The restoration of "La Fée aux fleurs" was a six-month process, expertly managed by Jane Gillies, objects and sculpture conservator at the MFAH, and Ingrid Seyb, assistant conservator. Below is Jane’s summary of the conservation treatment that was involved.
The Fairy Formerly Known as Tinker Bell
I had never seen the sculpture “Tinker Bell,” but its existence had acquired an almost mythical quality. It was obviously of some significance, possibly French 19th-century. Ingrid and I thought that if we removed all the rust and old paint that obscured the intricate details, and invested a lot of time, the cast iron sculpture might look impressive again. In order to do this, a stable, raised foundation would first need to be made, to keep the highly corrosive iron away from moisture. We also realized that under the top layers of blue paint was a bright layer of red lead primer, which would be hazardous to remove and problematic to dispose of. Red lead was a very successful protective coating for iron and is very hard to remove.
In the course of research, we contacted Eva Schwartz, of Barbara Israel Garden Antiques, in Katonah, New York, who had facsimiles of historical garden-sculpture catalogues. She was able to find our sculpture in a Val D’Osne catalog from 1870. Val D’Osne was the premier cast iron sculpture foundry in mid-19th-century France. It had become prominent after winning medals at the Crystal Palace exhibition in 1851, and later the foundry manufactured many of the famous Paris Metro station entrances.
The title of the work was not completely decipherable in the facsimile, but we were able to find the original model, a plaster shown at the Paris Salon of 1852. The design was acquired by the Musée des Beaux Arts de Dijon in bronze one year later, in 1853. We found other examples in cast iron in a private garden near Nice and in the center of a large fountain in the town of Offida in Italy. She was La Fée aux fleurs, The Flower Fairy, by French Sculptor Mathurin Moreau.
The conservation department then had to make decisions as to how to proceed with the treatment. We had experimented with newer, less-toxic paint strippers for the conservation of a mantel at Bayou Bend, but we found that in this case a product from architectural preservation firm Cathedral Stone was the most successful at removing the paint layers on the fairy. All the residues and materials used in the process had to be collected for disposal in a hazardous-waste landfill.
The surface that we finally achieved was somewhat irregular, and there was concern for its long-term maintenance. We applied a protective coating of a commercially available rust converter, and on top of this a thick layer of hot wax was applied to the cast iron. Lead paint in the interior of the sculpture was particularly difficult to remove, as it was completely bound up with rust. It was decided to transport “Tinker Bell” to a local industrial coatings firm, J. E. Titus, where special coating was added to the interior, preventing moisture from reaching the underlying iron, and saving the sculpture from further erosion in the future.