Today we have a special treat - a behind-the-scenes look at the restoration of two terracotta lions made by John Charles Felix Rossi that flank the doors to Rienzi's Foyer by the MFAH's Conservation Department. Guest blogger, Ingrid Seyb, Assistant Conservator of Objects and Sculpture, shares her insights on the process of repairing, restoring, and preserving these handsome pieces.
We hope you enjoy!
- Casey & Caroline
Conservators tend to want control, control of outcomes, of materials, of light levels, of humidity, of airborne pollutants and biological activity, of the proximity of visitors to an object. A purpose-built museum structure will control these variables with acetic strictness, and that’s the way we like it. According to these principles, valuable museum art really should not be put outdoors, and yet outdoor sculpture is an undeniable visceral pleasure that contributes to the museum experience and to the community. In fact, as most outdoor sculpture was intended as such by the maker, removing it to a gallery would rob it of part of its meaning, a step therefore to be taken only in the case of a clear and present danger.
For these reasons, outdoor sculpture presents an unusual and satisfying challenge: many of the materials and techniques we use as a matter of course for similar pieces in the galleries would not last the year when subjected to Houston heat, sunshine, humidity, pollution, and the occasional freeze-thaw cycle. Some of our materials, in fact, might not last a week! We were pleased to have the chance to design a treatment strategy for the Rossi terracotta lions which would enhance their dignity while preserving their integrity, and saving us from having to redo our work in a year’s time.
When they arrived at our workshop, we began by removing the thin layer of cement from underneath, both to improve the appearance, and because the resulting uneven distribution of weight could exacerbate the structural cracks which were originally caused probably by freeze-thaw cycles. We quickly had evidence of how closely these pieces were integrated into the landscape—the escape of a small frog. We normally frown on biological activity in the art, but in this case we let him go unpunished.
In some of the low areas and undercuts were the remains of many layers of white paint, which would not have been original. These were removed and saved, just in case someone in future wishes to do scientific analysis of the paints used. Some steam cleaning was done overall, and various cleaning solutions were tested, but the dark staining proved too ingrained to yield to us. The lions have lost most of their harder, less porous outer firing finish, leaving the more porous material beneath highly susceptible to these stains.
Missing elements included one tail, two ears, and five tufts of the manes. Instead of one of our standard bulked polymers, which would not age well in the elements, we chose a restoration cement, toned to match. The losses were modeled in wax to imitate the style of the terracotta, silicone rubber molds were made, and these could then be filled with the tinted cement.
These restorations add to the general impressiveness of these handsome sculptures, but we will have to monitor how they age to ensure they continue to agree with the appearance of the lions. The other changes, especially the removal of the paint flakes and the cement layer and the new limestone bases raising the lions out of the damp, are not so much restoration as preservation. By removing these things which held moisture against the object, we extend the time they can live in their beautiful architectural setting and can be enjoyed as they were intended.