Last year, the Walker Art Gallery received a request for the loan of John Gibson’s Tinted Venus from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. John Gibson was a neo-classical sculptor who worked from studios in Rome. He first showed this sculpture at the 1862 International Exhibition, where his use of colour on marble caused quite a stir. While many were critical of this ‘new’ way of presenting sculpture, Gibson was in fact referencing the ancient Greek practice of fully painted statuary. Gibson went on to receive commissions for two more Tinted Venuses.
This particular sculpture hadn’t been on loan since the mid-1990s and required a thorough inspection in order for us to make an informed decision about whether it could be considered for international travel.
The statue was brought over to me at the sculpture conservation studio so that I could thoroughly examine it, document its condition and decide on any treatment that might be needed. Previous reports held on file showed that the Venus had been cleaned and waxed and had some areas of retouching carried out in 1996, ahead of its last loan.
I also found references to a treatment carried out in the 1960s, where some of the polychrome detail had been overpainted and a layer of gloss varnish applied. It is unclear how much of the painted surface is original.
I decided to look at the sculpture under ultra-violet light. Longwave UV lights are often used in conservation as a quick and non-destructive way of looking at the surfaces of objects in order to determine changes that may have occurred. These changes might have happened either through damage or the introduction of other materials.
The way certain materials fluoresce can even allow us to identify the types of materials that may be present, although other analytical techniques will often be used alongside UV analysis to confirm suspected findings.