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News Student Blog: That’s the way the crockery crumbles

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​Left: Sophomore Nicholas Fandaros reconstructing a Papua New Guinean ceramic vessel on loan from Central High School in Philadelphia. Image by Madeline Hagerman, University of Delaware. center and right: Before treatment images of ceramic vessel lent from Central High, exploded view. Images by Nicholas Fandaros.

As an ARTC sophomore, I am constantly looking for opportunities to get hands-on experience. Although this past year has limited many resources for in-person practice and learning, I was very fortunate to work one-on-one with Professor Madeline Hagerman as my advisor for the semester. Without her assistance, and support from the ARTC program at the University of Delaware, I would not have been able to complete this independent study successfully.

In an attempt to expand the range of objects that I have had experience handling and treating, we decided that a particular piece from a group of ceramic objects lent from Central High School in Philadelphia could serve as a great learning tool. We chose a large, broken, earthenware vessel which consisted of one large fragment along with several other sherds stored separately. Information on the piece itself was limited as the only paper record associated with it was a loan form listing several other ceramic objects from the Central High collection. My treatment goals for this object included cleaning, reconstructing, filling for structural support, inpainting losses, and housing for easier handling. To gain practice with a decorative arts ceramic, a second object was chosen from a collection of ceramics donated from the Winterthur Museum Objects Laboratory Study Collection. The piece was a salt-glazed stoneware plate with several losses and previous attempts at reconstruction. For this object, my treatment goals consisted of cleaning, disassembling previous repairs, reconstruction, and proper storage. 

​Central High School in Philadelphia (left) and before treatment photo of the Salt-glazed stoneware plate from the Winterthur Museum Objects Laboratory Study Collection (center). Images by Central High and Nicholas Fandaros respectively. Right: Using a soft brush to remove dust from the sherds before reconstruction. Image by Madeline Hagerman, University of Delaware.

​Before the ceramic vessel was put on loan for treatment by the Undergraduate Art Conservation Program at the University of Delaware, it was owned and cared for by individuals at Central High School, PA. This specific object was part of a larger loan that included 12 individual objects. It was listed as “Ceramic Vessel (7)” on the loan/ donation form and featured one black and white image of the vessel stored upside down and still fragmented. The form of Ceramic Vessel (7) was not entirely known and therefore did not assist greatly in this initial attribution. However, Ceramic Bowl (6) on the loan/ donation form greatly resembles a Gugumbe (Hearth or fireplace dish). These objects are easily identifiable and unique to the Aibom people which directed the provenance to this group of people. Ceramic vessel (7) was then concluded to be an older version of a “Sago” storage vessel. Sago vessels were created in two verities: mangumbu (large, oblong, and an unrestricted neck/rim) or Vini (smaller, rounder, and featuring a neck and everted rim). The Vini style of Sago vessel greatly resembles the object being treated in this report and strongly pints its origin to the Aibom people of Papua New Guinea. 

​Before beginning treatment on the large ceramic vessel, pieces that belonged to the object had to be sorted out from a box of unknown sherds donated by Central High. Once separated, I dry fit and taped the sherds together to gain an understanding of the complete form of the object. I cleaned each piece using a soft brush and a Nilfisk vacuum, consolidated the break edges, and then reconstructed the sherds into the object sequentially as to not "lockout" other pieces. This process was incredibly slow going and required several hands and a lot of tape. Fortunately, the vessel was stable enough on its own not to require additional plaster fills. I created a base for the vessel consisting of closed-cell polyethylene covered in a layer of Tyvec. Traditionally, a grass ring covered in Liana vine and banana leaf (called an entagu) is used to support the dish while being worked and shaped. Evidence of this support is visible on the base of the vessel as there are small organic fibers stuck into the surface of the ceramic in a concentric pattern. Previously, the vessel had been stored balanced on the rim, as this was the only flat part. With the base, it could finally be inverted to sit upright on its own without my support. Finally, custom housing was created for the vessel consisting of more polyethylene, Tyvec, and Blueboard which allowed it to be stored upright and handled much easier. The vessel was extremely heavy after reconstruction and proper housing will prevent further mechanical damage during viewing and storage.

​Ceramic vessel after treatment, showing the new foam base and housing. Images by Nicholas Fandaros.

There is no record about the ownership or donation history that is currently associated with the Salt-glazed stoneware dish. As previously mentioned, it is part of a collection of study objects for undergraduate students in the Art Conservation program at the University of Delaware and was donated from the Winterthur Museum Objects Laboratory Study Collection. The object is not cataloged in a digital database associated with the collection at Winterthur. Similar examples of salt glazed stoneware dishes can be found within the digital collection on the Winterthur website and resemble the form and decorative element found on the object being treated. These dishes were all produced by the Staffordshire Company in Britain. This evidence lead me to conclude a possible provenance to North Staffordshire, Britain, dating to the mid-18th century. 

To begin treatment on the salt-glazed stoneware dish, previous attempts at reconstruction had to be undone via a solvent chamber using acetone. After half an hour, the joints between the sherds began to soften and I was able to disassemble the dish and clean along the break edges to remove the old adhesive. I then cleaned the surface of the dish of excess grime and staining using 1:1 denatured alcohol and deionized water. Sandbags, weighted blocks, and clamps positioned the dish so that gravity helped the pieces being re-adhered fit into place--making tight joins. Once the plate was reconstructed, I removed excess adhesive and again constructed custom housing from polyethylene, Tyvec, and Blueboard. This housing allowed for easy storage, handling, and viewing of the object to prevent further deterioration. 

Before beginning this independent study, I had never had the chance to treat ceramic objects. Although I only worked with these two objects, the skills gained from their treatment and care will foster greater knowledge within the field and treatments to come. I was extremely fortunate to be able to study and practice on campus this semester, none of which would have been possible without the support of faculty and staff of the ARTC undergraduate program.  

— Nicholas Fandaros, Art Conservation Major, UD Class of 2023

​Left: Creating a solvent chamber in a polyethylene bag to soften the previous adhesive. Image by Nicholas Fandaros. After treatment the joins are tighter than before (center) the final rehousing (right). Images by Nicholas Fandaros.

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In this blog post, ARTC undergraduate student Nicholas Fandaros discusses his fall semester independent study examining ceramic objects, their treatment, and proper storage.

​In this blog post, ARTC undergraduate student Nicholas Fandaros discusses his fall semester independent study examining ceramic objects, their treatment, and proper storage.

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  • The Department of Art Conservation
  • 303 Old College
  • University of Delaware
  • Newark, DE 19716, USA
  • Phone: 302-831-3489