The tools we use in bronze conservation often come from outside of our niche.
Today, I talk to Brian Crowe of Stonehealth. Brian and I became acquainted when Antique Bronze began to look around for a wider range of conservation tools that could serve us.
Initially, we were a bit wary of air-powered tools. Back in the 1990’s, we had seen the popularity of blasting/peening grip the metal restoration industry, but time after time, we saw war memorials and sculptures which had been cleaned back to bright metal and in so doing leaving a mattish, unmetal-finished surface which resulted in sculptures that looked very different to their previous selves.
Unsure about the results we witnessed, we decided to stick with traditional hand-preparation techniques when dealing with corrosion treatments. Hand-prep techniques had their critics too, but we had more faith in the method particularly as it was so controllable.
To our minds, the oomph that machinery provided seemed to be at the expense of a bronze’s surface.
However, there were certainly times, particularly when we had very large projects, when we felt the need of a power-assisted tool. This was when we came across Brian Crowe, and his DOFF and JOS/TORC tools. Unlike regular air-abrasion, JOS was something a bit different, firstly it was wet abrasion, rather than dry, and it was designed to clean more softly, be controllable and less aggressive.
Today, you can Listen (or read this transcription) to Brian who tells us in his own words, the history of what and why Brian brought his conservation tools to market.
Lucy: Brian, you and I have worked together for a long time. We’ve bought your products over many years and your wonderful tools. And so I’m very pleased to have the opportunity to chat to you today, not just because you’re such a nice chap, but also because it will be nice to be able to talk about some of the things that you have developed at Stonehealth, which I think are a big contribution to the conservation tools that we have for large objects.
I know that you probably sell mostly to the stone markets, stone conservation and restoration. But, we’re particularly interested in metals and large-scale metals particularly and, actually, we’re quite limited with our tools in this field, for a number of reasons because, obviously, we’re mostly onsite and so that’s why I appreciate the work that you do because it helps my job be a little bit easier very often. I know your background very well, but just for other people LISTENING in (or reading!), just tell us a little bit about how you started the company and your background?
Brian: Okay. Well, thank you for those very nice comments. First of all, Lucy. You made my head feel a bit bigger than it should be.
Lucy: Not so.
Brian: But, going back into the 1980s, I came to a particular point in my career where I’d been working for very large companies and also one or two smaller companies, mainly in the toy and the textile field. And I thought I wanted to do something on my own. I’d made one particular company become a very strong company just through some product developments. So, I decided I’d break out on my own. But, I wasn’t quite sure what market to get into. But I did find that there was a company in Germany that was working with some consolidants for stone, and that became quite interesting and I was talking to English Heritage about that and John Ashurst, in particular, was very interested in what that did.
In the meantime, another company approached me, which said, they had this machine for cleaning stone and it didn’t do any damage. So, I went over to Nuremberg to the stone fair to see what was going on. And I was quite impressed by it. So, I decided to arrange for some of ours in the UK for the system which we called JOS, Yoss, as the Germans pronounce it. So, I set up a demonstration in London, Bristol, Birmingham, and Edinburgh and the results were very startling and it impressed me a lot. But, what we found was that the contractors were saying,
“This will be a new thing. Here today, gone tomorrow. We’ll buy one if we need one.”
But it was the specifiers, the architects, in particular, who were showing some interest.
And I remember one of our first projects was a building called Saint John’s, right opposite Waterloo station. And, obviously, you have the old choo-choo smoke all over the building that’s 100 years old. The architect asked the contractor to carry out some trials, which included the Jos. When he came to look at it, the contractor said, “Well, that one is a bit too slow.” And, “I don’t like that. I don’t like that, but that one I do like.” And he said, “How much slower would it be?” And he said, well it would take another couple of weeks.
And this was quite impressive. The architect said, “I couldn’t care less if it takes another year. This building has been around for a few hundred years. It should be around for a few hundred more just for the sake for you to get off-site.” So, he specified it and, in fact, the job didn’t take any longer than using any other method, but it was done in a very responsible way. And strangely enough, that architect, or coincidently I should say, the architect was also responsible for St James’s Palace. So that was the next project that took place.
Brian: In the meantime, the cathedrals became interested. And so Lincoln, Salisbury and Canterbury, as well as Westminster Abbey were starting to use it. So, it really did become a big thing. It wasn’t one of those things where it’s here today, gone tomorrow.
Lucy: As the contractor predicted, badly.
Brian: Sure, now I’ve been involved for 33 years, and though it was not really taken that seriously in the beginning, after that first three years when we realized we had some future, we formed Stonehealth Ltd and then started expanding away with this.
