Thursday, July 28, 2011

Meeting with the Painting Conservator

Painting conservator Susan Blakney examines paintings by Art Price.

I was unprepared.  It was a hot day in the city and I had a million things to do.  After looking forward to this opportunity for a discussion with painting conservator Susan Blakney for nearly a year, I stupidly delayed all preparations until the last minute and then threw things together in a panic.

This isn’t the way to go about caring for your family collection.  When I rush, I get sloppy.  In order to make my 2 p.m. meeting with Susan, I grabbed the wrong two paintings, wrapped them in bubble wrap, dropped them in a plastic bag, and then ran a dozen city blocks through scorching heat and sweltering humidity.  I arrived sweating and out of breath.

Oil painting of a harvest scene by Art Price.
Of course, Susan Blakney of West Lake Conservators was a consummate professional.  Focusing on the paintings, she quickly moved to a close examination, interpreting them like a detective searching for the clues that would tell the stories behind the damage.  To me, she was unfailingly polite, but – and this may be my imagination or it may be the workings of my guilty conscience – in retrospect I think she may have been a little shocked by my treatment of my father’s paintings that afternoon.  From beginning to end, my actions were a textbook case of how not to treat a painting.

Looking back at my notes, some of her comments now appear a little pointed:

Oil painting of a scene in Noyac by Art Price.
“Think of paintings as an eggshell – easily cracked.”  (And I have to admit that eggs would probably not have survived my dash through the city.)

“Even bubble wrap can abrade.  If you must wrap it in anything, use glassine.”  (These paintings were seriously abraded already.  Who knows how much additional paint flaked off during the wrapping and unwrapping?)

“Never put a painting down
with a jarring motion.  It will loosen more paint.”  (I think Susan may have said this right after I tossed one of the paintings onto the table.)

All very embarrassing…

© 2011 Lee Price

Friday, July 22, 2011

Cast Iron in the Family

A cast iron dutch oven.

Unlike other popular antique items, cast iron pieces don’t always garner automatic respect.  My mother once offered my wife a cast iron pot which my father remembered as previously belonging to my great-grandmother.  My mother casually asked my wife if she was interested in it;  she said she “hated to throw it away.”  My wife (who loves cast iron) jumped at it!

Maybe the problem is that cast iron is so utilitarian.  Or that cast iron tends to look somewhat antique even when new, so an antique piece may not look that significantly different from a newly purchased pot from the Lodge Cast Iron catalog.  Rust isn’t even a good signifier of age.  Leave a new cast iron pot outside for awhile and it can start to look pretty old in a hurry.

I asked Kory Berrett at Berrett Conservation Studio for advice on how we should care for our old cast iron cookware.  He reminded me that even sturdy-looking cast iron is fragile:  “Water exposure, damp conditions, and undisturbed soil will work against iron in almost any context.  The finish on properly ‘seasoned’ cast iron cookware is corrosion resistant but care must be taken in cleaning and drying these utensils to avoid harsh abrasives or caustic chemicals.  After these items are retired, they are prone to rust and corrosion if left unprotected.  Periodic cleaning and waxing is an excellent way to protect iron cooking and fireplace tools.”

A cast iron spider.
Then Kory added that this discussion of cast iron only touched on a very small part of the wide-ranging variety of ironware that might be found in a family collection.  According to Kory, “There are material differences between sheet iron (tinned iron), wrought iron, and cast iron in terms of how it’s made, finished, used, and in terms of the problems it presents.  The issues and answers are also dependent on circumstances – your question was about a particular cooking pot, but this leaves out everything from cookie cutters to public fountains and from tin cans to rifles and re-bar.  There would be different issues and answers for each of the different object types.”

© 2011 Lee Price

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Earthenware, Stoneware, and Porcelain

An English earthenware plate from our family collection.

In our family collection, we have all three of the major ceramic categories:  earthenware, stoneware, and porcelain.  The stoneware and porcelain are non-porous ceramics and this means they usually present no staining problems.

I sent a picture of one of our ceramic plates to Kory Berrett of Berrett Conservation Studio for his advice on long-term care.  Kory responded that this particular plate is earthenware – and therefore staining should be a concern.

According to Kory, “The plate you’ve illustrated is an English earthenware that was decorated using the transfer method.  The pattern is printed on tissue using an ink made of glaze ingredients, put on the plate something like a decal, and then fired to set the colors and burn off the tissue.  Sometimes you can see edges where the pattern was cut or wasn’t well fitted.

“Since this plate is earthenware, it is porous and thus vulnerable to staining.  This often happens during the period of use if the surface is cracked or not well sealed by the glaze and there is prolonged exposure to offending liquids like grease.  Staining can sometimes be removed but is more often dealt with by bleaching.

“As for storage of ceramics, they tend to be fairly forgiving as long as they are protected from accidental breakage and are wrapped with stable contact materials like acid-free tissue, ethafoam, and bubble wrap.  Newsprint and kraft papers can stain earthenware as the paper ages.”

© 2011 Lee Price

Friday, July 15, 2011

Displaying the Plates

Ceramic plates are eye-catching;  they make great d├ęcor.  In our kitchen and dining room areas, we’ve decorated with some of our “family collection” plates because they’re both personally meaningful and attractive.

Nevertheless, they sure look fragile.  You never want to be the family member responsible for the shattering of a 150-year-old family memento.  I asked Kory Berrett at Berrett Conservation Studio for suggestions on safe display of our ceramic plates.

