The lack of a blog post for the past 2 months (!) owes to my participation in the Inorganic Block with the first year WUDPAC (Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation) masters students. In block, the students (and I) learned more about metals, stone, ceramic, and glass conservation. I also subjected them to 3 hours of Delft tile history, manufacture, and conservation. In the meantime, I've still been treating and researching the tiles. Today's blog post is about my months-long struggle to identify the iconography of this unique tile and color match its gray background.
The tile above was probably manufactured somewhere between 1600 and 1700 in the Netherlands. An artist painted the decoration onto the unfired tin-glazed surface with a manganese glaze, which turned purple when fired. While I know how the tile was made, its iconography is more elusive. Winterthur's database lists the tile as "merman grasping a nude woman trailing a scarf." Other similar tiles are listed by dealers and museums as "Merman and Fortuna" (below left) or simply "Neptune" (below right). While sea monsters are a common motif on Delft tiles, this particular decoration is relatively rare.
When I searched for inspiration sources in other media, I quickly realized that the tile is actually meant to represent a merman, or triton and a sea nymph, or nereid.
Examples of tritons abducting nereids in art range from a niello print (made with silver, copper, and lead sulfides) from Renaissance Italy to a bronze fountain at the Mirbach Palace in Bratislava.
However, while the nereid on this tile does not look particularly happy, she appears to be standing on the back of the triton rather than being carried off. The mosaic below from the Bardo National Museum in Tunis depicts sea nymphs riding on the backs of tritons and other sea creatures. They all have flowing scarves similar to the one worn by the nereid on the Delft tile. There is also a reference in Dionysiaca, an epic poem by Nonnus, to Thetis, the nereid mother of Achilles, riding into battle "on the green hip of a Triton with broad beard" (6. 257 ff). Perhaps the nymph on Winterthur's tile is wearing her battle face.
Once I'd discovered what the tile was actually depicting, it was time to start treatment!
The tile's major condition issues include:
I started off by removing the plaster fill. Once removed, I saw that the previous restorer had keyed, or carved, into the ceramic body in order to make the plaster adhere better. This is something that modern conservators do not do, because it damages the original material. Bits of plaster was also stuck in all the grooves and had to be painstakingly removed under a microscope.
The staining along the proper right edge of the tile did not respond to cleaning with water and other common conservation solvents like acetone. Because of this, I conducted cleaning tests with chelators, or materials that remove heavy metal staining.
1% EDTA (disodium ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid) in deionized water buffered to a pH of 8.5 with sodium borate was determined to be the most effective chelator for this particular stain. The solution was applied to the proper right edge of the tile in 5% agarose gel to reduce the yellow stained area (below).
After two rounds of application of a chelator, carbamide peroxide in laponite gel was applied as a combination bleach/rinse over a Japanese tissue paper (Gampi Usuyo) barrier and allowed to dry. This process ensures that no acid is left on the surface of the tile, as it could potentially harm the ceramic.
Though the stain was not completely removed, it was reduced enough to not distract from the decorative quality of the tile (below).
I filled the areas of lost glaze with Flugger and began the arduous process of in-painting. As I've said my previous blogpost about inpainting, sometimes you magically match the color right away. Sometimes, though it can take weeks to get the color right. That was the case with this tile...
I started with a base color that was relatively close to the color of the background.
I then began inpainting the merman's tail and the waves with acrylic paint, using the tile from the Museum of London in the previous section as an example. I also attempted to draw in the crazing lines...to moderate success. Even using my smallest brush, the lines appeared too wide.
I was unhappy with how much the fill stood out, so I decided to try and fix part of my in-painting...
On my sixth attempt, I finally decided to just rip out the parts I wasn't happy with and start over.
I should have started over ages ago! After months of struggle, the tile is finally finished. The crazing lines and my reconstruction of the tile's original decoration blend in well.
Thanks for checking back! Be sure to check Twitter for updates under #WeirdTileoftheDay and #WeirdTileWednesday. Tune in soon as I delve into my struggle to find where the tiles came from!
For more information see:
Photos by author unless otherwise stated.