But we found a problem with the company that supplied us, and it was at the time when the wall came down in ’89. That’s Germany suffered a bit of a setback and the company that developed the JOS went down, unfortunately. I think it was partly due to a rags to rags in three generations where a grandfather who was a Dr. of chemistry, he started the company. His son took over, who was also very diligent and hardworking and then the grandson took over, and he was really only interested in things which were fast and that was cars, boats, and women.
Lucy: Expensive hobbies.
Brian: Well, it’s not the sort of attitude or type of person you want to run a company. So, suddenly left with being without the supplier of the most important project or the product that we had.
Lucy: Huge setback.
Brian: It was a big setback and very concerning, but one or two other companies in Germany that were supplying that particular company, approached us direct and we decided also to get some local supply. And so we got it up and going. Before this happened, the original JOS nozzle did have a problem of, unfortunately, wearing out pretty quickly. And it was quite an expensive item. So, together with the Germans, developed a way of making it modular so it could be…the wearing parts could be replaced, which made it a lot more economical and that’s where we then called it the TORC.
Lucy: Oh, I see.
Brian: So, that was a big step forward. The first time the TORC was being used was on the British Museum around the old library when it was covered over. And the contractors who were using it said,
“We’re finding that this is using less material and it’s a gentler clean, and it’s working quicker.”
So that was a big improvement over the JOS nozzle and so that was a big step forward.
In the meantime, people were finding problems in removing paints. Now, sometimes the Jos and then the TORC would remove paints such as limewash and also carbon, of course, but it wouldn’t remove the more modern paints, which were flexible. So, in talking with a friend, who I met through the business, a Dutch person, he said, “Brian, if we can get temperatures up to 30 degrees, I’m sure that’s going to destroy a lot of paints. So, the next thing is we’re looking at a system, which was developed for cleaning industrial machines, etc., and it was working at 150 degrees.” And we said to them, “Will it remove paint?” “Don’t know. Let us give it a try.” And it did. Paint just sort of came off very quickly…..in a very impressive way. So, we worked with that company for a bit until they were taken over. Then they went a different way. In the meantime, we developed the systems ourselves and we manufacture those now totally here in the UK. So, the TORC and the DOFF, between the two of them, will remove most unwanted matter. I’d say 90% either one after the other or all together. And the results are good without doing damage.
Lucy: I’ve got to say, one of the things we really like for the TORC or is it Jos/ TORC…I’m probably pronouncing it wrong “Jos.” It should be YOSS…
Brian: It’s okay. Really, you’re English.
Lucy: One of the things we’ve found is that we use it quite often on removing limescale on fountain bronze because bronzes in fountains, although they look magnificent with the waters cascading over them, it’s often when the water supply is turned off and on periodically, that you get a lot of limescale developing and hardening because what happens is it starts to bake in the sun.
And although the limescale deposit isn’t always reacting necessarily with the bronze, it’s relatively inert, it does really claw into the cast surface of the sculpture. And so Gosh, it’s hard to get off and we don’t want to use any chemicals because…particularly acidic chemicals for limescale because if it goes through that limescale layer and it gets to the patina underneath, it will strip that patina. Actually, we’ve found it really, really good for being able to, in quite a controlled way, thin out those limescale layers because, obviously, you’re using quite similar aggregates, aren’t you?
Brian: Mm-hmm, yeah.
Lucy: So…. I know that…the aggregates differs depending on if you want it coarser or thinner…finer. But we’ve had quite a lot of success with that. It’s useful for corrosion removal as well, but certainly, limescales are really one of those ones that very few tools will deal with very well. There’s all sorts of difficulties with limescale.
Brian: Yes, I can understan that. And I mean, obviously, in hard water areas, that’s likely to build up even quicker and as you say, it calcifies. And that becomes really hard. And what’s nice about the TORC is that it buffs away. It’s like wearing it away in a controlled way unlike grit blasting where the grit goes directly at the surface in a quite an aggressive way, this rotates on the surface and it buffs it away. And you can remove those calcium deposits and come down to, what I understand you want, is the bronze to look like a dirty penny and to leave that patinary in place.
Lucy: Well, it certainly depends on what the original finish was. Quite often, fountain statuary is quite diverse in its intentional finish or in the finish that has adapted. It’s just that lovely aspect of having the control there. To be able to stop and investigate, you know, where are we? What have we got here? Is this, this point we want to stop? Whereas, obviously, if you have another tool which just sweeps it all away, you haven’t got that thinking and transition period, really.
