Amgueddfa Blog: Art

Whether you love L. S. Lowry, Lucian Freud or Richard Long, you know that when you visit Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales you can always see outstanding examples of international modern and contemporary art. What you might not know is that a significant part of that collection is here thanks to The Derek Williams Trust, which lends Amgueddfa Cymru over 260 of its most important works of twentieth and twenty-first century art.

This week sees the launch of The Derek Williams Trust website, a fantastic resource for anyone interested in exploring this collection. The site will enable you to search for art works and artists, and discover more about the Trust and its work with Amgueddfa Cymru.

Derek Williams was a Cardiff-based chartered surveyor and art lover, who had a particular interest in mid-twentieth century British art. He collected a large number of works by John Piper and Ceri Richards, which were supported with works by major figures such as Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore, David Jones, Ivon Hitchens and Josef Herman. Following Williams’ death in 1984, his collection and the residue of his estate were left in trust. Since that time, The Derek Williams Trust has undertaken the care, enhancement and public display of the collection, and in turn lends the collection to Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales. The generous support of Trust has transformed the Museum’s collection of twentieth century art and parallels the great bequests of French Impressionist art made by Gwendoline and Margaret Davies a generation earlier.

Since 1992, The Derek Williams Trust has also been working with Amgueddfa Cymru to build its own collection of modern and contemporary art, and recent purchases include work by Howard Hodgkin, George Shaw, Anthony Caro and Clare Woods. The Trust also provides financial support for Museum purchases, and funds the biennial Artes Mundi Derek Williams Trust Purchase Award – recent recipients include Tanja Bruguera, Ragnar Kjartansson and Bedwyr Williams.

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Retired gentleman at the MG Car owners Ball 1967 Copyright David Hurn Magnum Photos
Retired gentleman at the MG Car owners Ball, 1967. G.B. SCOTLAND, Edinburgh. © David Hurn/MAGNUM PHOTOS

Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales is the recipient of an exceptional gift from Magnum photographer David Hurn. Of Welsh descent, Hurn lives and works in Wales and is one of Britain’s most influential documentary photographers. Now, his home country will benefit from his collection of photographs.

David Hurn’s gift is made up of two collections: approximately 1500 of his own photographs that span his sixty-year career as a documentary photographer; and approximately 700 photographs from his private collection which he has compiled throughout the course of his career. Speaking of his gift, Hurn notes, 

“My earliest visual/cultural memories are visiting the museum when I must have been four or five. I remember the naughty statue - Rodin’s ‘The Kiss’ - and cases full of stuff that people had donated. Well now I have the chance to repay, something of mine will be there forever, I feel very privileged.”

A definitive edit of a life's work

Over the last two years, Hurn has been selecting photographs from his archive to create a definitive edit of his life’s work.

The collection of approximately 1500 new prints includes work made in Wales, England, Scotland, Ireland, Arizona, California and New York. It includes some of Hurn’s most celebrated photographs, such as Queen Charlotte’s BallBarbarella and Grosvenor Square.

However, it is his carefully observed photographs of his home country of Wales that are the focus of the collection. Following his generous gift, National Museum Wales is now the institution with the largest holdings of Hurn’s work worldwide.

The Promenade at Tenby 1974 Copyright David Hurn Magnum Photos
G.B. WALES. Tenby. The promenade at the elegant seaside town of Tenby, South Wales. 1974 © David Hurn/MAGNUM PHOTOS

A Collection of Swaps

In addition to his own photographs, the Museum is also acquiring approximately 700 photographs from Hurn’s private collection, which he has amassed over the past sixty years.

Throughout the course of his career, Hurn has swapped photographs with fellow photographers, including many of his Magnum colleagues.

In doing so, he has assembled a significant and diverse collection, which includes leading 20th and 21st century photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Eve Arnold, Sergio Larrain, Bill Brandt, Martine Franck, Bruce Davidson and Martin Parr, through to emerging photographers such as Bieke Depoorter, Clementine Schneidermann and Diana Markosian.

