This guest blog is by freelance conservator Eddie Sinclair. Her work completely transformed a sculpture depicting The Annunciation. The Angel Gabriel is announcing to Mary that she would bear a son through a virgin birth and become the mother of Jesus Christ. This object is on display in the Case Histories Gallery at RAMM.
Eddie’s Condition Assessment
I first inspected the 15th century Tyrolese Annunciation Altarpiece in 2005. It was in such a deteriorated condition that I was scared my breath might dislodge the paint. Piles of paint fragments and exposed stretches of bare wood showed evidence of attack by death-watch beetle. This indicated the urgent need for conservation. Cleaning tests alongside paint analysis soon established that there was a medieval paint scheme surviving beneath discoloured surface coatings and overpaint.
My priority was to get the altarpiece back to the conservation lab. Here it could be removed from its frame so that I could examine the back and stabilise the paint. I held loose paint in place with protective facing paper. I gradually removed the paper as the surface was consolidated over the next five years. To establish the most appropriate materials for conservation, I carried out many trials.
Using high magnification, I examined the painted surface. I gradually removed layers of wax and discoloured coatings. As work progressed it became clear that the altarpiece is a complex mixed-media object. This meant that I used a wide range of techniques for treatments. In places I removed the later layers mechanically, using sharp micro-scalpels. Elsewhere needed a variety of solvents and poultices.
Paint analysis has revealed a rich, costly palette of colours and fascinating painting techniques. For example, large areas of gold are set beside the crystalline mineral azurite. This blue pigment was bound with glue, resulting in a matt but vibrant colour, seen at its best against burnished gold leaf. Analysis revealed that combinations of linseed oil, animal glue and egg tempera were used to bind the pigments. It also indicated areas where drastic alterations have taken place.
The draperies of the two main figures are now dark, where once they would have been bright. Here silver leaf has darkened or been abraded, leaving the red/brown clay-based undercoat visible. In places an evocative hint of a yellow glaze on Mary’s drapery or a lustrous patch on Gabriel’s is suggestive of a lost brilliance. The brown of Mary’s hair is an early repaint; it was originally gold, but only a tiny trace of this was found under magnification. An exciting find was the discovery of silvered paper dots, applied to decorate the linings of the cloaks.
After consolidation and cleaning was complete, I began the process of gap-filling. This is where the surface was particularly undermined by beetle damage or where fragile edges needed supporting. Finally, the surface was re-touched. I used reversible water colours to reduce the impact of the exposed white gesso, lessen surface distractions, and tone out fillings.
It has taken five years, many hours of research, discussions, reading, and MANY hours of hands-on conservation. I hope that now this altarpiece can be appreciated and better understood, as well as recognised as a significant piece in the museum’s collection.