Brian: Yes. What’s the important thing is, as you say, you’re able to take away what you want to take away and leave what you want to remain or retain. I remember sort of layers and layers of old paints. And it was like taking one layer off and then the next layer off. And it was like steps. You could see the history of this particular piece of stone and what paints had been put on it over a period of time. And that just shows what sort of control you’ve got. And I…
Lucy: Well, that’s… one of those kind of things that a conservator dreams of, you know, to be able to have ultimate control.
but whilst we may be able to provide good systems and products, it very much comes down to the person behind that machine
or that product who applies it. You know…
Brian: You know, you can give a good car to a good driver and they’ll drive even better. But, if an idiot is behind the wheel, a good car goes up and down curbs and knocks down lampposts, etc., you can’t blame the manufacturer. That’s why there’s so much emphasis on the training of operatives. I know it applies more to stone and masonry, in general but that’s the reason why we’ve now adopted this system of having an approval system with the rosette, which does at least give specifiers some form of assurance that, at least, hopefully, they will get a better job done.
Lucy: Well, absolutely, and I think the thing is that anyone with an ounce of common sense knows that that’s the case with all treatments, especially on historic objects. We’ve learned that from the past, haven’t we, with all the disasters that have happened? If you have somebody with experience and knowledge, then they aren’t going to be gung-ho with a technique that they’re not familiar with. It’s not within their scope – which is not the kind of ethics and principles that we try to uphold in conservation, obviously.
But I don’t think you can level that criticism just at, you know, your own tool. I think damage can be done by … well, lemon juice can damage bronze very severely. Coca-Cola and, I mean, no one thinks to be trained in drinking Coca-Cola, but the damage I’ve seen done by it is quite extensive. So, yeah.
Brian: Just shows how carefully one has to be.
Lucy: Absolutely. But tell us a little bit about the business model, Brian, because I’m quite interested in conservation companies. And I know that yours is…it’s, I think, a company that thinks quite a lot about the way it operates not only with its staff but generally. It’s quite an ethical company. And I kind of like that because I remember, a long time ago, somebody saying to me, “Oh, don’t you think there’s a kind of disconnect between making a living and also being an ethical company?” And I don’t agree with that, and I argued the case, but let’s hear what you say.
Brian: Well, good for you in arguing that because I mean there are a lot of people that just think that a company is there to make money and to do so at any cost. No, I’ve always found, from experience, that if you look after a customer well, they become a loyal customer. And sometimes even if you’ve got a discontented customer, if you put them right…tell them what’s wrong, they become an even much more loyal customer. And you used that word, “ethical,” and that’s a very important matter to us because we try to take a responsible way with, not only with the commercial side of the business but also the responsibility for making sure that people do the job properly.
I’ve had people who have said to me, “Can I buy so and so,” and then I found out what it’s for and I’ve said, “No, it’s not appropriate for that.” And they say, “We’ll still buy it.” And I say, “Well, no, I’m not prepared to sell it to you on that basis.” And so, there are people who would say, “Well, you know, you’ve sold it, so what does it matter?” And I remember one of the companies who was making some chemicals for us in Holland was taken over and the person who was running the business, he showed us how certain things worked and one of them didn’t go that well. He said, “Well, it doesn’t really matter as long as you’ve sold it.” I was disgusted with that sort of approach because, you know, you want to build up a good reputation, not only with your customers but with your staff as well.
And I always remember, back in my days with textiles, one of our large customers in the UK. This was an Italian company, but one of the large customers in the UK was John Lewis. And going to their offices, there was a notice up to say that, “Sir, we regard our suppliers as important to us as our customers. So, if there’s anything wrong, please let us know.” And I think that’s quite a challenging thing to put over to people because there are times, as I say, “When you don’t sell something, you don’t want to sell it to them because it’s not appropriate.” But they come back because they know you’re taking a responsible approach. And if you do say that is the product for doing something, then they’re more likely to listen to you rather than being sold to. That’s something that I’ve always felt. As a company, we prefer people to buy from us, rather than us selling to them.
Lucy: That’s definitely a very personal relationship you’re building then because they’re able to trust you. I think that, even though, in your case particularly, it’s being done for the best intentions, I also think it’s a good business strategy anyway.
If people can rely on you, they’re going to feel that you’re not going to lead them in the wrong direction.
And in the long run, that’s got to be better for them as them using the products. How does it benefit anybody to have that short-term thinking? I can’t see it myself.
Brian: Well, I think, you know, there’s been situations and examples of companies that have actually taken that more aggressive approach and they haven’t lasted that long.
Lucy: Yeah, for sure. So, you’ve also diversified though, haven’t you, because you have many products as well. I’m always interested to have a look at new products coming out in the market, and you’ve got quite a range now.
