As it’s getting close to Christmas, Rose Zhou, who is studying at West Dean College of Arts and Conservation, for an MA in Conservation Studies (specialising in Ceramics & Related Materials) knew there was a sense of urgency to finish working on a pair of ceramic elves, so they could be reunited with their owner for the festive season.
As Lorna Calcutt, Subject Leader, Ceramics and Related Materials, commented: “Christmas is around the corner and through complete coincidence this is the third year in a row that the department has been offered a Christmas-themed project! West Dean College of Arts and Conservation is known for equipping students with practical skills through live conservation projects - working with Institutional and private clients and we are pleased to work on unusual objects such as these elves.”
The two very small elf candle holders had come in from a private client, who had hoped to have the objects’ visual condition improved. The most obvious issues were a detached section from the candle holder the blue elf was holding, and missing areas related to the green elf.
As Rose explains: “It was expected to be a relatively short-term project, but it also posed some interesting challenges. The first challenge was dealing with the wax. Originally designed and used as candle-holders, it was not a surprise that wax residues existed over the surface and blocks of candle wax remained collected in the hollow body. I used dental tools and tweezers, which were very handy to access the interior and working on such a small scale felt like surgery!”
She continued: “The second challenge was to gauge the best course of action regarding the old repairs. The blue elf had an area of body loss at the right corner of his jacket and the green an area of body loss at the right foot tip. In both cases the exposed ceramic edges had been retouched directly. Adhesive residues and previous noticeable bond lines existed in numerous areas- such as the tip of hats, neck and feet and two different kinds of adhesives were noted. One was colourless and clear, the other was yellowish brown.”
Further adhesive residues were mechanically removed by scalpel, or chemically with solvent and it was decided that all body losses would be filled to improve the visual aesthetic. Considering the porous nature of the original body, an acrylic-based adhesive was used for bonding the sections. Areas of loss were very small but complicated as previous repairs were slightly uneven. A plaster-based acrylic filler was used, it could be applied to those very small areas effectively.
Bench tests were carried out to assess the materials that would best mimic the original surfaces. Water-based acrylic media were used that created an even surface texture and suitable colours with a nice gloss quality. It sounds straightforward, but all surfaces tended to have their own features instead of being completely flat and monochrome. So multi layers of retouching were often necessary to create the right surface quality and mimic the defects of the original surface.
Rose finished by saying: “Now the elves are ready to go home for Christmas. The whole project lasted two weeks, and it was very satisfying to see the elves brightening up gradually through the treatment process. Although all the treatments carried out can be regarded as basic practical skills in our training, they still require a lot of thinking and decision making based on different aspects of the object’s context and condition. It will never be the same experience with another project, and for me that’s the charm of conservation!”
Please visit westdean.ac.uk for a detailed blog post on the conservation of the elf candleholders.
West Dean College of Arts and Conservation has an international reputation for excellence and is a full partner of the University of Sussex. Students with an interest in studying conservation can find out more at westdean.ac.uk, dates for 2021 Virtual Open Days will be announced soon.
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