On the edges of Katrina Redman’s desk in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s vast complex lie the tools of her craft: a pot of thin brushes, a box of “insect needles”, scalpels, bamboo skewers, a pair of purple nitrile gloves, cotton swabs, a large microscope and a Reference table to remind them that bad things happen with the wrong lighting – coral and tortoise shell fade, zircon turn blue or grey. In the middle of the desk is an island of white paper where treasures land week after week.
Among the valuable pieces that washed up here, either en route to display at the museum or before touring to other institutions or home to their owners, was a diamond and sapphire bracelet given by Prince Albert to Queen Victoria. a pair of Salvador Dalí champagne coupe floor lamps, a ruby and white nephrite jade Mughal turban pin, a Fabergé treasure trove.
Redman’s role as senior metals restorer in the V&A’s collections care and access department for the last three years has been to decide what to do and what not to do to help preserve the lifespan of these pieces for as long as possible.
We think metals are solid, but she says metals are reactive, constantly moving. “Metal in its metallic form is chemically unstable. It’s always trying to get back to a more stable compound, basically its ore,” says Redman, referring to the naturally occurring rock or sediment from which a metal or mineral can be extracted. “With silver, that happens very slowly. Iron is more reactive, so it rusts very quickly.” Although less so, gemstones can also be mutable. “Opals have a water content of up to 10 percent. So if you put them in a really dry environment, they’re going to crack. Amber can darken with age, so it is affected by UV exposure. Pearls are more prone to acid attack or perfume on skin, hairspray.”
Trying to slow down these natural processes is part of Redman’s job on the team of two. “It could be because of the environment we’re showing it in, the lighting conditions, the temperature. Or a protective coating or varnish can be applied to a surface area to prevent air from getting there,” she says. Redman assesses the condition of the pieces and photographs them in detail so there is a reliable visual record of how they entered and left the museum. She also helps the curators with the search for authenticity and checks the provenance. The Mughal turban ornament, a spectacularly carved white nephrite jade with precisely carved pieces of ruby, emerald and topaz set in gold, will soon be brought to Doha’s Museum of Indian Art. The question arose as to whether the pearl at its tip came from endangered waters, in which case different papers would be required. “That meant looking at the most likely sources of this pearl,” she says. “We determined that it is most likely either a Persian or a South Sea pearl, and they are not endangered.”
Redman, who studied conservation of historical objects at the University of Lincoln and specialized in fine metalwork at West Dean College of Arts and Conservation in West Sussex, also studies fabrication techniques and undertakes any repairs that conservation might require. Recently, a piece of jewelry that was crushed in transit arrived for the coming one Africa fashion Exhibition. Redman had to do a live repair, the owner watched via video call. It sounds nerve-wracking but didn’t seem to convince Redman. “It was good. I did it with my hands so I could control the pressure.”
Other things make them nervous. Like the Salvador Dalí lamps on display in the 20th Century Gallery. The lamps, each composed of 10 stacked oversized copper alloy champagne coupés and designed for the Sussex home of surrealist art patron Edward James, were acquired in 2019 with support from the Art Fund. “When they arrived, the base metal corrosion broke through the surface. I put a coating on them to protect them, but that could happen again, so I’m worried about how they’ll hold up,” she says with a grimace. “All exhibited objects are endangered. But there are so many objects here that you can not take care of everything. Well, you worry, but you can’t think about everyone all the time.”
A recent exhibition she worked on was Faberge in London: a novel about the revolution, explore the work of the Russian master goldsmith. “These pieces were phenomenal. The craftsmanship was amazing. The flowers, the animals – you get a sense of a character from the way they are [been] carved. But the interesting thing about Fabergé was that he didn’t immediately go for the really high end. It wasn’t all the diamonds. He was more interested in the right material for his vision.” She says there is a reference to the use of asbestos on a piece of dandelion (not included in the exhibit) because he felt it had the right visual effect. “I think that shows a craftsman when he doesn’t just go for shine.”
Redman checked all parts and photographed each one. Was it a highlight of your time at the museum so far? She agrees and grins. “Who can say they’ve dealt with so much Fabergé in their lifetime?”
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