Brian: Sure. In fact, as I said earlier, 90% of the unwanted matter can be removed either with the JOS or the DOFF either separately or together. And there’s another 10% where one does need to revert to other methods such as chemicals. Again, we try to take the ethical, responsible, approach in products which are safe for the environment, the person, and anything else that…and the building itself.
So, you don’t want to do any harm. So, we try to do that. We’ve got a company, a local company in Holland, that produces some very good conservation tools under our own specification. They seem to work very well such as for the removal, in your case on metals, to get rid of the oxidation and on bronze, etc., and also moulds as well. Also salt is a big problem so we have poultices for poulticing out salts.
Lucy: Absolutely. We do like the Cuprid which, I know, is the poultice that we use to remove the copper staining that you get, particularly on plinths. And, obviously, on statuary that isn’t being maintained, which always should be, but often isn’t. And so then, not only is the statue degrading obviously, but the impact on the plinth or the surrounding stone on a building is incredibly negative visibly anyway.
Brian: Particularly when it’s just been cleaned. If you’ve got some carbon or some other soiling, and you remove that, let’s say on Portland stone, and all of a sudden everything looks green then…
Lucy: Everyone is shocked.
Brian: …And then even with the Cuprid, you know, you may need to use two or three different applications because sometimes that gets way down into the surface.
Lucy: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. But there’s no magic bullet with anything, is there?
Lucy: As far as I’ve come across, you can’t treat everything in one hit?
Brian: No. And it’s all trial and error. You know, we say to people, “You know, it may be the answer to your question, but try a small area in an inconspicuous place to see if you get the results you need before going on to doing something which is staring you in the face.”
Lucy: So, you must be doing quite a lot of development work at Stonehealth because…I mean, we’ve all got to eat, so we’ve always got to deal with current projects that are on the docket. But there also seems to be quite a lot of forward-thinking in what you’re doing?
Brian: I think that’s necessary.
I always think that a company needs to move forward in order to stand still.
That sounds a bit funny but there’s always a natural wastage and a moving on. You know, customers come and go, and you need to find new customers and new products as well to actually just standstill.
Brian: So, yes we do both on the mechanical side. I mean, we’ve got an interesting new development going on at this moment. It’s being held up by some sort of technical hitch, but we had hoped to launch it back in July, but it probably won’t come out till next year now because we do want to make absolutely sure that it is going to work properly and reliably before it’s put on the market.
Lucy: How interesting.
Brian: …Because we don’t want people to feel let down.
Lucy: Well, no. I mean, I suppose though there’ll be some beta testing, first, I would imagine, getting feedback from people who…without marketing it properly?
Lucy: You know, with that kind of thing. I think that’s always great advice. I always try to…even though it’s always a hard thing to ask, “what did you find wrong with it?”
Lucy: Sometimes the answers are not as you’d like them to be, but on the other hand, if you just, you know, swallow the pill, you can often actually advance quite a lot from that.
Brian: I agree.
Lucy: Yes. Well, Brian, it’s been lovely talking to you. I know that we use the DOFF nearly every day with our treatments. A lot of our bronze work, it’s the initial stage nearly always, particularly for restoration projects. And our DOFF machine has been a real workhorse. It really does a lot of hours so, you know, it’s sort of a friend – definitely one of the team.
Brian: That’s great, Lucy.
Lucy: So, you know, we’ve been really pleased with it, but thank you for taking the trouble. I should say that Brian has been a very good sport because he has had to record this interview a second time owing to my inability to manage to capture it the first time. I had a tech gremlin interfere with the interview, so I thank you in particular, Brian, for having the patience to do it again.
Brian: My pleasure. We got there in the end, Lucy. That was nice.
Lucy: We did.
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White gloss paint was thrown over The Bomber Command War Memorial in Green Park earlier this year. Conservation work by Antique Bronze took place some weeks later after the memorial was initially hit.
The memorial is a magnificent creation by sculptor, Philip Jackson, who won the Marsh Award in Public Sculpture for his work. It’s easy to see why: the artist has personified bravery, comradeship and patriotism in the stance of his figures, their detail and expressions. We enjoyed many conversations with the public who came to visit the memorial during our works.
Several of the visitors had interesting facts to tell us about the Bomber Command unit which was instrumental in winning World War II. Of the 125k men who served, half lost their lives. Bomber command crews came from 60 different countries. Every member was a volunteer. The average age of those killed was 23 years old.
Treating The Bronze
Hours after the monument was vandalised, an emergency clean was undertaken. It was then that the RAF Benevolent Fund was advised that conservators should take on the project due to complexities of working on bronze.
Removing the remnants of white paint from the bronze’s surface was not an easy task. Although much of the paint had been taken off in the initial clean, thousands of smaller splashes remained.