A selection of works from Hurn’s private collection will be on display for the first time at National Museum Cardiff from 30th September 2017, in Swaps: Photographs from the David Hurn Collection of Photography, an exhibition that launches the Museum’s new gallery dedicated to photography. 

Photography Collections at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales

National Museum Wales’ existing photography collections are uniquely inter-disciplinary and span subjects including Art, Social and Industrial History and the Natural Sciences.

Importantly it includes some of the earliest photographs taken in Wales by pioneering photographer John Dillwyn Llewelyn and his family. The addition of Hurn’s exceptional donation will transform the Museum’s photography collections and raise the profile of Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales as an important centre for photography in the UK. 

Sun City Outdoor group fitness in Sun City Arizona 1980 Copyright David Hurn Magnum Photos
USA. Arizona. Sun City. Outdoor group fitness early in the morning in the retirement Sun City. Ages range from 60 to a 94 year old who had run a 50 secs hundred meters in the Senior Olympics. The sense of fun and community was very infectious. 1980 © David Hurn/MAGNUM PHOTOS

The exhibition at National Museum Cardiff follows an earlier presentation of Hurn’s collection at Photo London, the international photography event held annually at Somerset House in London. Curated by Martin Parr and David Hurn, the Photo London exhibition, David Hurn’s Swaps marks the 70th anniversary of Magnum Photos.

 

Nothing lasts forever, not even in your favourite museum. The job of the conservator is to preserve the national collection but decay is all around us. Sometimes it feels like being a surgeon on an intensive care unit. Fortunately we do have a lot of science and technology to help us.

I have recently written about how we refurbished a collection store because corrosive gases being emitted from wooden cupboards caused some metal objects to show early signs of decay. In this blog I want to walk you through the science and analysis behind this project.

Iron rusts, every kid knows that. Leave a nail out in the garden and within weeks, days perhaps, you will notice it develops a lovely orange colour; given enough time, some moisture and oxygen it will eventually become flaky, friable and disintegrate. What happens when iron rusts? Iron atoms react with oxygen and water molecules, leading to oxidation of iron. The result are hydrated iron oxides, a small family of minerals commonly called rust.

Rusting iron has long been a bane of humanity. The Forth Bridge has to be repainted over and over again because it didn’t it would rust and collapse into the Firth below. The same is true of our own Menai Suspension Bridge here in Wales. Wales was the place for the invention of a rust-proofing process for household products made of iron. In the late 17th Century, Thomas Allgood of Pontypool developed a coating for iron involving the use of an oil varnish and heat. This process was called ‘japanning’, as a European imitation of Asian lacquerwork. Pontypool Museum has lots of information about these old local industries on its website so please visit there if you would like to know more.

National Museum in Cardiff has a collection of Welsh japanned ware which was largely acquired during the early years of the National Museum. Many of these objects do not consist of iron alone: lead, tin, copper and zinc all feature in varying proportions in different parts of some of the objects. Complicated parts, such as handles and bases, were parts made from softer metals or alloys. We can find out what materials an object is made of using a completely non-invasive technology called X-ray Fluorescence (XRF). XRF directs X-rays towards an object and analyses the X-rays that bounce back. As different elements have their own, unique X-ray fluorescence which the instrument can identify and even use to quantify the elemental composition of objects without having to take a physical sample.

The problem for the museum conservator is that many of these metals, too, corrode under certain circumstances. In the case of the objects which were subject to the previous blog the corrosion of parts with a high lead component was accelerated by the high organic acid concentration within the old storage cupboards. A number of analytical tests exist for identifying and quantifying organic acids in air; we used small discs with an absorbent material that were exposed to the air in the store (both inside and outside of the cabinets) and later analysed in the lab. The results of this test showed that the concentration of acetic acid was 623µg/m3 (250ppb) inside the cabinets and 19µg/m3 (8ppb) in the store, and the concentration of formic acid 304µg/m3 (159ppb) inside the cabinets and 10µg/m3 (5ppb) in the store.

