Completing the conservation of a 16th Century Maiolica Dish from The Russell-Cotes Museum

By Elizabeth Wells, MA Conservation Studies student, specialising in Ceramics and Related Materials

After complex decision-making surrounding the treatment of an incredible 16th Century Maiolica dish from The Russell-Cotes Museum, the journey from dull, broken ceramic to vibrant, finished object wasn’t quite over...

Conservation treatment so far

Figure 1 shows the dish in condition upon acceptance.

At this stage, the ceramic had been dismantled, and the rim cleaned. Previous conservation work on the rim included adding a butter yellow fill that was in keeping with similar Maiolica dishes at the time, but also adding an arch detail over the yellow that was incongruous with this style of ceramic. Therefore, I decided to remove the overpainted arches but retain the uniform yellow rim, to both respect the ceramic’s conservation history while aligning it with similar ceramics of the time.

Unfortunately, dismantling also revealed another conservation challenge. The break edges of the ceramic were covered in thick accretions of previous adhesive and aged dirt. Leaving these residues would cause problems for bonding in the future, as adhesives may not hold, there could be misalignments, and visible dark lines may be noticeable, distracting from the vibrant glazed decoration.

Figure 2 and 3 below show the fully dismantled ceramic, and the previous adhesive and fill material on the break edges.

Preparation for bonding

Solvents were initially used to soften some of the residues, but were not able to completely remove them. Tougher action was needed. Strypit, a paint thinner that contains solvent, is very occasionally used for removing stubborn adhesive residues, and in this instance, it was applied for a short amount of time on cotton wool swabs under extraction. The swabs were then removed, and further swabs of water were used to remove the excess adhesive and fully remove the Strypit.

Figure 4 below shows the ceramic sherds in the fume cupboard ahead of this treatment. The Strypit worked in removing a fair amount of the residues, and enough of the old adhesive was removed by this method to allow for better bonds, although some residues did still remain. This is likely due to the porous earthenware ceramic fabric absorbing the old adhesive into the body.


A dry run, where tape is used but no adhesive, is often done ahead of bonding to work out the best order to bond in and locate any areas of loss. Figure 5 below shows the dish held with tapes ahead of bonding.

Due to the porous nature of the earthenware dish, a solvent-based adhesive, Paraloid B-72, was therefore applied to the break edges, and they were held together with tapes, in the order previously established during the dry run.


The areas of loss on the ceramic required filling, both for support, and to complete the visual harmony of the object. The first step was to make a large removable fill for the significant area of loss to the left of the dish. This was created with plaster, removable to allow for easier future conservation treatment if necessary. Figure 6 shows this removable fill - bright white and very visible ahead of retouching. The fill was polished to match the texture of the ceramic, and further fills were applied to smaller areas of loss, including break edges and rivet holes. Figure 7 shows these fills from the front of the dish; as is quite clear, these pale fills are distracting from the visual beauty of the decoration; however these fills were never intended to remain white, leading us to the final treatment challenge – retouching…


The final stage of bringing the treatment of this dish together was retouching, where the design and colours of the decoration had to be matched to disguise the bright white fills and reflect the overall impressive, detailed artistry that was originally created.

Using Goldens acrylic paints, gradual tones were built up to match the intricate design, including the common plain yellow rim. Adding tones that matched the light sky colours was the most challenging aspect, as these changed depending on the angle of light. Figure 8 below shows the dish during the retouching stage.

An acrylic gloss layer was added to imitate the high shine of the glaze, which was polished using a very fine Micro-Mesh abrasive cloth. The goal was to polish the gloss layer enough that the light would catch the curvature of the object to achieve a sufficient polish that matched the reflective qualities of the original glaze.

I had to be careful to not polish any of the original ceramic, as that could permanently scratch the glaze, and dull the surface of the dish. Figure 9 below shows the light hitting the inside rim of the dish.

Concluding treatment

After I had achieved a level of shine and colour on the retouching that I was happy with, it was time to conclude the conservation of the ceramic. The Maiolica dish will be returning to its home at the Russell-Cotes Museum, Bournemouth.

The original design has been revealed, and the bonds are stable. Conservation was carried out to allow for the incredible artistry that goes into Maiolica ceramics to be highlighted, and to show why this artefact is an iconic example of its type from Urbino in the 16th Century.

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