Sunday, 22 April 2012

Stripping Chippendales

"Straighten your tie and do it up properly, tuck in your shirt, and stand up straight! And get a haircut." These are the boring messages that parents have to give to teenage boys, until the penny eventually drops, and they realise that they are not going to get far in life looking like messy idiots. The furniture in the collections cannot do their equivalent of these sorts of things for themselves, so when they get sent out on loan for exhibition, or some kind of media exposure, it is important that they are looking at their best. BBC4 is  making a new series about craftsmanship in wood, and one of the parts is on the Age of Chippendale. My retired colleague James Lomax, Curator Emeritus of Temple Newsam House, has been advising the programme makers, and on 23 April James and the BBC will be filming at Nostell Priory, a house near Wakefield, that contains one of Chippendale's great commissions. A chair at Temple Newsam House, whose design is clearly taken straight from Chippendale's Director, will be taken to Nostell Priory for one of the discussion points. Some simple woodwork repairs were needed before it could go, but it was the condition of the upholstery that warranted attention most, as shown in the pictures below.
Re-upholstery was the only option, and it was also the opportunity to fit a  more appropriate top cover, a moire patterned wool, a lovely rich red.

Various stages of the reupholstery are shown below; the horsehair stuffing was re-used, after having had a spin in the washing machine

Repaired, cleaned, polished, and everything tucked in, ready for the BBC cameras.
Carved With Love: The Genius of British Woodwork: The Extraordinary Thomas Chippendale
Posted by Ian Fraser

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Cypriot Ceramics

While completing my degree in Classics at Leeds University, I am privileged to work as a volunteer with some of Leeds Museums and Galleries' collection of ceramics from the ancient world held in store at Leeds Museum Discovery Centre. These include over a hundred items found in Cyprus, in a wide range of shapes and sizes, which are well represented the Ancient Worlds gallery in Leeds City Museum.

As interesting as the Cypriot ceramics themselves are, so are the routes by which they came to the Museum’s collection. These often reflect the development of the Museum itself, which grew out of the collections of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society.

The Society’s collection of antiquities was enriched in 1876 by the purchase of Cypriot artefacts collected by Thomas Backhouse Sandwith. Sandwith was the British Vice-Consul in Cyprus from 1865, and during his time on the island he developed a deep interest in its history and culture. He amassed a considerable collection of artefacts, some of which he brought to England. Unusually for the time, as well as collecting he also studied the ceramics in some depth, and eventually published an article in Archaeologia (the journal of the Society of Antiquaries of London), ‘On the different styles of Pottery found in Ancient Tombs in the Island of Cyprus’ (1877).

Keen to find out more about Sandwith’s collection, I was delighted to discover that this article includes beautifully detailed hand-drawn illustrations of some of his finds by one of the Society of Antiquaries’ skilled draughtsmen. The article is accompanied by only 26 illustrations of ceramics, and unsurprisingly the three artefacts in the Museum known to have been purchased from Sandwith’s collection are not among them. However, I was surprised to recognise the triple vessel illustrated on plate IX, as very similar to one in the Leeds collection I had studied only weeks earlier:

Illustration from Sandwith's article (detail, plate IX)

Juglet from the Leeds Museums and Galleries collection (LEEDM.D.1964.0305)

They are both examples of the intriguing composite ‘juglets’ which take the form of two or three small individual vessels joined together at the neck. The Leeds Museum juglet is made of blackened buff ware, consisting of three cone-shaped vessels joined in a single neck, with a central panel of punched decoration and one handle. This fits closely with the illustration to Sandwith’s article. There is some damage to the rim, which is not visible on the Sandwith illustration, but this could have occurred at any time since the article was written in the 19th century.

There are few additional ‘biographical’ details available about the Leeds Museum vessel. If it is the same juglet illustrated in Sandwith’s article, it may have come into the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society’s collection as part of the recorded acquisition, or perhaps could have been bought at one of the sales of Sandwith’s collection by someone in Leeds and subsequently donated to the Museum. Whether or not this is what happened, the juglet’s context, both within the range of ancient Cypriot ceramics and in the history of the Leeds Museum, adds to its interest.

Author:  Anna Reeve, Volunteer at Leeds Museum Discovery Centre

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Windsor chairs on show

For vernacular furniture anoraks (like me) the upcoming exhibition of early Windsor chairs at West Wycombe Park, Buckinghamshire, will be a treat.

Temple Newsam House acquired, as part of the Roger Warner Bequest, one of the earliest surviving Windsor chairs, from the first half of the 18th century. It has been lent to this exhibition but prior to its being despatched today to West Wycombe Park, I undertook some minor remedial works to loose joints, cleaned and wax polished it too.