An Incredibly Brief History of Ceramic Repairs
As long as humans have been making ceramics, they have tried to find ways to fix these objects that shatter when dropped. In antiquity, this most often took the form of restoring function to a broken pot. This was accomplished in a variety of ways. Sometimes sherds (fragments of a pot) would be put together by drilling holes in the ceramic and using some sort of material, like plant fiber or metal wire, to tie two pieces together. From around the 1800s onward, restorers and menders began utilizing adhesives like animal glues to readhere ceramics. They also made "fills" out of materials like clay or plaster to fill missing pieces in the ceramic. Like today, early restorers used paints to disguise these fills. Even though modern conservators use similar techniques to their historic counterparts, the materials we now use have changed.
The materials these historic restorers used don't necessarily age well. Paints, adhesives, and other materials used in the past by conservators and others to repair broken ceramics deteriorated with age (see above!). Even materials used in the past 50 years are now discoloring and failing, necessitating the intervention of a conservator.
Repairs from anytime before the present are commonly deemed historic repairs/restorations. The tiles in Winterthur's collection display a variety of fascinating, innovative, and sometimes disfiguring repairs. Some of the most interesting examples include repairs with metal rivets, discolored paint, and strange fill material.
Rivets? Repairs with metal
While remnants of natural resins, like bitumen can be found as adhesives on ancient ceramics, evidence exists for the repair of highly valuable ceramics with metal as far back as 7000 B.C. The Ancient Greeks made grooves between two sherds to be joined. Lead was poured into the grooves to bind them together. Nineteenth century restorers also used lead "solders" to repair ceramics, but they introduced a new technological advancement--iron rivets--to ceramics restoration.
To create the repair, holes were drilled into the ceramic body at a 15 degree angle with a hand drill. Rivets, essentially metal staples, were fit into the holes to re-introduce tension into a broken vessel. Repairs with rivets can still be found on ceramics today, those made out of iron alloys have a tendency to rust.
Conservators closer to the present began removing these "unsightly" rivets. The Liverpool tile above was treated by Philadelphia restoration firm H.A. Eberhardt and Son, probably around 1950. The restorer removed the rivets on the back of the tile and filled in the space left behind with plaster. He or she then overpainted the front of the tile to hide the repair. Over time, the paint has yellowed (above, left).
Overpaint and Overfill
In their quest to create seamless restorations, early conservators often overfilled and overpainted ceramics. The edges of the green enamel, transfer-print tile below were probably ground down when it was installed in a fireplace. A conservator at some point in the past decided to create large areas of fill to restore the tile to its original dimensions.
Areas outlined in red demarcate the historic fill, which was made with an unknown, yellowed, spongy material. Blue areas show remnants of plaster left over from when the tile was mounted in a fireplace. The overpaint on the front of the tile has yellowed significantly. When it was restored, it would have been the same white as the central oval to disguise the fill material--now it clearly shows where the fill is located.
In another example of overpainting, these chinoiserie tiles are installed in the Bertrand room fireplace. The Michaelmas Daisy corner elements are original on the tile on the left, but have been remade on tile on the right. A historic restorer put plaster over the original surface of the tile and replicated the border and corners in paint. He or she painted over everything but the figure.
Some may see these historic repairs as disfiguring, but when we as conservators "re-conserve" artifacts, we remove significant evidence of the history of that object and destroy evidence of the fascinating history of conservation. After consultation, some curators and conservators choose to remove historical repairs that are distracting (ie. yellowed paint or adhesive) or actively causing damage to objects (ie. rusting rivets that are no longer holding the ceramic together). Whether they are taken out or not, it is best practice to photograph and document these interesting and inventive historical repairs. Same as now, early conservators, repairers, and restorers were doing the best with the materials they had to fix the objects in their care.
I will be starting to treat some of the tiles in this post in the coming weeks! Because the goals of treatment mainly involve restoring the aesthetic integrity of the tiles, I will remove the discolored overpaint and historic fills on the tiles above. However, I have made sure to record each step of my conservation treatment so the information about historic fills is accessible to future conservators. Tune in December 14th to learn about a series of tiles featuring 18th century actors in the Simsbury Room fireplace!
For more information, see:
Susan Buys and Victoria Oakley, 1993. Conservation of Ceramic Artefacts. London: Butterworth and Heinemann.
Isabelle Garachon, 2010. Old Repairs of China and Glass. The Rijksmuseum Bulletin 58/1, 35-54.
Stephen Koob, 1998. Obsolete Fill Materials Found on Ceramics. Journal of the American Institute for Conservation 37/1, 49-67.
Winterthur Postgraduate Fellow in Objects Conservation