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Questions to a sculpture conservator

conservator cleaning the Crewe Britannia monument

Read more about the sculpture conservation department on this website.

Why did this sculpture's buttocks fall off in my hand?

The adhesive keeping the pin in place has failed through either deterioration (through age) or has been affected by environmental factors. Sometimes there is an inherent weakness in the material, which has been affected by a knock, environmental factors or simply age and gravity! For further information and help on how best to look after your object, book an appointment with a sculpture conservator.

detail of the back of a marble sculpture, which has a large piece missing from one buttock

Detail of damage to the 'Statue of 'Apollo', a classical sculpturewith 18th century restorations from the Ince Blundell collection.

What's the biggest thing you have worked on?

In 2005 we conserved the Nelson monument on Exchange Flags, Liverpool, which is 9 metres high.

What's the oldest thing you have worked on?

The oldest objects I have worked on are prehistoric hand axes, flints and fossils such as a dinosaur's footprint.

small piece of stone, carved into a sharp triangular shape

Egyptian spearhead

Do you use dusters?

The most important thing is to ensure that no damage occurs during dusting as friable (easily crumbled) surfaces and paint layers can be damaged (even by sable brushes). Dusters can cause damage as they can get caught on the surface.

Dusting an object is often the first method of cleaning that we use. Before any other treatment can be started, and even just to be able to look at the sculpture properly we need to remove the layer of dust that might have built up on the surface over many years. Removing the dust layer can often reveal much more about the condition of the object than was at first apparent. When we dust a sculpture it is always done with some form of dust extraction, usually a vacuum cleaner nozzle is held close to the surface and a soft bristle brush is used to gently sweep the surface dust into it. If we just used dusters for this job the dust would be removed from the sculpture but would remain in the room and eventually settle again on the sculpture and any other objects.

lifelike model of a monkey, with patches of fur missing

Wax monkey by John Isaacs

What is the strangest thing you have worked on?

One of the most unusual objects to have come into the studio is a piece of modern sculpture. It is a life size monkey, modelled out of wax, with real hair used all over the body and glass eyes. The monkey is in a sitting position and in one hand it holds a hypodermic syringe that it uses to inject itself in the other arm. Because this sculpture is life-size and uses natural materials to make it appear as realistic as possible it is a strange object to have in the studio - very different to the stone and bronze sculptures we are more used to having around.

It was created by the artist John Isaacs in 1995 and since then has needed to come into the studio for conservation treatment to deal with its arms gradually drooping. This may have happened due to the effects of gravity over time or because, at some point, the monkey may have been in a room where the temperature rose enough to allow the wax to soften slightly and so the arms began to droop down. The monkey has also lost some of its hair and where these have been kept the hairs have been re-inserted into the wax 'skin'.

This object now belongs to the Arts Council collection.

What is your favourite object to have worked on?

My favourite object is by far has been the monument to Lord Nelson, situated on Exchange Flags behind Liverpool Town Hall. Initially the shear size of the object was a little daunting but the number and variety of different components made for a very interesting project. Life size human figures, lions' heads, chains, garlands, letters, bas-reliefs and an enormous apotheosis (a god-like ideal) group are all mounted atop a tall marble and granite base. The overall height is almost 9 metres. Each element tells part of the story of how Nelson battled many times against the Napoleonic forces, only to lose his own life when finally winning the war. The monument is one of the oldest in Liverpool and one of the earliest to commemorate the death of Lord Nelson.

Large sculpture depicting a scene on a battlefield, with chained bronze figures around the base

Nelson Monument, Exchange Flags, Liverpool. Bronze memorial by sculptor Richard Westmacott

It took more than two years for our project to be completed. Many tests were required to ensure the correct treatment was chosen so as not to damage the materials. It was decided that using an infrared laser would be the ideal way of cleaning away the dirt and corrosion without damaging the delicate bronze underneath.

Maybe the most satisfying part of this project was the public response. We were overwhelmed with support and interest regarding the project. It is always surprising how much everyone knows about the history of the public sculpture in Liverpool.