Of technical interest are the breakages to the outside curve of the bentwood arm. First, though, I need to explain a little about bending wood, and chairmaking. Many woods can bend quite well if heated to the right temperature, about boiling point. The most common way of plasticising the wood is in a steam box. A piece of wood to be bent to form an arm, or back, in hot steam might need about an hour. Once taken out of the hot steam it needs to be bent quickly around a former, to take up the desired curve. The wood on the inside curve gets compressed, and on the outside it gets put under a lot of tension, and stretches, which stresses the wood considerably. That is unless the outside curve is supported during bending with a metal strap that prevents the outside curve from stretching. It is quite likely that the arm here was bent without any supporting strap, which might have been common practice at that time. In any event, a weak point eventually failed under usage, and a metal strap was screwed over the outside curves where the wood is splitting.

It is a fault not seen so much on later Windsor chairs, as the craftsmen making these were on a learning curve, and figured out eventually a way to avoid creating a weakness at the bend. The Windsor chair is such a quintessentially English design, quite lovely, practical and comfortable. But it is also an engineered product, materials and methods of working that lent themselves to speedy construction, and a durable product. Elm for the slab seat because its interlocked grain resists splitting. Ash for the bentwood arm, and spindles, because ash bends well, and is very flexible. The wood for the arms and spindles was always riven, or split from the log, too. Riven wood is stronger because the splits follow the grain, and the longer the grain the stronger the wood. The legs were turned from unseasoned, or green, wood (not dried). Green wood is easier to cut and shape on the lathe, because it is not as hard. This is important when one considers that most lathes back then, pole lathes being an example, were powered by the operator, treadle operated. The stretchers were made from dried wood. As the legs shrunk, as they dried, the joints between legs and stretchers would actually become an even tighter fit. There is some clever thinking going on behind the humble Windsor chair.

Posted by Ian Fraser

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Taxidermy and T-Shirts Changing Lives!

It is because sometimes small, seemingly innocuous, innocent and meaningless things take some time to reveal themselves for what they really are that I find myself writing about the fabulous, inspirational qualities of a small song thrush and an "Obama for President" t-shirt because I believe these items to be the most recent items in the collections which may have changed the future for two people in Leeds.

We recently took an enquiry from a life coach who asked if we had any birds "which don't move" in order to try and help a client with, what transpired to be, a crippling fear of all things avian. With special permission to allow the gloved client to stroke the taxidermy (sufficiently robust specimens only), we embarked on a journey of discovery into what it was about birds which caused the problem.

Needless to say, on account of not wanting to completely terrify anyone, we did not go into the museum store but instead, I spent a happy hour going backwards and forwards extracting various specimens including a badly painted iguana (to see if staring, black eyes in other creatures was the problem) and some bird skulls (to show how different bird beak equipment is adapted to the primary function of finding food in order to stay alive).

As someone who regularly suggests to children that the things in LMDC store may come to life at night, this was one time I kept my mouth firmly shut, watching the counsellor ply her trade and was very glad that there was no sign of tweeting, flapping, ruffling or pecking, enabling the client to move (from their own reckoning) from a 9/10 fear rating a the start of the session to a 5/10 at the end.

I must admit that seeing a grown adult recoil with such horror when the birds were first put down on the table in front of them was a sobering and uncomfortable experience tempered only by the thought that his was an odd but extremely worthwhile use of the collections. Watching as the client was slowly able to relax, move the bird closer and eventually reach out a gloved hand gently to stroke the feathers and appreciate some of the beauty of the shapes, colours and patterns was, for me, a "Kodak" moment.

The visit to Disco was one small part of a ten-part plan of therapy and I  felt honoured to have been allowed to be part of a possibly life-changing moment in someone else's life.

Similarly but at the other end of the scale, I was recently on outreach at Armley Christ Church Primary School discussing with children (9 or 10 years old) why on earth the museum lady brought out a modern American t-shirt depicting Barack Obama when the topic was supposed to be about Africa!

Some time later, after lots of “I think it’s because he might be famous…” (the image showing him holding a microphone probably made the children wonder whether or not he’d been on X Factor), we eventually got to the gentleman’s job title, mentioning his epithet of being the FIRST man of African-American heritage to be President of the United States.

Blank faces. So what.

I asked if anyone knew what they used to do to / think of / how they used to treat black people in America.

All eyes studying the tables.

I asked if anyone had heard of the story of Rosa Parks…only to be bombarded with children proudly telling me all the details of the story from what turned out to be the topic of their last lesson. Did we think there might be a link between the two?


And then the penny dropped (at least for some people) and the light bulbs blazed as they remembered what they’d been taught about slavery, slave ships, sugar plantations and the Slave Trade Triangle.

Success (I think)!

It was only after the end of the session, however, that a young lady who had spent most of the session trying really hard to answer questions said thoughtfully:

“Perhaps, do you think that might mean I could be the next black, lady Prime Minister?”

I for one shall certainly be watching the future candidates lists very carefully. Leeds Museums and Galleries: providing inspiration from t-shirts and taxidermy!