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Delicate Chinese porcelain survives bombs and earthquakes

Delicate Chinese porcelain survives bombs and earthquakes

by Kirsten MacFarlane
Thu, 26 Feb 2015

Holding a plate decorated with finely-painted butterflies and flowers, principal conservator Sue Cooper points out a faint line. "Before we cleaned this piece the adhesive was discoloured around the joins and it was covered in dirt. You can still see the break, but when there's a significant event that causes damage then this becomes part of the history of the objects."

Auckland Museum’s principal conservator Sue Cooper has spent the past four years restoring a prized collection of Chinese porcelain to its former glory, while allowing the collection’s shaky past to shine through.

de Walters, Gareth. 2015.Auckland War Memorial Museum – Tāmaki Paenga Hira.

The butterfly plate is part of the Wakefield Williams collection of 1600-1795 Chinese porcelain, and each one of the 188 items has a story to tell, having endured the relentless bombing of London during WWII and two major earthquakes in Christchurch.

The collection was gifted to Canterbury Museum by Mrs Mary Priscilla Mitchell (nee Wakefield) from Devon in the United Kingdom. She was the great granddaughter of Daniel Bell Wakefield and granddaughter of Charles Marcus Wakefield who lived in Christchurch between 1853 and 1876. Her first husband Geoffrey B. Williams was the avid collector, and following Mrs Mitchell death at 93 years in 2007, the collection was sent to Canterbury Museum and packed away for future preservation.

It miraculously survived the September magnitude 7.1 earthquake and museum staff took measures to further secure the collection. But no one could predict the violent movements of the 6.3 quake on 22 February 2011. Remarkably only four pieces were damaged; with the most spectacular casualty being a teapot shattered into 103 pieces.

Putting together 103 pieces

This teapot was in 103 pieces, and Sue managed to get 77 of the pieces back in as the finished product shows.

Some of it was dust and impossible to put back. Other pieces didn’t fit into an exact location and so if you’re not 100% sure where a piece goes then you can’t put it back.

The reconstruction of a tea pot and lid [animation].

Auckland War Memorial Museum – Tāmaki Paenga Hira. 2008-86-68.

Auckland Museum and Canterbury Museum embarked on a joint project to restore the collection, with Sue being chosen to lead the project at Auckland Museum. Lesley Colsell, Canterbury Museum Best Practice Manager, says that it's been great to see the two museums working together to preserve this important collection.

"We’re really grateful to Auckland for taking on the project and working with us to ensure its safety while the earthquakes were on-going and for expertly carrying out its conservation. We’re sure that the original benefactors will be pleased to hear that the collection is making good progress and will soon be back in Christchurch with even more fascinating stories as part of its heritage."

Unpacking the boxes, Sue had the full measure of the task ahead. Extensively damaged during the Blitz, the collection items had hairline cracks, missing pieces, or worse, had shattered into multiple pieces. Most of the items had been professionally repaired, but after nearly 80 years the adhesive had badly discoloured and there was decades of accumulated dust and dirt on the surfaces … "you could almost smell the dust and grime of wartime".

An enthusiastic amateur had attempted to repair around a quarter of the collection, with dire results. "They were some of the worst repairs I've ever seen". Holding up what appears to be a fine-looking porcelain bowl, Sue's expert eye points out the imperfections. "This one was put back together with pieces misaligned and held together by Sellotape. It had also been retouched with crudely applied white paint and an area of missing pattern had been drawn in with biro. I knew then that repairing the collection was going to be a massive job."

Keeping the gaps

In a move too outlandish for a professional like Sue to contemplate today, an enthusiastic amateur had attempted to colour the delicate motifs with blue biro and a thick, white 'paint'. The bowl has a piece missing, although Sue desisted from gap-filling for perfection.

We collectively agreed that as long as the object was physically stable, that no gap-filling was the honest approach and the preferred treatment method. It still ‘reads’ as a dish—to fill the missing areas would take many hours of labour and would not necessarily improve our understanding of the object.

Keeping the gaps

Auckland War Memorial Museum – Tāmaki Paenga Hira. 2008-86-52.

Sue initially used a very labour-intensive method of repair, which involved meticulously dry-taping the damaged pieces together and then painstakingly applying epoxy resin into the joins of the broken pieces. Although regarded as the 'textbook' method of repair, it's also extremely time consuming. After seeking advice from world-renowned expert Stephen Koob, she switched tack to a more practical treatment method. But not every piece would be restored to its pre-Blitz condition.

"We made a decision early on to treat the collection with a minimal intervention approach. We had to decide where to spend the time. There was no justification to dismantle stable previous repairs which were not disfiguring. After all, some of these old repairs are part of the collection’s back story."

Sue and Liz are scheduled to complete the conservation of the collection by the end of May this year.

A Rubik's-cube challenge

Like a Rubik's cube, you need to configure an item so you don’t "lock out" a piece. In conservator's parlance it's called the "sticking order". Sue systematically glues the pieces to configure two large parts of the plate then joins them together.

For this job, Sue used a poultice gel to soften the old protein-based adhesive, wrapping the piece in cling-film to slow the evaporation rate. With a job that's mostly consumed with painstakingly intricate work, Sue is allowed a few breakout moments (though not on the traditional Greek plate-smashing scale).

So much of my job is about being super careful - so it’s very satisfying when you can re-break the pieces.

A Rubik’s-cube challenge

Auckland War Memorial Museum – Tāmaki Paenga Hira. 2008-86-6.

Out of alignment

Many of the items had been repaired so badly the pieces were obviously out of alignment, and the excess yellowed epoxy resin had often oozed out between the joins. This bowl could almost rival the botched repair job done to Tutankhamun's beard. Sue dismantled this bowl and put it back together almost seamlessly as you can see in the after picture.

Sue dismantled this bowl and put it back together almost seamlessly [animation].

Auckland War Memorial Museum – Tāmaki Paenga Hira. 2008-86-125.

  • Post by: Kirsten MacFarlane

    Kirsten MacFarlane is a part-time editor and writer for Auckland Museum. She also edits and writes feature articles for various publications.

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