Conservation of Three Plaster Casts by Eric Gill for Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft

In 2012 I was contacted by Ruth Cribb, the great-granddaughter of Joseph Cribb (1892-1967) the letter-cutter, sculptor and lifelong working partner of Eric Gill (1882-1940) (see 3rd Dimension). Ruth was working with Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft in Sussex on their capital re-development programme and major re-display of their collections. She was looking for a conservator, specialising in sculpture, to assess and conserve three small plaster objects by Gill for the Museum, to be displayed in their newly refurbished galleries. They comprised of a painted plaster cast of a Madonna and Child by Gill, a Crucifix made of plaster and wood also by Gill and a cast of a Female Torso, the provenance of which was uncertain, but was being investigated. The Museum was successful in gaining funds from the Henry Moore Foundation to pay for conservation, but the work had to be carried out elsewhere, as they did not have conservation facilities. The following account will describe briefly the history and description of the three objects and their treatment, which was carried out in Spring 2013. There were no existing records regarding the objects’ conservation history, and, during the assessment and cleaning trials, visual observations were made to further understand how the objects had been finished and whether there had been any previous interventions. Two of the objects were in poor condition and urgently needed stabilisation before going on display. 

The first object was a small plaster statuette, Madonna and Child (Museum no. 2011.4566), depicting the Madonna sitting on a pedestal, nursing the infant. The Madonna’s dress was painted blue and she wore a crown on a beige and red headdress. Her face, breast and both hands were naturalistically painted, as was the body of the infant Christ. The pedestal and Madonna’s feet were a similar colour to the headdress, and were partially varnished. The underside of the pedestal was inscribed EG, a letter B and numbers 465. According to Judith Collins, Eric Gill: The Sculpture (1992 Lund Humphries, London in association with Barbican Art Gallery, p.77), several versions of the Madonna and Childwere cast, all with slightly different finishes. Ruth Cribb’s research shows that Gill produced in total 95 of these sculptures in different editions in different materials: 7 in bronze, 42 in plaster, a further 9 in bronze and/or brass, then 6 more in plaster (catalogue nos. 32 to 35, 1912), then finally 31 in plaster (catalogue number 46 in 1913). What isn’t clear is which group this particular example came from. Apparently Gill chose an edition of plaster casts to be made by the London firm Charles Smith and Sons, Sculptors’ Moulders of 1 Southcote Road, Holloway. Whether the same firm cast all of the different versions is unclear, but what is interesting is that Gill had decided to produce these pieces on a larger scale, which was unusual for him. 

The Mother and Child group belonging to the collection of the Ditchling Museum is very similar in design to a cream-coloured one displayed in the Manchester City Art Gallery. The surface finish, however, is closer to that in William Andrews Clark Memorial Library in Los Angeles which is also painted blue, with a gold and red headdress, although that surface has a thick glossy varnish. The Library owns a large collection of Eric Gill’s work mostly collected by its first Director, Lawrence Clark Powell. Versions cast in bronze include a Madonna and Child in Manchester City Art Gallery and one in the collection of the Johannesburg Art Gallery in South Africa. The Manchester Madonna has her hair tied at the back and the Christ child sits more upright, whilst suckling his mother’s breast, with his right leg pointing straight down rather than being bent. 

While I was assessing the condition, the Madonna and Child group was found to be unstable and covered in years of accumulated dirt. A thick uneven coating of what appeared to be wax was obscuring the original blue paint underneath. About one third of the Madonna’s head was missing at the back, and there was slight movement on the cracked plaster below the missing area. The pedestal had also suffered from losses at the corners, causing slight rocking on the base. The Infant Christ was missing his head, but this appeared to be a much older loss and did not affect the stability. The gaps at the back of the Madonna’s head and of the pedestal were filled and painted to match the existing surrounding colour scheme, but were toned down slightly, to be visible at close range. Unstable cracks were consolidated and small areas of chipped and exposed plaster were either sealed to protect them and/or toned down.

Throughout the treatment, discussions were carried out regarding the level of cleaning, as the initial requirement was to remove the dirty wax so that the blue colour of the dress would ‘sing’. As the cleaning progressed it became clear that the blue was not just one layer, but possibly three layers of different blues. Each layer had suffered from abrasions and areas of missing paint, and the wax might have been applied at a later date, to conceal the irregular paint work, as it too was slightly tinted with blue. Cleaning and removal of the dirty and blotchy coating of wax, and retouching the fills created a more coherent effect on the overall surface and brightened up the blue colour on the dress. Filling the missing areas of plaster provided more stability to the object. 

