The Antique Bronze team recently undertook restoration work on The Aldersgate Flame which involved some repatination of the bronze.
This is a special monument located outside the entrance to the Museum of London and is reputed to be the approximate location of John Wesley’s evangelical conversion in 1738. The English cleric and theologian went on to be one of the founding fathers of Methodism inspiring its followers to right wrongs of the day, particularly with regard to social issues such as prison reform and the abolition of slavery.
The mighty sculptural scroll features text from Wesley’s journal describing his conversion experience, but over time, the environment had done its worst and the monument’s surface had corroded quite comprehensively leaving only small patches of patina intact.
As the design of the sculpture centres around its text, visitors looked confused when guided there. They could no longer understand the statement that was intended to engage the public or appreciate its value because of the poor legibility and disfiguration of the surface. This is where champion of the monument, Alison Gowman, came to its rescue and funds were found to restore the sculpture.
When a bronze surface is highly disfigured, a conservator has very few options open to them. Repatination involves the recolouring of a bronze’s surface by hand using almost identical methods to how a foundry would have finished the bronze when it was first made. This was a method that in previous eras was used so often that it was barely questioned. Today, where ethics of conservation are always uppermost in the minds of those caring for objects, we try to avoid treatments that do away with the passage of time in order to balance the original finish with acknowledgement of the object’s history.
Repatination, though, should make conservators pause because it goes against several principles that we try to uphold such as the desirability of techniques to be reversible and minimal intervention whenever possible.
Though technology has stormed ahead in the last decade, the repertoire of restoration technique suitable for large bronzes which are hammered with rain, baked in the full sun and blown about by fierce urban winds, remains in the dark ages. It’s in circumstances such as these that we find ourselves needing to turn to repatination in order to make the monument useful again. So in this particular case, legibility trumps reversibility.
We were fortunate to have some segments of patina that were not ruined and therefore, we were able to coax the new colour into existence and blend it with the segments that were already intact.
All is well now for The Aldersgate Flame and it is being enjoyed again by its visitors. Recently, Wesley Day was celebrated and the monument received a great deal of praise and attention. Repatination should not necessarily be a technique conservators are fearful of using. Considered carefully and used sparingly, it continues to be a necessary technique in the preservation of outdoor sculpture.