The surface of the sculpture had originally been hot patinated, but areas were fragile. Before the treatment was started, we noted that there was evidence of localised loss of original patina. This meant that to avoid further loss of the surface, the cleaning technique decided upon had to be very gentle indeed.
“The aim of bronze conservation is always to leave as much of the original patina intact as possible.”
Another difficulty was that the surface was highly detailed meaning that many of the tiny splashes were located deep inside small grooves making them hard to excavate.
It may seem like superheated water or high-pressure cleaning may be an obvious option for this type of vandalism, but the fragility of the patina made this route a concern. The paint was so firmly adhered to the textured surface that to shift it, force would have to be centred on a very tiny surface area which had the potential to break-up more of the original patina.
Solvent cleaning was useful for softening the deposits, and soft nylon brushes did clean the surface without damaging the patina, but this cautious route on such a large monument made it a slow task. Our most useful tool came in an unexpected form – small wooden coffee stirrers provided the perfect profile to clean out grooves, but was soft enough not to scratch the patina.
Tips for Custodians of War Memorials:
If your memorial has been vandalised, consider these three tips:
Never use sticky tape to cover the surface – even if the graffiti is offensive. Industrial tapes contain residues in their adhesive which will etch through a bronze’s patina often causing more damage than the paint layer itself.
Call a professional for advice and help – if you try to use high-pressure cleaning methods on bronze, and you have a vulnerable surface, you can instigate serious loss of the original finish.
- Don’t ignore vandalised bronze – it invites further anti-social behaviour.
Restoration of the masterful statue of Sigmund Freud by Croatian Sculptor, Oscar Nemon, was recently undertaken by Antique Bronze.
The Tavistock Clinic have a fascinating art collection which this monument is a part of. In Mind, The Tavistock and Portman Foundation staff magazine, wrote a feature about the works, text reproduced here:
Freud Gets A Makeover
Outdoor statues in London have a tough time of it: the vicissitudes of the weather, the pollution, the pigeons… So it is no surprise that the bronze sculpture of Freud outside the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust, which was partly responsible for introducing Freud’s psychoanalytic theories to British medicine, is receiving much-needed restoration work.
Led by Lucy Branch, Senior conservator at Antique Bronze, the statue restoration team started work on Monday 5 July by giving the sculpture and its plinth a steam clean. Then they began the careful restoration work by hand, using fine copper brushes and pumice powder to remove corrosion. As Lucy, who has a degree in fine art, did a three year apprenticeship and a masters in post at the V&A, explained: “Corrosion forms unevenly in patterns so they need to be blended out by hand – you want the sculpture to be seen as the artist intended and not have your eye drawn to areas of degradation.”
The statue restoration is made more difficult by the hot weather. With the full sun on the sculpture it gets very hot causing the cleaning materials to melt and evaporate. The public have also been very interested in what is going on and Lucy says:
“It is important to be able to engage with people, while getting on with the work, but we have had quite a few rude comments.”
The sculpture is by the Croatian artist, Oscar Nemon, who grew up in Osijek on the borders of the Austro-Hungarian empire. He studied in Vienna in the 1920s, which is where he first developed an interest in the work of Freud. He then moved to Brussels, becoming a well-known portrait sculptor. In 1931 he received the commission to sculpt Freud for his 75th birthday. Freud was a little uncertain, but agreed to let Nemon sketch him in brief sessions between one patient and the next.
Overnight Nemon produced a preliminary clay and that won Freud over. Nemon continued to work for several years visiting Freud whenever he passed through Vienna on his way to Osijek and then finally in London in 1938, after the political situation had led both men to leave mainland Europe.
It is these London sittings that led to the final harsher, more abstract sculpture in terracotta which were used for the bronze sculpture that now resides outside the Tavistock Centre.
On seeing the sculpture Freud commented in his diary:
“The head, which the gaunt, goatee-bearded artist has fashioned from the dirt — like the good Lord — is very good and an astonishingly life-like impression of me.”
Lucy Branch is similarly appreciative of the work saying: “When you get close to the sculpture it is really beautiful, with clearly defined tool marks on the surface. Freud is seated in a very dominant pose, making this a powerful sculptural figure, but also a fine representation of a man drawn from life.”
The restoration of the statue will be completed with more colouring work. Then layers of protective coating will be added, to make the statue as stable as an outdoor statue can be.
Find the whole article here: Freud Gets A Makeover
If you’d like to know more about restoration work on bronze, read a case study on our blog, or if you want to be taught about the principles of bronze restoration by us, sign-up for our training course, coming in 2019
The Antique Bronze team recently undertook restoration work on The Aldersgate Flame. This is a special monument located outside the entrance to the Museum of London. It 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. He inspired 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. Over time, the environment had done its worst and the monument’s surface had corroded quite comprehensively. Only small patches of patina were left intact. In a situation like this monument restoration is the only way to proceed.
