Conservation of Ancient Egyptian mummification: call the specialist!

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A highlight of the popular Antiquities collection at Eton College is the mummification display. Recently we noticed that some of the wrappings on the mummified heads were starting to shed and come loose. To understand why this was happening and to repair the damage we brought in Jenny Mathiasson who specializes in the conservation of antiquities and human remains. Over two days we worked together treating every object in the display. After initial examination of the objects we determined the likely cause of the deterioration was due to extreme changes in the humidity within the case. Organic specimens can react quite violently to humidity changes. This coupled with their age and fragility meant interventive treatment was necessary to stabilize them for the future and prevent the permanent loss of any original material.

The stabilization was carried out in two parts. First, areas of flaking linen wrappings were consolidated and once completed the larger strips of linen could then be relaxed back into their original places and re attached. It was important to work with adhesives that would complement the original materials and to test a variety of strengths until the best solution was found. In our case we chose to use cellulose based adhesives such as 2% methylcellulose in a 50/50 solution of IMS (alcohol) and deionized water and wheat starch paste in deionized water. The methylcellulose adhesive was low tack and could be wicked up easily by the linen so it was ideal for consolidating the flaking edges of the wrappings. The wheat starch paste was higher tack and more viscous so it was ideal for re-adhering the larger strips of linen back in their original positions.

The final stage of the treatment was to re-position the object on their mounts as some had shifted slightly over time. Overall we were able to stabilize three mummified human heads, a mummified falcon, a mummified kitten and two mummified human hands.

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To prevent damage like this from reoccurring there is a humidity control system installed within the case, which will keep our mummified objects comfortable for years to come.

A huge thanks to Jenny Mathiasson for her expertise and to David Goode and Hawtrey House for hosting Jenny during her time at Eton.

Aimée Sims

Conservation Steward

‘A great sense of mystery and tension’: Sophie Macfadyen responds to Gainsborough’s ‘A Rocky Road with Trees’

On 28th January 2019, 11 A-Level students and members of the History of Art Club from St George’s, Ascot visited the Watercolours exhibition in the Verey Gallery. Prior to their visit the A-Level students researched selected works on display and prepared presentations which each student delivered in front of the artwork to the Club. 
Below is Sophie Macfadyen’s presentation on A Rocky Road with Trees by Thomas Gainsborough.
Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788). A Rocky Road with Trees, 1785, black and white chalk, with stump.

Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788). A Rocky Road with Trees, 1785, black and white chalk, with stump.

This sketch is of a lone figure walking along a winding path into the distance. The path leads the figure as well as the viewer’s eyes through some woodland. There are buildings in the distance to the right which appear to be a manor house or farm and tall mountains beyond them. It is evening and the lighting gives the illusion that the moon is shining bright, illuminating the scene and dappling light through the trees and onto the ground.

The use of black and white alone in the picture gives a sense of eeriness as light and shadow are emphasised. It is the darkness that surrounds the figure that puts us on edge because it creates mystery as to what could be lurking around the corner. The open space which we see through also makes the figure seem vulnerable as they are alone in a wide, open space meaning that anyone and anything can jump out at them as well as be watching them, as the viewer is. The fact that the figure is so far away makes us feel helpless and as if we are about to watch something bad happen.

The tree on the right also adds to the eeriness of the scene as it twists and contorts as if to reach out to the figure. The idea of the trees having life and being able to watch and reach out to the lone figure gives the effect of the trees closing in on the person and trapping them. As well as this, the ground itself is also wrinkled and writhed making it seem like old skin, adding to the life-likeness of the landscape.

The use of linear strokes in the same direction creates a sense of unity. By pressing both hard and gently with the chalk, Gainsborough creates chiaroscuro, adding to the unsettling nature of the scene. This medium enables him to quickly and easily sketch out a complete scene either as a study for a painting or, as many were, just for fun. Overall, a great sense of mystery and tension is created, intriguing the viewer and drawing us in.

Gainsborough created over 1,100 drawings much like this in his lifetime. He had a huge interest in nature and depicting it. He often painted at night by candlelight which explains why the majority of his landscapes (especially the sketches) use tenebrism and appear to be set at dusk/night. This sketch was created at the end of his life therefore his technique and style is well established and the picture echoes his earlier works in both composition and subject. He is most famous for landscape compositions as well as detailed and delicate portraiture. His landscapes are typically of English countryside and are very effective at drawing the viewer’s eyes into the depth of the scene, usually via a path or open expanse of land. This technique is evident amongst many of his paintings and sketches such as Road From Market and Landscape in Suffolk. Gainsborough is renowned as being one of the best British landscape artists in history and I believe that he certainly deserves this title.

Sophie Macfadyen, St. George’s, Ascot