The lack of a blog post for the past 2 months (!) owes to my participation in the Inorganic Block with the first year WUDPAC (Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation) masters students. In block, the students (and I) learned more about metals, stone, ceramic, and glass conservation. I also subjected them to 3 hours of Delft tile history, manufacture, and conservation. In the meantime, I've still been treating and researching the tiles. Today's blog post is about my months-long struggle to identify the iconography of this unique tile and color match its gray background.
The tile above was probably manufactured somewhere between 1600 and 1700 in the Netherlands. An artist painted the decoration onto the unfired tin-glazed surface with a manganese glaze, which turned purple when fired. While I know how the tile was made, its iconography is more elusive. Winterthur's database lists the tile as "merman grasping a nude woman trailing a scarf." Other similar tiles are listed by dealers and museums as "Merman and Fortuna" (below left) or simply "Neptune" (below right). While sea monsters are a common motif on Delft tiles, this particular decoration is relatively rare.
When I searched for inspiration sources in other media, I quickly realized that the tile is actually meant to represent a merman, or triton and a sea nymph, or nereid.
Examples of tritons abducting nereids in art range from a niello print (made with silver, copper, and lead sulfides) from Renaissance Italy to a bronze fountain at the Mirbach Palace in Bratislava.
However, while the nereid on this tile does not look particularly happy, she appears to be standing on the back of the triton rather than being carried off. The mosaic below from the Bardo National Museum in Tunis depicts sea nymphs riding on the backs of tritons and other sea creatures. They all have flowing scarves similar to the one worn by the nereid on the Delft tile. There is also a reference in Dionysiaca, an epic poem by Nonnus, to Thetis, the nereid mother of Achilles, riding into battle "on the green hip of a Triton with broad beard" (6. 257 ff). Perhaps the nymph on Winterthur's tile is wearing her battle face.
Once I'd discovered what the tile was actually depicting, it was time to start treatment!
The tile's major condition issues include:
I started off by removing the plaster fill. Once removed, I saw that the previous restorer had keyed, or carved, into the ceramic body in order to make the plaster adhere better. This is something that modern conservators do not do, because it damages the original material. Bits of plaster was also stuck in all the grooves and had to be painstakingly removed under a microscope.
The staining along the proper right edge of the tile did not respond to cleaning with water and other common conservation solvents like acetone. Because of this, I conducted cleaning tests with chelators, or materials that remove heavy metal staining.
1% EDTA (disodium ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid) in deionized water buffered to a pH of 8.5 with sodium borate was determined to be the most effective chelator for this particular stain. The solution was applied to the proper right edge of the tile in 5% agarose gel to reduce the yellow stained area (below).
After two rounds of application of a chelator, carbamide peroxide in laponite gel was applied as a combination bleach/rinse over a Japanese tissue paper (Gampi Usuyo) barrier and allowed to dry. This process ensures that no acid is left on the surface of the tile, as it could potentially harm the ceramic.
Though the stain was not completely removed, it was reduced enough to not distract from the decorative quality of the tile (below).
I filled the areas of lost glaze with Flugger and began the arduous process of in-painting. As I've said my previous blogpost about inpainting, sometimes you magically match the color right away. Sometimes, though it can take weeks to get the color right. That was the case with this tile...
I started with a base color that was relatively close to the color of the background.
I then began inpainting the merman's tail and the waves with acrylic paint, using the tile from the Museum of London in the previous section as an example. I also attempted to draw in the crazing lines...to moderate success. Even using my smallest brush, the lines appeared too wide.
I was unhappy with how much the fill stood out, so I decided to try and fix part of my in-painting...
On my sixth attempt, I finally decided to just rip out the parts I wasn't happy with and start over.
I should have started over ages ago! After months of struggle, the tile is finally finished. The crazing lines and my reconstruction of the tile's original decoration blend in well.
Thanks for checking back! Be sure to check Twitter for updates under #WeirdTileoftheDay and #WeirdTileWednesday. Tune in soon as I delve into my struggle to find where the tiles came from!
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Photos by author unless otherwise stated.
Winterthur Postgraduate Fellow in Objects Conservation