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. She found funds to restore the monument.
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. The method employs 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, 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. 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 remains in the dark ages. Monuments which are hammered with rain, baked in the full sun and blown about by fierce urban winds often need repatination work in order to restore them to usefulness. So in this particular case, legibility trumps reversibility.
We were fortunate to have some segments of patina that were not ruined. This meant we were able to coax the new colour into existence and blend it with the segments that were already intact.
All Is Well Now
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. 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.
The statue of Field Marshall Smuts was unveiled in Parliament Square on the 7th November 1956. Sculpted by one of the nation’s favourite artists, Jacob Epstein, and cast by Art Bronze Foundry (London) Ltd, this monument is another fine example of British foundry skills.
To the casual visitor, the statue’s black surface didn’t look out of place among a sea of other statesmen of varying shades of bronze on Parliament Square, but to a bronze conservator, the deep black surface was our first piece of evidence that something was amiss.
True black patinas on monuments of that period and earlier are very rare. Black waxing, or boot-polishing statues, however, was a common method used to ‘tidy-up’ sculptures that had been looking poor for decades. It was a cheap way of covering over disfigured surfaces and corrosion.
The black layer on Marshall Smuts lifted easily suggesting that, indeed, the coating was not a patinated finish, which a foundry would have applied. This coating was obscuring a lower layer which had evidence of a patchy green patina. During initial cleaning tests, we discovered that the identical shade of green was found quite universally over the body. Although it can be difficult on bronzes to differentiate between a naturally forming green patina and an artificially patinated shade, it is very uncommon to find a naturally forming green patina being a standard shade across a surface. This is because the corrosion will have formed very specifically according to the pollutants on that area of the bronze, the shape of the surface, prevailing winds along with many other factors. To have the same circumstances at a variety of points across an outdoor sculpture would be highly unusual. The evidence pointed to the original patina being green.
Consulting historic imagery was frustrating. There were many images of the statue being unveiled and even video footage, but alas, all were in black and white. However, it was possible to discern that the statue appeared to be very pale in colour completely opposite to the existing black shade and the other dark bronzes in Parliament Square.
We discovered a passage in Public Sculpture of Historic Westminster Vol. 1 (Ward-Jackson, 2011, pp 206-208) stating that at the time of the unveiling The Times reporter found the viridian green patina ‘unexpectedly vivid’ and hoped that time and the London atmosphere would ‘soften the tone and also the glossiness of the finish. ’ Other newspaper reports described it as “bright green” and “startling green”.
These were the first items of textual evidence that we found confirming that the sculpture’s original shade was not black, but green. This was followed up with discussions with the Art Bronze Foundry who are still in existence and within the same family’s hands; consultation with Westminster Archives & Local Studies Officer and watching BBC commentary of the unveiling by Richard Dimbleby. We also corresponded with The South African Legion, who contacted some of those who had attended the initial unveiling for eyewitness reports. These pieces brought together a solid picture of the original finish.
With further study of the physical green fragments dotted across the surface, and the statue’s overall condition, some conservation decisions had to be made. Treatment was absolutely essential to slow the degradation of the sculpture which had become quite acute. The existing black coating had failed in large segments and it was clear that activity was taking place beneath at the detriment of the metal’s surface. It was felt to be of paramount importance to recognise Jacob Epstein’s original intent for the sculpture, which was very different to the current aesthetic.
It is unknown why the statue was given a pigmented black coating during its past. It is not the first outdoor sculpture to have had such a treatment when it began to look poor and it could well have been a decision made in ignorance of the artist’s intended finish.
The conclusion was made to return Field Marshall Smuts to as close a resemblance to his original finish as possible. During the works, he was cleaned, corrosion stabilised, and re-patination was undertaken to match the existing patina fragments. He now stands proudly, keeping a military watch over the Square as he would have done 61 years ago.
We have other interesting articles on challenging bronze statue restoration projects if you are keen to read more, the work we did on The Aldersgate Flame, might interest you.
If you’d like to know more about how statue restoration, take a look at our online course, going live in 2019.
Galvanic Corrosion is a type of corrosion that can happen to bronze sculptures that are electroplated. This was a method developed in the 19th century where a cheaper metal could be used to make up the form of a sculpture, and a thin layer of brass or bronze would be added to give the aesthetic of a traditionally made item.
Galvanic corrosion occurs when the upper layer of the statue is more noble, chemically speaking, than the metal in the underlayer. If the upper layer comes under attack by something corrosive, or is porous, the less noble metal will begin to corrode preferentially.
