Our last blog post on the treatment of the Norfolk Museums Services angels dealt with some very satisfying flake relaying on Angel A. In this new episode, we shall delve into the treatment of Angel B (shown below in case your memory needs jogging), which had suffered a more severe case of surface delamination than its counterpart. Indeed, the delamination had reached such a severe state that even slights movements of the angel within its packaging resulted in notable loss of gilding!
For this reason, an intensive rescue operation took place earlier this year over three, wintery January days, with the aim of stabilizing the angel so that it may be removed from its packaging and be treated in a similar manner as Angel A. An enthusiastic team comprising of the author, Letty Steer and Dae-Young Yoo was put together and led by a motivating Claire D’Izarny-Gargas.
Given the condition of the angel, it was slightly (if not very!) daunting to actually even consider touching the angel. The first step, therefore, was to develop a method of stabilising very loose flakes. After several initial trials, it was found that the best method, given the time frame we had to work in, was to apply a Japanese tissue paper facing (adhered directly with a 2% w/v solution of Klucel G in isopropanol, a hydroxypropyl cellulose adhesive commonly used with organic materials), which was then heat-activated using the heated spatula. This step allowed the gilding flakes to be slightly re-shaped in the process before relaying. You can see these facings in the pictures above – here are some more detailed shots of the procedure.
The same procedure used to relay flakes on Angel A was then used, applying solutions and heating through the paper facing, which was possible due its fibre-thin nature. Once the gelatin (5% w/v in deionised water) had set hard after 5–10 minutes from heat-activation, the facing was removed by first moistening it with lukewarm deionised water and then peeling it off at a 180o angle with a pair of pointed tweezers. Any clean-up of excess gelatin or paper threads could then take place with warm water swabs.
Once we were confident that this method worked, the angel in its packaging was set on the operating table and the areas identified as most fragile were faced and treated. There definitely was a ‘surgical theatre feel’ to all this, with two conservators each working on each side of the box, passing around spatulae, brushes and adhesive solutions. Everyone fell promptly into their roles and the rhythm of work got going.
After the first day, the angel was lifted out of its box successfully without any severe loss of gilding. This allowed us to access more surface area on the angel and so the work intensified during the next two consecutive days, as you have seen already in some of the photos. Facings were applied, flakes were relayed and facings taken off. The most challenging areas were the face, wings, chest and feet on the angel due to the undulating surfaces and level of decorative carving. At times, some flakes were broken or damaged during treatment which was heart-wrenching, however, the solution to this was very straightforward: document it and then repair it.
At the expiry of the available time, the angel was miraculously looking in much better shape than before, and in turn was also much more stable! Indeed, the success of the treatment allowed us to move the angle from a lying, horizontal position to a standing, vertical one. Advantageously, this then permitted an improved packaging solution to be implemented whilst more work was carried out at a later stage.
Yes, despite the advances made at this stage, the treatment was not yet over and further relaying of gilding and paint was necessary. This was completed in part during another similar session in February. In fact, should you wish to know about this session, we will be more than happy to answer your questions in person at this World Archaeology Day Festival at the UCL Institute of Archaeology, come Saturday the 13th June! There’s an even more exciting part though! We shall be working on the angels this Saturday and you will have the opportunity to see how this work is done in real-time. So don’t miss out on this fantastic opportunity to set your eyes on these angelic beauties, we look forward to seeing you!
N.B. All photos by Claire D’Izarny-Gargas & Jan Dariusz Cutajar. Permission to post courtesy of the Norfolk Museums Service.