The second object, to receive treatment was a small Crucifixmade of wood and plaster (Museum no. 2011.4598). The plaster corpus was attached to a wooden patriarchal style cross, inscribed INRI in the upper cross beam. The body of Christ had been painted black with a reddish coloured robe and red paint indicating a spear wound. The cross had been glued onto a mounting board. To find out more about the provenance of the piece, I consulted Ruth Cribb for advice. Ruth’s father, Joe Cribb from Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft kindly described to me the following: the object, donated to the museum is closely related to Collins’ catalogue no. 80 – the Bisham Wayside Crucifix(WW1 memorial). On 1st March 1919, Gill made a wax model for the Bisham Crucifix. He then carved the full version in April and May 1919. The original wax model was cast in plaster in 1919 and this (or the wax version) was then used in 1921 to cast a lead figure. This lead version became the processional cross for the chapel of the Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic, Ditchling. The plaster was presumably made at the same time. The plaster is painted to look like the lead processional piece made for the chapel. There is no information as to why this plaster was made, kept and painted in this way, but Gill often made things for gifts or sale, if he could. Further to this, three more lead figures were made from the same mould in 1968 by Joseph Cribb’s son, Peter, and one of these is also in the museum though not on display. The original lead version made for the chapel was sold at auction earlier this year, though its current whereabouts are unknown (it went to a dealer so may appear on the market again).

The plaster figure was highly unstable as the head was broken by the neck and both arms were fractured under the shoulders. Part of the right hand and both feet were broken off and the fragments were missing. Some fragments from the arms had survived and helped to give an idea of how they should look. The metal pin on the left arm was bent and the figure remained attached to the cross at only one point; a nail through the left hand, consequently preventing it from aligning with the cross properly – if the hands were aligned with the corresponding nails, then the legs were misaligned.

To begin with the corpus was carefully separated from its mount. The broken neck was adhered back, as well as the loose fragments belonging to both arms. The gaps left on the arms and right side of the chest were remodelled with a filler and retouched with acrylic colours. Realigning the figure on the cross was complex, as straightening the metal pin could have fractured the chest area in which it was embedded.

The decision was to remove two of the other nails from their original positions and reposition those, so that the figure would be better aligned along the cross. To do that the two nails were carefully pulled out, treated for corrosion, and glued to new holes, which had been drilled near the original holes. The old holes were filled and retouched to match the colour of the wood. 

Using an image of a similar Crucifix by Eric Gill (a gold coloured lead cast by Peter Cribb from 1968), as a model to reconstruct the feet, the losses were then remodelled around the nail, as was the right hand, and coloured to match the rest of the figure. The complex treatment ensures the stability of the fragile Crucifix to be displayed and enjoyed by visitors to the museum.

The third and final object to receive treatment was a small plaster cast relief depicting a torso of a female nude with drapery around the neck (Museum no. DITLM VGL7 EG 97:2664.1). The original carving made of Hoptonwoodstone belongs to the collection of the Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin. The Center houses the largest collection of Gill’s art in the whole world and Peter Mears, Curator of Art and Chelsea Weathers, Research Associate, Art, Performing Arts Collections at the Harry Ransom Center, kindly provided me with information and images of the original Female Torso. The plaster cast is likely to be the only existing copy of the original stone relief, although this is yet to be verified. According to Judith Collins, Eric Gill: The Sculpture (1992, p.99), the original stone is inscribed on the back For Elizh. June 1 1924. Elizabeth was Gill’s eldest daughter, and the work was probably a present for her birthday. 

The cast is uncoated plaster and considered structurally sound. In this case the piece did not require as much work as the two other casts and consisted of removal of superficial dirt from the surface. There were few small abrasions and scratch marks on the surface and the more recent damage was noticeable, as the plaster was cleaner in those areas. The small dents required no treatment as they did not cause instability and were considered to be part of the object’s history. It is of interest that the old repairs on the top right corners are visible on both the original stone and the cast.

Since there were no existing records regarding the conservation history of the three Ditchling objects, prior to treatment, information gathered was based on visual observations. Further analysis regarding the paint scheme on the Madonna and Child group and the Crucifix can be obtained in the future by examining cross sections of paint samples if necessary. Research into provenance during the preparation of these objects was carried out by the curator at Ditchling Museum and the plaster cast of the Female Torso was indeed proved to be by Gill. The provenance of the objects are still under further investigation. The Madonna and Child is now displayed at Ditchling with another similar version and the two can be compared. What would be of interest is if all the different versions of Madonna and Child groups could be one day displayed together or studied further to fully understand the various surface finishes that Gill applied, tried and tested on these figures. 

The Crucifix has been displayed on a bespoke Perspex mount in place of the previous backing, and all objects are now cased to protect them from getting dusty or damaged.

I would like to express my deep gratitude to Donna Steele, Ruth Cribb and her father, Joe Cribb from Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft; Charlotte Hubbard, Head of Sculpture Conservation, V&A, London; the Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin, and the William Andrews Clarke Memorial Library, University of California, Los Angeles for giving me the rights to use images in their collection and being supportive in regard to my research. 

Aurora Corio