In this situation, the bronze or brass provides a large cathodic area. Any small areas where the surface is compromised enables the anodic half-reaction to occur resulting in a large pit.
If the corrosion occurs beneath the bronze or brass surface, then the expansion of the corrosion products may lift the upper layer and detach it.
Recently we had a sculpture come in with just this issue. The underlying alloy was an iron mixture plated with brass. When something corrosive was splashed across it and not removed – the sculpture’s brass skin began to corrode in tiny areas. Once the upper layer was compromised, the rust started below the surface and soon pushed away more of the brass until there was a raised corrosion product in place. These small acne-like spots were spread all over the surface making the beautiful form of the sculpture highly disfigured.
If you’d like to know a little about what method was used to treat this object – take a look at our blog for conservators Destination Restoration
Founding Director Antique Bronze Ltd
John Branch, founding Director of Antique Bronze Ltd, died on 22nd December 2016 aged 86.
As a very young child, he showed an aptitude for gymnastics, a talent for art and a gift for entrepreneurship. However, it was during his national service that all these talents matured. The army encouraged and trained him in gymnastics, long-jump, boxing and sprinting. Achieving officer status as a PTI, he qualified for the Olympics in three disciplines while running an unofficial tailoring business for the soldiers.
It was while stationed in Cairo that John Branch first considered a career in restoration. Target practice on the Great Sphinx of Giza and the pyramids was a routine way to pass the time for the troops in 1948. The first time he witnessed this activity, he said,
He felt as if something close to murder was taking place.
He had no real understanding of their meaning or significance at the time, but he felt that this kind of vandalism was deeply wrong. This experience paved the way for a career as a carer of objects.
Upon returning to the UK, he enrolled in St Martin’s School of Art to study sculpture and afterwards worked for several noteworthy foundries including Morris Singers.
Though Antique Bronze wasn’t his only business, it was the one that maintained his interest life-long. Setting it up in 1955, John Branch carved out a career focusing on restoration of large-scale sculpture and historic buildings standing out among other restorers with his one-handed handstands on top of many of London’s best-known monuments. In particular, he became well-known by contemporary artists for his skills in patination.
Barbara Hepworth was a friend, and he went on to work on many other of our best-known artworks including those by Henry Moore’s, Frank Dobson, and a list of monuments including Nelson’s Column, The Albert Memorial, Cleopatras Needle, Eros among many others. He advised on The Preservation of Venice Project and was invited to move to New York for two years to consult on works to The Statue of Liberty.
Historic buildings such as County Hall, Royal Festival Hall, Senate House – The University of London Headquarters were also places where he invested much of his restoration talent. The complexity of some of the items he restored was unimaginable, and this is where his real gift was unsurpassed.
He trained and mentored many other craftsmen during his lifetime. Many were so devoted to him that they worked with him for the duration of their lives and left their sons to continue within the company. His love of art, breadth of restoration knowledge and generosity were so inspiring that most who met him were in awe of all he could do.
Caring for bronze sculpture in your home is much easier than those in your garden. Indoor bronzes have an easy time of it compared to their large companions outdoors. They are sheltered from the urban air and ever-changing weather, but their environment still has an impact on them and if you want to keep your small bronzes as stable as possible then consider these ten tips.
1: Dust Regularly – Don’t be frightened to touch a bronze just because it’s an artwork. If you use a dry micro-fibre cloth or a soft bristle brush, you’ll be doing a lot of good rather than harm. Removing dirt and grime prevents reactions between the pollutants in dust and the metal’s surface. We all hate more housework, but preventing corrosion is always better than curing it.
2: At least once a year, give the statue a thorough clean and apply some wax. Putting a barrier layer in place is one of the best ways of protecting a bronze’s surface. Outdoor pollutants from traffic do infiltrate buildings. Over time, they will corrode your bronzes (Grontoft et al, 2016). Rub on microcrystalline wax and burnish with a bristle brush or cotton rag as you might your shoes. It will improve the bronze’s lustre and retard surface change.
3: Internal materials like wooden floorboards and furniture emit acidic gases such as acetic or formic acid. These will damage your bronzes particularly if airflow is static and if the temperature of a room is likely to fluctuate widely. Consider where you locate your small bronzes. Try not to display them in sealed cabinets made from materials containing hard and soft woods or plywood (Gibson, 2010)
4: Avoid handling your bronzes. If possible, lift your bronzes with a clean cloth rather than touch them directly. Sweat from the hands is acidic and will corrode metal. Wax is only a thin barrier layer.
