Christine Downie, Objects Conservator
One responsibility of a conservator in a museum is to “condition check” artworks that are requested for loan from other institutions, to ensure that the work is stable and in good condition to travel. In May 2008, a request came from the Yale Center for British Art, The Lewis Walpole Library, and the Victoria and Albert Museum for several roundels (small, single pieces of lightly tinted glass painted with scenes using vitreous paint and colored yellow using silver stain, usually round) in the BMA collection. The institutions were organizing a major exhibition featuring objects from the collection of Horace Walpole – a well-known British historian, Member of Parliament, novelist, connoisseur and collector of decorative art pieces, including stained glass. The roundels were made in the 1500s and later collected by Walpole for his home “Strawberry Hill” in Twickenham, England. Unfortunately a number of the BMA roundels were broken in numerous pieces and precariously held together by plates of glass. They were certainly too fragile for travel overseas. Stabilizing them would require the skill of a stained glass conservator. There was not enough time and money for this to be achieved for the Walpole exhibition so I sadly had to say no to the loan.
I became curious how these roundels had come to the BMA from Strawberry Hill and how they ended up surrounded by odds and ends of stained glass fragments. Valuable information came from Michael Peover – an expert on the Strawberry Hill stained glass – and Sona Johnston, then Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture. It seems the roundels were sold in an estate sale in 1842 by Walpole’s heir, the Earl of Waldegrave, and passed through various hands before being acquired by an American – William Randolph Hearst. At some point they were combined together with stained glass fragments into two panels with a stained glass patterned surround. Saidie A. May later bought them at the 1941 sale of the Hearst Collection. She had the two stained glass panels separated into 4 panels and inserted in four windows. These were eventually donated and installed at the BMA along with several other medieval and renaissance stained glass pieces from her collection.
In January 2009 Johnston and Tom Primeau, Head of Conservation, organized a review of all the BMA stained glass by historian Michael Cothren, Scheuer Family Professor of Humanities at Swarthmore College. I was asked to find a stained-glass conservator that would be experienced enough to take on treating the stained glass that Cothren and the BMA curators identified as gems, including the four panels with the Strawberry Hill roundels. I was lucky to find such a person at a 2009 The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Forum for the Conservation and Restoration of Stained-Glass Windows. The following January, stained glass conservator and artist Mary Clerkin-Higgins examined all the gems of the stained glass collection in the BMA conservation lab. Through the generous financial support of the The Richard C. von Hess Foundation, the pieces were carefully packed by art handler Mike Klunk and delivered to Mary’s studio in New York for treatment. Mary and her colleague Takuji Hamanaka were able to treat the roundels and surrounding glass and bring them together as two panels once again. The two panels are now being installed in the Jacobs wing with the hope that next time a loan request comes for a Walpole exhibition the answer will be yes!
BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.