“The biggest issue with ceramics is always breakage,” Kory said.  “The practice of adding a plate hanger to a favorite dish and putting it up on the wall puts it at risk. If the hook fails or the plate gets bumped, down it goes, and the meeting with the floor is never good. Some plate hangers have springs that put pressure on the object and hooks that wrap around the front edge. I’ve seen lots of plates with edges chipped or scratched by hangers.

“A better method is to put a shelf under the plate and put it up using a purpose-built plate support. The one I like is made by Gibson Holders Inc. but there are others that are also relatively safe. Some antique shelves have a groove for the plate edge or a rail at the front to catch a slipping object.”
Fortunately, we lucked into owning an old family cupboard that has exactly the kind of groove that Kory mentioned.  The plates look great on it, too!  (For these photos, we’ve cleared out the items in front of the plates for a clearer look at that plate groove display.  We hope the items normally in front of the plates might help to cushion the blow in the unlikely event of any of the plates toppling over.)

© 2011 Lee Price

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Polishing the Silver

In many family collections, the passed-down silverware holds a prominent place, displayed for guests to see as a point of pride.  From teapots to utensils, old silverware can be polished up to sparkle and shine, positively reflecting on the owners’ obvious care for their history.

When you tour historic mansions, the gleaming silver is frequently a highlight.  When you enter a formal dining room and see the fancy platters, tea sets, and utensils displayed upon the table, it may momentarily transport you to another era, giving you the feeling that you really are a privileged house guest of the Vanderbilts or Astors.

In our family collection, we have a few nice silver pieces (although nothing that would ever tarnish the home of a Vanderbilt or an Astor).  We try to take good care of them, but it’s hard work!

For advice on the care of silver, I turned to Kory Berrett of Berrett Conservation Studio.  Kory has worked on conserving metals of all kinds, from Civil War swords to silverware that was owned by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin.  I asked Kory if it would be possible for me to keep our silver in as good condition as those beautiful pieces that I see in museums and historic homes.  He shared that they use some tricks that may not be available to common folk:

“Tarnish is caused by trace amounts of pollutants in concert with middle and higher relative humidity values.  In keeping with the original intention behind these objects, silver should be polished as needed for use or display.  The quicker it tarnishes, the more often polishing will be required.  But it’s important to remember that every time one polishes a silver item, it loses a tiny bit of surface material.  In the case of historic sterling silver with engravings or chased decoration this results in softening of the decoration and may eventually wear away important engravings; in the case of silver plate, the result will be removal of the silver to reveal the copper or other base metal below – significantly disfiguring the object.

“When working with institutions that have historic silver on long term display, various strategies are used to break the cycle of polishing, and thus preserve the surface.  One strategy is to keep silver artifacts in display cases that eliminate all sources of pollution, filter incoming air or seal out air altogether, and keep humidity values low.  This isn’t possible in historic house settings since the cases themselves are out of place.  Here there may be a cycle of routine polishing or perhaps a coating program in place.  The silver is treated by a conservator to give it the best possible cleaning and most conservative polishing, followed by an application of a natural or synthetic lacquer coating to preserve the bright finish.  However, even the best coatings still require periodic maintenance.”

In our case, we’ll have to keep to polishing.  Kory warns that there are consequences for failing to polish:  “I’ve seen lots of artifacts left to tarnish in poor storage conditions over long periods that have become permanently marred or disfigured.  These surfaces will bear the scars of neglect even after they’ve been cleaned and polished.”  The only solution is a diligent yet conservative approach to polishing.  “There are some good commercial polishes and some not so good, due to heavy abrasive content or alkalis like ammonia hidden under perfumed additives.  Check with a local museum for recommendations that are brand specific.”

© 2011 Lee Price

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Preserving "June and Art"

With all due modesty, I think the “June and Art” blog is worthy of preservation.  Not only is it about my family’s history but it is also now a new creation of the family.  Although composed of memories of the past, it’s something new in the world and therefore a worthy addition to our family collection.

“June and Art” is a limited-duration blog.  Hosted on Google Blogger, “June and Art” was launched on September 25, 2010 and will conclude on September 1, 2011.  I asked Tom Clareson , Senior Consultant for New Initiatives at LYRASIS, and Leigh A. Grinstead, Digital Services Consultant at LYRASIS, for their advice on how to preserve a blog such as this.  Their response has forced me to think deeper about my own intentions.  This isn’t as simple a situation as I might have hoped.  Here’s what they shared:

“When I think about digital preservation the first question I have for anything is whether it is the content you are trying to preserve, or the format of that content? If it is the content then you probably have copies of the entries that you have created. If it is the context, I would read your user agreement with Google to see what kind of ‘preservation’ approach and services they may offer.

“Most commercial hosting services are interested in providing access to digital materials – and their business model is not based on providing an archival service or preservation of these files. However, many companies are beginning to think about digital preservation. So, if your material appears on a hosted site you can ask to see what level of archival or preservation service they guarantee, and if they offer a fee for some level of archiving.

“For anything that’s posted on public spaces, you will also want to think about keeping a personal copy at hand.”

These responses were especially helpful in clarifying my own desires for the blog’s preservation.  While the blog’s content is important and I have it saved in several formats and locations, I want to save the context, too, and this may require a greater investment.

© 2011 Lee Price