used in this instance, enabling the object to be used on display in the future.

Paper Conservation Projects

Rembrandt Prints

WA1855.291. Rembrandt:  Self portrait drawing at a window.
WA1855.291. Rembrandt: Self
portrait drawing at a window.

This project was initially proposed by a curator, for two reasons; the prints really needed to be re-housed, and an exhibition of over sixty works was to be arranged. The collection of Rembrandt prints held at the Ashmolean Museum numbers over 200, ranging in size from a large postage stamp to approximately A2. In about 1914 and 1915 the prints were sent to the British Museum for conservation and mounting. Unfortunately the treatment meant that the backs of the works were completely inaccessible to scholars, as were any interesting watermarks. In 2004 and 2005 every print was removed from its mount and conserved, and placed in a new mount in such a way that the backs were accessible. Many backs show nothing beyond the artists fingerprint; however, one or two provided information very useful to the curator. In some cases the works were scanned or another technique called Beta-Radiography was used to record the watermark of the work. Watermarks are sometimes a useful tool to scholars for reasons from authentication to placing an artist in a particular region or country.

Samuel Palmer

This nineteenth century artist is very popular among those familiar with him. In 2005 and 2006 a very large retrospective exhibition was to be held at the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. As part of this exhibition, some of the important works held at the Ashmolean Museum were requested, and the paper conservator was asked to write an article about the techniques and materials used by the artist in the early part of his career for the exhibition catalogue. Palmer was mainly self-taught and therefore was not confined by the adherence to taught technique many of his contemporaries were. Of particular interest were several works that it is believed were created to emulate printing. With the aid of microscopy and UV fluorescence part of his technique was unravelled and a little more is now known about the artist and his technique.

WA1941.107. Early Morning.
WA1941.107. Early Morning.
WA1941.107. UV light shows a 'varnish' layer over the whole drawing.
WA1941.107. UV light shows a 'varnish'
layer over the whole drawing.

Learning more about an artist's technique is vital if we are to make plans for conservation treatments, future preservation and to ensure that the works are fit to travel.

Textile Conservation Projects

The English Embroideries Project

WA1994.142. Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Front.
WA1994.142. Solomon and the
Queen of Sheba. Front.
Back, showing unfaded colours, contemporary dyed conservation patches and C17 undyed linen patches.
Back, showing unfaded colours,
contemporary dyed conservation
patches and C17 undyed linen patches.

The Ashmolean's collection of seventeenth century English embroideries has been studied and conserved recently as part of a project to produce a handbook and an exhibition. Several embroideries have been removed from old, unsightly, and potentially damaging mounts and redisplayed. The new mounts consist of padded boards made from inert boards padded with polyester felt and covered with scoured cotton fabric. The embroideries are attached to the boards using a variety of methods depending on the condition and needs of each object. These methods include stitching, the use of adhered fabric hinges and also Velcro to enable occasional access to view the backs of the pieces.

Back, showing detail of C17 linen patch showing ink drawing of mermaid.
Back, showing detail of C17 linen patch
showing ink drawing of mermaid.

During the project it has been possible to view the backs of the pieces, revealing the vivid unfaded colours of the embroidery silks. New information about the production of the pieces was also uncovered. For example a patch of linen on the back of 'Solomon and the Queen of Sheba' (WA 1994.142) was shown to have part of an ink drawing of the often used mermaid motif (see image).

The Ashmolean's English embroideries have also been examined using X-rays. This has added to our knowledge of their construction as metal pins supporting the raised and padded features have been revealed. The birds in 'The Sacrifice of Isaac' (WA OA.414) have been shown to include the beaks of real birds used to form the beaks of the embroidered ones.