History and Description
Of all the panels, Priest is certainly the most fragile. Like St. Sebastian, this panel was created in 1949 during Clarke’s time as a student at the Royal College of Art in London. It is very experimental by nature, and utilises a number of different materials in its construction, including wood, plaster and glass.
The panel shows the bust of a figure against a darker background. It may be assumed from the name of the piece that this figure is a Priest, and his hands look as though they are about to join in a praying gesture. His hair is blonde and chin length, and his eyes, which face directly towards the viewer, are a piercing blue, and appear to follow you around the room. The panel is set into a wooden frame, and rather than being a stained glass window in the traditional sense, in this panel the lead has been substituted for plaster, and the intervening spaces filled with mosaic pieces of glass.
The process in which this panel was made began with the painting of a rough design on a piece of clear glass with black paint. This was then turned over, and plaster was applied onto the surface of the glass, following the lines of the painted design. Pieces of coloured glass were then set into this plaster while it was still wet, and more plaster was built up around it, a process that was repeated in areas so numerous layers of glass were embedded in one place. Once dry, the an additional layer of mortar was applied from the front, and was painted a dark grey, so there was more contrast between the glass and the ‘lead’ substitute. This process has created a form of mosaic, similar to dalle de verre windows, but on a much smaller scale. Dalle de verre is the technique of setting large blocks of coloured glass into a concrete surround, a process which was in use around the time Clarke was making Priest, though he apparently never did make large scale versions of this method using concrete himself.
The Condition of the Panel
There are a number of problems with this panel and it is incredibly unstable, due to the nature of the materials used and the manner in which they have been applied.
In order to formulate a conservation proposal, it is necessary to first assess the condition of the panel, and to identify where the issues lie. The rest of this blog post will be divided into sections that describe each of the materials used, and discuss their condition. A condition report can also help identify if there have been any previous attempts to repair or restore a panel, which can be valuable when there is no written documentation about this available.
There are two types of glass used within Priest. The first is the backing plate, measuring 545mm (h) x 390mm x 2mm (d). This is made of horticultural glass, the kind you may recognise from greenhouses. This is even in texture, and clear with a slight tint of green. This is why you may hear clear glass referred to as ‘tint’ glass – if you look at it from the side, you will see that there is a green hue to the material, though it may appear perfectly clear from the front.
- Dusty inside and out
- A large semi-circular crack is in the lower left hand corner (when viewed from the reverse of the panel).
The second type of glass used in this panel is the various coloured pieces set into the plaster. The glass is of a variety of different colours, with purple, yellow, blue, red, turquoise and rose among the most prominent. These pieces of glass are relatively thin, and appear to be machine-made, due to their very flat surfaces and even thickness. There are a few pieces which are what we would call ‘antique’ glass. Later in his career, Clarke was fond of using this traditionally made ‘mouth blown’ glass from the Hartley Wood and Co. glasshouse in Sunderland. Mouth blown, or antique glass is still made today, and is often favoured during the conservation work of medieval glass, as it can be made to match the original very well. This can be identified as having more character than machine-made glass, with more irregularities in its thickness and discrepancies in its texture.
- Some pieces of glass have become detached from the plaster and have fallen down and become lodged between the plaster and the backing plate, leaving holes in the design.
- Some more pieces of glass have become loose, and can be seen hanging from their plaster surround.
- Dusty inside and out.
The plaster used in this panel is a light cream colour when viewed from the reverse. From the front, this has been ‘painted’ with a viscous concrete or plaster mixture to darken it. There are some areas where a lighter grey and a more yellow-toned substance have been used to stabilise the plaster network, which shows that there have been at least two separate attempts to repair the plasterwork in the past, judging by the different approaches to the choice of repair material.
- The plaster is cracked, especially around the nose of the figure.
- On the left hand side of the face, some of the plaster has fallen away.
- Dusty inside and out.
- The yellow-toned material added around the nose area has lost its adhesion to the original plaster, and is visibly loose.
- From the reverse, where pieces of glass have fallen away, there are remnants of an adhesive, which have been applied to hold the glass in place, but have failed. This may be evidence of a repair made after the piece was constructed.
- Around the backing plate, sections of plaster have crumbled and become loose.
- The whole of the plaster structure is bowing out towards the front – away from the backing plate that it was originally stuck to – due to its weight.
The frame surrounding the panel is made from wood painted a dark grey shade, and comprises of a thicker surround with a thinner wooden beading inside – which is visible from the front. Only visible from the reverse of the panel is a smaller frame that the backing plate is attached to with plaster.
- Generally in good condition.
- Inner beading has become loose in areas.
- Cobwebs and dust over reverse of the frame.
- When stood on lower edge, the panel does rock slightly.
- Some of the frame is scuffed along the front.
The black paint lines on the exterior of the backing plate are applied in relatively thick strokes, but in a somewhat ‘sketchy’ manner. This paint is referred to as a ’cold paint’ as it has not been fired to the glass, as common in more traditional painting methods used in stained glass.
The consistency of the paint is powdery and therefore is unstable.
There is an area where a proportion of the paint has been lost, though a ‘ghost’ or trace of the paint is still visible in certain light.
The backing plate is held in position with nails, packed underneath with small off-cuts of an engineered wood. On the reverse of the panel, thin black card or sugar paper was originally attached in strips to each side of the frame with nails. This was done to block out the light when viewed from the front. An eyelet is screwed into each side of the frame and a length of picture framing string is attached.
- The string has weakened with age and so could no longer be relied upon to hang the heavy panel.
- All of the nails are very rusty.
- Some of the black paper is missing from the reverse of the panel and so light is let through, which is disruptive.
- The pieces of wood used to hold the backing plate in place are dusty and loose.
To Be Continued…
Part two of this blog post will discuss the proposal made for the conservation of this panel. It will take each of the concerns highlighted in this condition report and propose a solution. The main aim of this proposal will be to stabilise the panel, as its fragility is currently a concern, and will limit it’s longevity, options for display and for its storage if left in its current state.