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Huskisson statue

This sculpture was made to stand on William Huskisson’s grave in St James’ Cemetery following his death in 1830. The statue shows Huskisson in a classical style, clean shaven and wearing a toga. 

The statue was donated to the National Museums Liverpool collections by the Parks and Gardens Department, Liverpool City Council in 1968. It had suffered heavily from erosion and vandalism and was covered in a thick black pollution crust so was in need of consevation.

Accession number WAG 6930

William Huskisson

William Huskisson was born in Warwickshire in 1770. He lived in Paris from 1783 until 1792 and his experience of the French revolution had an effect on his political views for the rest of his life. When Huskisson returned to England he became an MP in William Pitt’s party. In the first two decades of the 19th centaury Huskisson held junior posts but eventually rose to the position of President of the Board of Trade (1823-27) in Lord Liverpool’s cabinet. Shortly afterwards he was selected to succeed his friend George Canning as Tory MP for Liverpool (1823-1830).

During this time he was the main representative of Liverpool’s trade interests in parliament. Huskisson believed in free trade and in 1825 he reduced import duties on foreign goods. He was also a supporter of the Catholic bill of emancipation in 1825. Huskisson died on 15 September 1830 as a result of injuries he got from falling under the wheels of a moving train whilst attempting to cross the line to greet the Duke of Wellington at the opening ceremony of the Liverpool to Manchester railway. He was the first person ever to be killed by a train in Liverpool. Many people believe he was the first ever railway fatality. However an unnamed woman, described as a blind American beggar in a book on the history of Eggleston Parish by the Reverend AT Dingle, was killed three years earlier on 5 March 1827 on the Stockton and Darlington Railway.

Analysis of the dirt layers on the William Huskisson sculpture

Scientists and sculpture conservators examined the pollution crusts on the marble statue by preparing a cross section of a small sample of the marble. By examining the cross section under the microscope the scientists found three layers of material.

The top layer is a hard black dirt layer about 0.5mm thick, formed by the reaction of the marble surface with acidic gases in the polluted atmosphere of Liverpool and the calcite crystals of the marble itself. The surfaces of the calcite crystals have been etched by the weathering process. This top layer, the black crust, is actually a transparent layer of calcium sulphate, which appears black because it contains large lumps of carbon.

The pollution crust of the sculpture in cross-section

Underneath this layer is an almost transparent layer of calcium sulphate that is free of carbon but appears yellow because it is stained by organic materials in the pollutant gases. This layer is soluble and can be easily removed by water washing or steam cleaning. This pale yellow layer is called the patina. If this layer is removed then all that would be left is the eroded calcium carbonate underneath. This badly eroded surface is exceedingly sensitive and would easily be damaged further.

Keeping the patina not only protects the delicate surface underneath but also preserves details within it, such as fine detail and tool markings. As this patina is water soluble, using water to remove any of the dirt on the surface is not possible if the patina is to be kept intact. It was found in the case of Huskisson that the best method to clean this sculpture was by using lasers, as this would allow the delicate and important patina to be retained. A cross section of a partially cleaned marble sample from the statue clearly shows that the laser has removed the dirt layers on the right, whilst the patina has been left intact.

Partially cleaned marble in cross-section

Cleaning the William Huskisson sculpture

When the sculpture arrived in the Conservation Centre it was in a very poor condition after many years exposure to a polluted atmosphere. A hard black pollution crust 0.1-1.0mm thick covered most of the surface and on damaged areas of the sculpture the exposed fine-grained marble has a sugary texture. Partial cleaning of parts of the sculpture using traditional techniques such as steam cleaning and poultices left the cleaned surface with an uneven and patchy raw appearance. In some areas the patina had been completely removed revealing the damaged calcite crystals, while in other areas pieces of stubborn dirt remain.

Partial cleaning of this sculpture by laser cleaning was carried out with an average fluence of 0.4J/cm2 with locally applied water and has revealed a smooth and undamaged patinated surface from which the dirt layers have been completely removed.

Laser cleaning

A laser is a unique source of energy providing an intense, highly directional, pure form of light. Unlike a conventional light source such as a light bulb, which provides a diffuse form of light composed of many colours (wavelengths), a laser provides a much more structured form of light composed of a single wavelength. This light spreads out very slowly from the source. This means that a laser is able to deliver energy to a surface in a highly controllable manner.

There exist many types of laser and an equally broad range of laser applications. They can be found in everyday, almost mundane uses (barcode readers, CD players), as well as the highly specialised (surgical tools used in eye operations). In fact, the laser cleaning systems used in conservation have been modified from medical systems developed for cosmetic surgery.

The most commonly used laser cleaning systems in conservation emit short pulses of infrared light (typically at a wavelength of 1064 nm). Light at this wavelength interacts strongly with many unwanted dirt layers and surface accretions, leading to their removal from the artwork. This is caused by the laser quickly heating the dirt, which expands and comes away from the surface. In many cases, the light interacts only weakly with the surface of the artwork and the removal process stops as soon as the clean surface is exposed.

It is therefore possible for an experienced conservator to completely remove unwanted layers without over-cleaning the valuable surface of the artwork. Careful control of the cleaning parameters through simple adjustments to pulse energy and working distance allows the conservator to accurately control the level and the rate of cleaning. Laser cleaning systems offer an extremely high level of control and precision.

Laser-based cleaning techniques are an extremely controllable method for removing unsightly and potentially damaging layers from the surface of an artwork. Such techniques are highly selective, non-contact and clean. In many cases they give the conservator a level of control not possible using alternative cleaning methods. The National Conservation Centre is able to draw on the experience of staff who have been involved in the development of laser cleaning systems in conservation since the early 1990s.

The mechanism of laser cleaning

Other sculptures of William Huskisson

This sculpture was originally in St James’ Cemetery, Liverpool, on top of the remains of William Huskisson. The sculpture was housed in a specially built mausoleum. The housing of the sculpture attracted a lot of criticism. Many critics thought that to allow such an important sculpture to be viewed from one direction only was a waste.

The critics suggested that the sculpture could be moved to another location in the city. However, William Huskisson’s wife wanted the sculpture to remain above her husband’s grave. She commissioned the sculptor Gibson to create another sculpture in marble. This second sculpture was supposed to stand in the Custom House, Liverpool. The sculpture, completed in 1836, didn't stay in Liverpool however, and was instead placed at the Royal Exchange, London. Today it can be found in Pimlico Gardens, London.

Using the second marble sculpture as a master, a bronze version was cast. This bronze version of the sculpture was unveiled in October 1847. Its original location was in front of the Customs House in Canning Place, Liverpool. The Customs House was destroyed during air raids in 1940 during the Second World War. In 1954 the sculpture was moved to a new home on the Princes Road/Princes Avenue boulevard. The sculpture was pulled from its plinth in 1982 because people thought Huskisson had been a slave trader. The removal of the sculpture from its plinth took place during a period of civil unrest in Liverpool in the early eighties. From 1982 onwards the bronze sculpture was housed in the Oratory in St James’s Mount Gardens. In 2004 it came into the sculpture studios at the Conservation Centre for conservation. The sculpture is now located in a new housing development off Duke Street in the city centre.