We know that both acetic and formic acids are emitted by wood, and both acids can react with various metals to produce, in some cases, some impressive corrosion products. Clearly, the concentrations of both acids were higher inside the storage furniture than in the store itself, giving us a massive clue that the problem was caused by the cabinets and not air pollution entering the store through the air conditioning system. The fresh air supply into the store, on the other hand, kept the concentration of pollutants low in the store itself.

Corrosion and decay comes in many forms, and we also use other technologies to help us identify corrosion products. Of these more in a future blog. In the meantime we are continuing to eliminate the sources of corrosive substances from the museum to help preserve the national collection.

Find out more about care of collections at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales here.

National Museum Cardiff has an enormous number of artefacts displayed for people to see, with an even greater collection held in storage. Stores are customized to prevent any damage to objects. Storage furniture depends on the size and type of objects, and ranges from pallets to open racking and cupboards with doors. The Museum always tries to improve storage facilities, and when a store is refurbished all objects have to be moved.

This is where we encounter problems: how do you move several hundred historic objects, including fragile china, glass and heavy jade, safely without damaging them? Though the greatest of care will be taken, moving objects always carries a risk of damage. An old repair may fail, or a piece may come off a 100-year-old Chinese painted plate after a slight touch. The Museum has many procedures to avoid such damage. Handling guidelines include holding the artefact with both hands, and not picking up vases by the handle, as old repairs often cannot hold the strain. Notes will be taken of any parts that may be lose or detached, so that they can be fixed.

Should ever any damage occur the most important thing to remember is not to panic. The conservation professional would record, with forensic diligence, the smallest detail to enable the object’s repair. Museums, of course, have procedures even for dealing with accidents. There are some famous examples of museum objects breaking, including a visitor falling into three 17th-century Chinese vases. Things may break in your kitchen at home or in a museum. The difference between the two is the way any potential breakage is treated.

By the way, when one of the art stores was refurbished recently at National Museum Cardiff and hundreds of delicate objects had to be moved, not a single one was damaged, thanks to careful handling procedures.

Elizabete Kozlovska

Elizabete is a student at Cardiff University's School of History, Archaeology and Religion and volunteers one day a week with the Preventive Conservation team at National Museum Cardiff.

Find out more about care of collections at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales here

 

The recent Ivor Davies exhibition Silent Explosion at National Museum Cardiff sparked an explosive partnership project. The mMseum’s Learning Department and artist Claire Prosser worked with Albert Primary School in Penarth on an art project inspired by Ivor Davies's work. Ivor Davies grew up in Penarth and went to Albert Primary School as a child, where he witnessed the war and air raids on Cardiff. Some of his early work is based on these experiences.

The year 5 pupils visited the exhibition at the Museum, which reflects some of those childhood experiences, and made sketches and collages. One of the boys had re-drawn Ivor Davies’s drawing of enemy planes being caught in search lights, and added an additional plane. Ivor Davies himself came to visit the school at the end of the day of walks and signed this drawing and many others, much to the delight of the pupils.

On walks around Penarth the pupils discussed conservation, death and decay with Senior Preventive Conservator Christian Baars. It is not easy to conserve art that was created to be ephemeral. The pupils learned how organic objects, and even rock, are not everlasting, and instead part of a big circle of life, death and resurrection in new forms.

The role of any museum, in essence, is to preserve objects by halting that circle at a particular point. Whether this is in line with the artist's intentions, and how museums deal with this conundrum, was part of a "Conservation Conversation" at National Museum Cardiff a few weeks back. Curators, conservators and artists were involved in the discussion then. Bringing this theme closer to year 5 pupils proved entirely possible, as they enjoyed learning about how museums preserve objects while thinking about how it is really difficult to make anything last for centuries.

This interdisciplinary partnership project was also a joy to work on for staff, most of all the preventive conservator, as it brought together so many aspects of art and science.

Find out more about care of collections at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales here.