I hadn’t been working there long when I first noticed the old man. He was padding round the balcony, glancing about with a look of quiet fascination at the old maps displayed on the walls. He made three circuits, before descending to the ground floor and tipping his hat at the meet and greeter as he left.I quickly learned from my colleagues that he was a regular to the museum and had been for some time. Aside from taking walks around the upper floors, the old man also liked to tell jokes. He would often come over to the information desk and whisper “Have you heard the one about…” to whoever was stationed there that day. The punchlines were terrible, but we would laugh anyway out of courtesy and also because it was a brief spell of cheeriness amongst the drone of weary visitors.From then on, I paid close attention to his habits and saw how he would pause on occasion to pat a handrail or a stone column, like it was a trusted friend. At other times he would suddenly become fixated by an exhibit and beam at it with a knowing smile. This often had the profound effect of drawing other visitors to the object at which point the old man would slip through the bustle and continue on his steady meander.Most of all, he enjoyed looking at the Didier-Pouget that fills the wall outside the wildlife gallery. Nothing seemed to please him more than taking in the sunlit tufts of heather and the sprawling hillside as if it were a view he knew too well or perhaps longed to see in person.The first week he stopped visiting the museum, things began to deteriorate. Chunks of marble began breaking off the staircase in the front hall as visitors passed up and down. Surveyors were brought in to assess the problem, but they were unable to determine a cause and management had no choice but to close them off, indefinitely.The old man appeared a few days later, using the back stairs instead to reach the galleries. Although he still made his rounds, word quickly spread that he didn’t display his usual level of affection towards the exhibits or the building.The following week, the preventative conservator became convinced that there were new cracks appearing in the Assyrian reliefs. At first, no one believed her until she began taking pictures that illustrated the encroaching damage. The curators were bewildered, but those of us who worked on the galleries knew what was happening. You could feel it in the walls and the great oak doorways – everywhere was withering in his absence.The last time I saw the old man, his face was deathly pale. He still wore his broad-brimmed hat, but he’d swapped the tweed for a grey woollen suit jacket. He didn’t tell us any jokes. He barely made it up to the balcony.Over time, things returned to normal; mostly. The steps were able to be repaired and the cracks in the reliefs no longer seem to be increasing.How many have noticed the new addition, I couldn’t say. It’s barely acknowledged, except through the briefest of whispers or in the flick of an eye. But if you care to look, you’ll see that a second figure has appeared amongst the rose-tinted hillside where once there stood a lone female. There’s not much detail to make out apart from a broad-brimmed hat that’s being held aloft as if the person is embracing the scene.No doubt there’ll be others who’ll become a fixture amongst the museum and its collections. It’s what they deserve after contributing so much to the masonry and the treasures within. You might even call it a public service. For those yet to discover their own cherished item, I wish them long and healthy lives.
It would have taken days, weeks even, to reach South America. Then followed a journey on horseback into the Mexican jungle to work in searing heat, all the while battling fever and bites from numerous insects.
This is something of what Adela Breton, the Victorian artist and explorer, describes about her travels to ancient Mexico in two exhibitions currently on show. The first, at the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institute (BRLSI) looks at Breton’s personal life and her experiences working at the Mayan ruins.
Growing up in Bath, Breton began donating objects and works to the institute following her trips to Central America. Some of these are on display along with a timeline of her working life displayed on panels in the foyer of the institute.
One of the most interesting things are copies of her sketchbooks, which feature watercolours of the surrounding landscapes and people of Mexico as well as photos that give a real flavour of life in some of the towns and villages during that period.
The second exhibition at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery looks at Breton’s artistic practice. It’s on a somewhat grander scale, showcasing some of the huge tracings and paintings she produced while visiting the ruins.
The exhibition is the culmination of a much larger project to conserve, store and digitise the collection of her works. Breton began passing on her findings and works to the museum after the BRLSI could no longer provide the space to look after them. Bristol’s collection stands at over 1400 items and prior to the exhibition, the conservation team spent four years restoring and preserving the huge range of artworks.
Harry Metcalf, Paper Conservator at the museum, was involved in the project and says how the process gave them an insight into Breton – the artist.
“What’s interesting is that she used a variety of methods to record the decoration and carvings, including prints, watercolours, sketches and notes. This has enabled us to understand how she went about working at the sites and the techniques that she used.”
Many clues are visible in the works such as various cuts she made in the paper, which Harry believes were done to create a ‘flap’ that she could lift up to view the wall beneath her drawings. The cuts were then sealed with brown paper tape which discoloured over time. The conservators left it in place however, as it gives a valuable indication to how Breton worked.
There are also many sections that have been left blank, leading curators to believe that she wanted to remain true to what she was copying where detail had already been eroded or damaged. This highlights how crucial her work was in capturing the details of the remains before some of them were lost forever.
“One of the most important aspects of her work is that very little of the original colour exists so this collection is supposedly now the most comprehensive record of how they would have looked at the turn of the 20th century.”
Mounting the pieces proved quite a challenge as Breton worked exactly to scale. Harry used a technique called strip-lining, where pieces of a Japanese paper were used to attach the edges of the drawings to a rigid backing board.Using a conventional picture frame would have added too much weight for them to be moved and would also have caused problems in displaying matching sections of paintings.
One piece consists of four sections and there wasn’t enough space in the gallery to display them one on top of the other. But the team were still able to hang two pairs close enough so that visitors can see where the details join up.
“It’s not often that works of this size are put on display. It’s a great opportunity for people to come and view these extraordinary works and learn about the life of a remarkable person.”
Part of this article together with pictures of the conservation project can be seen on the website of Bristol Museum & Art Gallery.