Part I: Initial analysis of St Sebastian (1949)
Made in 1949 whilst Clarke was a student at The Royal College of Art, this early experimental piece takes traditional stained and leaded glass and reinvents it as a sculptural medium. The artwork combines Clarke’s considerable emerging skills as a stained glass artist and the three-dimensional thinking of the sculptor. I was introduced to the piece whilst on placement at the YGT studios this summer. Although on first viewing I was not immediately taken with the object, I was soon seduced by St Sebastian’s quiet charm.
The first stage of any conservation is assessing the current condition of the piece and trying to determine what its original condition may have been. In the case of St Sebastian, it is known that Geoffrey Clarke liked to use ‘found’ materials in his work and preferred his pieces to appear aged.
The construction of the piece is intentionally crude and in particular, the frame is roughly assembled. However the surprise is the beautifully painted and leaded glass, constructed in the traditional manner, which is sandwiched between roughly cut muff glass. These thick, green tinted pieces obscure this central panel giving it a mysterious and dark feel.
The condition of the piece is generally good considering its basic construction. The frame is sound except for one piece, which has become detached. Fortunately this piece remains and reattaching it will be a very straightforward procedure. There is a build-up of dust on the wooden surround, which will be gently removed with soft brushes. The putty holding the glass layers in place is cracked and weakened in places but as these layers are also supported by a series of panel pins, this is not too much of a concern. Replacing the putty is not necessary and, indeed, on the reverse of the piece there are modelling marks, which are very likely Clarke’s own thumbprints. These are an important part of the piece and should not be lost.
The glass surfaces are a little greasy but there is no evidence that there has been any ingress between the layers. A simple cleaning with a 50:50 mixture of ethanol and deionised water should be enough to improve the appearance and passage of light through the glass.
The condition of the piece is recorded fully in written and photographic form before any conservation work can begin. A conservation proposal is then given to the artwork’s custodian who must agree to the work.
Part II: Conservation of St Sebastian (1949)
The conservation began with the cleaning of the wooden surround. This was undertaken with a series of soft brushes. It was surprising how much material was lodged between various parts of the frame. The appearance of the piece was considerably improved by this simple treatment.
The glass cleaning proved more problematic especially the surface on the reverse of the piece. After a 50:50 mixture of ethanol and deionised water proved somewhat ineffective in removing surface grease, a neat solution of ethanol was used. This was more effective but not completely successful and so acetone was applied. Again, there was some improvement, however a number of stubborn areas of greasy film remained on the surface of the glass. As the muff glass pieces are so ‘glassy’ and could not be harmed by a treatment with white spirit, this was the final cleaning option. Cotton wool pads soaked in white spirit were applied to the rear surface and left for several minutes. These were then removed and the greasy residue was treated with a scalpel. Even this approach was not entirely successful, and a few faint traces remained. These residual marks in no way impede the passage of light through the piece, nor do they threaten the glass surface in any way. This being the case, further treatment was not considered necessary. The position of the marks were recorded in the treatment report for future reference.
Reattaching the detached piece of wooden frame was a straightforward procedure. First the failed adhesive was removed from both surfaces with a scalpel. This was very easy, as the yellowed glue was flaky and loose. A quick wipe with a cotton bud in warm water removed any remaining residue. New adhesive was then applied and the piece positioned and held until the glue had ‘gone off’. The original adhesive used by Clarke was an animal or ‘hide’ glue which had failed over time. It is usual practice for conservators to replace ‘like with like’ when restoring an object, however it seemed imprudent to used a substance which had already proved inadequate in the artwork’s lifetime. For this reason, polyvinyl acetate or PVA was used as a superior alternative. This glue is highly recommended by conservators of wood, bone, ivory, textiles and ceramics because of its reversibility.
The conservation of the panel is now complete and St Sebastian has been kitted out with a custom transportation and storage box which will keep this important piece in excellent condition whenever it is not on display at The Stained Glass Museum.