5: If you are storing a small bronze rather than displaying it. Ensure that the packaging materials are suitable. Do not wrap bronzes directly in bubble wrap or plastic. Houses tend to have poor humidity controls and though it might surprise you – bronzes do hold water. When they heat up that water will evaporate and if you’ve trapped it in plastic – you’ll get corrosion activity beneath the plastic.
6: If you accidentally spill red wine, tea, coke or even water on your bronze – then run for a cloth! Just because it’s not a textile that stains – don’t assume that the liquid won’t do any harm. If you whip it off quickly, then harm is averted. If you leave it to dry out, the metal is likely to etch in the perfect shape of the splash or spill. A little warm water on a clean cloth as dry as possible will enable you to remove the liquid and save your bronze surface. Don’t forget to dry your bronze after you’ve washed it though and replace the wax.
7: Admire your bronze often – don’t ignore it. If you keep an eye on your sculpture, you will notice if there is any change occurring. If rapid change occurs within a short period, then the chances are it is being exposed to something. Be mindful, and you could prevent a bigger conservation problem.
The owner of this bronze noticed the surface was pitting
8: Think about where you locate your bronze. If a statue is in a busy area of the house, it might get knocked, and scuffed. Bronze looks tough, but often small bronzes have delicate sculptural detail, and one bang can see sections break off or snap. Dents are very hard to remove successfully. Drafts also carry outdoor pollutants inside and humidity will peak and trough more which won’t do your bronzes any good.
9: If you want to give your bronze the Rolls Royce treatment then a high-spec display case made with materials that do not emit gases will go a long way. Though undoubtedly an expense, it has been shown that cases with robust seals prevent traffic pollution getting in, provides extra security if you are burgled, prevents household damage like spills and knocks. A low and stable relative humidity under 40% is ideal. It’s also wise to add some activated carbon to the base of the case to absorb any stray pollutants.
10: If you notice a greenish, powdery deposit on your bronze which is easily brushed away, but returns quickly – get it to a conservator ASAP! This deposit is a sign of active corrosion and needs quick, skilled treatment to prevent metal loss.
If you would like help or advice on your small bronze, do give Antique Bronze Ltd a call on 0208 340 0931 or take a look at our small bronze restoration page
Terje Grontoft, David Thickett, Paul Lankester, Stephen Hackney, Joyce H. Townsend, Kristin Ramsholt & Monica Garrido. “Assessment of Indoor Air Quality and the Risk of Damage to Cultural Heritage Objects using MEMORI dosimetry” Studies in Conservation 61:sup 1, 70-82. Routledge & IIC 2016 Link Here
Gibson, L.T. (2010) Acetic and formic acids emitted from wood samples and their effect on selected materials in museum environments. Corrosion Science, 52 (1). pp. 172-178. ISSN 0010-938X
How To Clean a Bronze Sculpture
Recently, we had an enquiry from the archivist at Pembroke College, Oxford – Amanda Ingram about how to clean a bronze sculpture.
The college had rather a splendid bronze bust which had, unfortunately, been languishing in a basement for some time. It was to be relocated to a prominent position in the college, but it had to be cleaned. Amanda came to us for advice.
I have given it a light wipe with distilled water to remove surface dust but there is quite a lot of it which has a kind of fine crust on the surface. It is as if someone has wiped it with a dirty rag (for example containing paint residue) and this has set on the surface. The other thing is that it looks like parcel tape or something has, at some point, been stuck on his face and has, likewise, left a hard adhesive residue.
Our first suggestion was to try a solvent like acetone to remove the parcel tape residue and this worked extremely effectively. The rest that follows relates only to the dirt. Regarding the wiped, crusty areas we recommended trying to clean with some soap and water. If it worked, then to apply a couple of coats of micro-crystalline wax to the surface for protection. We suggested trying a small patch first and look at the outcome before going too far.
“Is nail varnish remover a suitable acetone or does it need to be a purer version? And, what sort of soap is best to use?”
Our advice was to buy a pure acetone as nail varnish remover often has added components. Although neutral soap solution is always a safe bet, when cleaning a bronze sculpture; it can be ineffective at cleaning stubborn dirt. This means more rubbing of the bronze’s surface is necessary which isn’t a good idea. Diluted Vulpex soap is slightly alkaline, but providing it is properly removed, can be a gentler method.
Amanda returned a short while later reporting that unfortunately, the dirt was still stubbornly in place.
Our advice was to try a little abrasion with something very fine. Just to do a very small area at the start with something like a very fine bronze wool and that this could be used with a little soap solution.
Amanda’s results speak for themselves. She applied Renaissance Micro-Crystalline wax after for the statue’s protection. Her careful approach has yielded some great results. Well done, Amanda!