In December 2021, after a pause due to both the Covid pandemic and a change in contractor, conservation work has recommenced to complete the conservation of two large ceramic pagodas from within the Royal Pavilion & Musuems Trust (RPMT) collections.
The project is now being undertaken in the RPMT Conservation Workshop by a group of talented emerging conservators, supervised by Object Conservator Andy Thackray ACR. The funding of the project is heavily supported by generous donors and will result in not only two restored pagodas on display in the Music Room, but also the establishment of three conservators that can go on and hopefuly have fruitful careers looking after our cultural heritage. This is the first blog of a series that will document the experience and undertakings of the team as we carry out our work. Meet our team: Ana, Bernarda, Hannah, Vivien and Samantha (left to right).
The large ceramic pagodas were acquired from Sir Kenneth Clark in 1949, before which the provenance is unknown. Little is known about these objects but it is known that a few identical objects came to Britain along with the commercial trade from China around the late 18th/ early 19th century. Four similar pagodas were originally displayed between the window piers in the Music Room at the Royal Pavilion, Brighton. All of these are accounted for in the Royal Collection and they were recently temporarily loaned back alongside many other objects for the A Prince’s Treasure Exhibition.
Believe it or not, the pagodas purchased for the Music Room were further embellished and enlarged with grand bases and finials in order to perfectly fit the scale and decorative scheme of the room. The pagodas that this project seeks to restore are almost identical to the original Music Room pagodas, albeit appearing in the form they took prior to these embellishments.
Another pair of almost identical pagodas came up for sale at Christie’s in 2013. You may find more information on these from the Christie’s website.
Aside from these, only one other example in the V&A East Asia Collection is known of as well as another that was sold into a private collection from Woburn Abbey in 1954 which had many damages plus five whole tiers, the finial and all of the applied ornaments missing.
The pagodas are made of soft paste porcelain, with beautiful colourful decorative glazes and striking details like dragons and painted landscapes. They are composed of nine tiers made up from nineteen stacked components. They have decorative detachable metal bells, metal carp and both ceramic and metal Fu dogs. When fully constructed, the pagodas reach over 2.5 metres high.
The pagodas have presented several structural and aesthetic conservation problems for us to solve,losses, fragmentation and previous treatments that needed to be revised. We have started with photography sessions, documenting the initial condition of the pagodas before any treatment done by us.
Tier 1 and 2 of one of the pagodas photographed by the team to document the condition before treatment. We can easily see the losses (image on the left) and historical fillings from previous treatments (image on the right).
We have also used these photographs to map their condition. These maps will document all the conservation issues, past treatments and new interventions.
Before doing any planned treatment, we have carried out a series of tests and trials. These tests will help us to chose optimal materials and methodologies for our treatments.
A novel use for children’s building blocks to hold silicone rubber in place while it cures. It is initially poured into these enclosures to create moulds of undamaged sections. From these moulds we can cast accurate reproduction sections to compensate for losses elsewhere on the pagodas.
So far, we have been amazed with the project. The pagodas are such an interesting and beautiful part of the Royal Pavilion collection. We are excited to keep you updated with the different phases of this project and we hope you can see the restored pieces in the Royal Pavilion in the near future. Until then, please stay tuned for our next blog.
Ana Vilela, RPMT Conservation Assistant