Restoration of a Marble Sculpture from the Library of Parliament

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CCI Newsletter, No. 35, June 2005

Restoration of a Marble Sculpture from the Library of Parliament

by Wendy Baker, Conservator, Fine Arts, CCI; and Doris Couture-Rigert, Conservator, Sculpture and Decorative Arts, National Gallery of Canada

Queen Victoria before treatment (left) and near completion (right).

Queen Victoria before treatment (left) and near completion (right).

Head of Queen Victoria before (left) and after (right) treament.

Head of Queen Victoria before (left) and after (right) treament.

The Library of Parliament is one of Canada's most impressive architectural heritage structures. It represents an historic link to the original Parliament Buildings and welcomes numerous visitors each year. As part of the ongoing preservation of Canada's Parliamentary Precinct, the Library is undergoing a process of conservation, rehabilitation, and upgrades. CCI played a role in this venture by overseeing the conservation of the Library's centrepiece, a larger-than-life white marble likeness of a young and imperial Queen Victoria that stands 2.33 m high and weighs 1550 kg. When reinstalled in the newly renovated Library, the restored sculpture will be further protected by a seismic stabilization system capable of withstanding Ottawa-scale earthquakes. CCI is proud to have been involved in this project, which has not only returned "the Queen" to a state close to her original appearance, but has added significantly to the science of seismic stabilization of large indoor stone sculptures displayed in earthquake zones.

It was back in November 2001 that Public Works and Government Services Canada asked CCI to oversee the restoration and stabilization of Queen Victoria and her five stone plinths (sculpted by Marshall Wood, 1871).1 Our work was to include removing and storing the Queen, specifying and supervising her conservation treatment, and determining and implementing appropriate seismic stabilization for her return and reinstallation in the Library, prior to it reopening.2

A rudimentary examination of the sculpture revealed that it had once been stained black by soot from a fire3 or by the combined results of soot and years of circulating combustion products from coal-fired furnaces. It was also evident that a previous attempt had been made to scrub off this dirt. In addition to the damage from this aggressive cleaning, the marble surface showed traces of ingrained soot plus more recent depositions of dirt and dust. Old repairs were showing their age too.

The sculpture was dismantled, crated, and removed from the Library in 2002 in a special moving cage.4 It was initially transported to the National Gallery of Canada for temporary storage, and then moved to Parks Canada for conservation treatment. We are grateful to both institutions for their kind and generous loan of space.

When a more detailed examination was undertaken in 2004, we found that the structure was sound overall but the surface was altered by the ingrained soot and grime, the latter obvious in certain recessed areas and by a slight sugary texture resulting in a mild chalkiness and intermittent loss of translucency. Analysis of residues found in crevices of the Queen's draperies revealed the presence of calcium sulphate5 — the degradation state of marble when exposed to acidic agents (the stone surface transforms from marble to gypsum in an irreversible process). We also noted that certain elements had once been gilded or gold-painted, specifically low carved relief decoration such as the vitruvian scroll along the edge of her outer robe, details of sandal straps, as well as whole carved elements including crosses and fleurs-de-lys of the diadem, acorns, and portions of her sceptre. The only indications of these decorative details that remain are residues of an oxidized bronze powder5 found in the more protected areas (verso) of acorns and a yellow discoloration of the marble left behind by a penetrating medium or mordant. The bronze powder may be a residue of a restoration that replaced an earlier, more traditional gold leaf. Following our examination we wrote a report that outlined the condition of the sculpture and specified treatment objectives as determined in collaboration with the client.

It was decided that the dirt and stains should be removed by means of a gentle cleaning, and that surface damage and old repairs be restored. The surface was to be harmonized to a uniform colour stopping short of a pristine white marble and preserving scant evidence of painted decorative elements. Cleaning agents were tested and exposure times and cleaning methods established. Recommendations, based on these tests, were incorporated into tendering documents, along with the condition and treatment objectives outlined in our report for the Queen and four portrait busts.

Contractors6 began work early in 2005. They were encouraged to follow the recommendations outlined by CCI for the cleaning process, although they could, after further testing, suggest alternative methods that would give a similar result. The most successful of the cleaning agents tested was 3M Safest Stripper,7 although in practice even it required additional backup for some restricted areas of heavy soot accumulations. Triammonium citrate suspended in a poultice was used for these areas, the application being carried out in a manner that avoided contamination of the stone with the cleaning agent. Surface cleaning required a combination of several agents to achieve a final, overall even appearance, as well as skill and good judgment not to over clean nor take the marbles to a stark white.

A number of interesting features of the Queen were discovered during treatment. A deep hole, filled in, was found beneath her tenoned proper right arm. It is likely that this drilled hole, filled with a short brass tube and forged nails, was intended for the insertion of a pin meant as an anchor point for ropes used in the original lifting and deposition of the sculpture. The extant replacement diadem elements (the central cross pattée and several of the fleurs-de-lys) that looked so degraded were determined to be plaster reproductions of the missing elements, likely finished with marble dust to match the original surface and then horribly deformed by the transformation of the plaster during the previous harsh cleaning. At the time of the original examination it had been noted that the pupil and iris of the Queen's eyes were defined in graphite pencil. The lines were nicely made and, although not perfect, did not give the impression of vandalism. After careful consideration as to their later provenance, and of their aesthetic appeal, these lines were removed. The Queen now looks, as she was intended, regally detached.

The largest losses to the Queen's diadem were replaced with carved marble, matched to the original and set in place with stainless steel pins. Because extant original diadem elements, alternating fleurs-de-lys and crosses pattée, have a slightly yellow tone due to leaching into the stone of the now missing surface finish, the marble reproduction elements were lightly tinted with watercolours and then waxed until they were similar in colour. Old repairs to the draperies were removed, stone pieces put back in the correct register, and voids filled with crushed Carrara marble in epoxy resin toned with watercolours when set.

After careful consideration it was decided that an overall protective wax finish should be applied to the marble surface. This will seal the marble and saturate out some of the chalkiness that has resulted from previous cleanings. The wax seal will also provide some measure of protection against exposure to dust and dirt and will make any future cleaning less problematic.

The final step, after restoration is complete, will be to prepare the sculpture for reinstallation in the Library. The solution that has been reached for seismic stabilization8 involves carefully drilling into the Queen and the plinth bases and inserting a stabilizing steel or titanium rod that will then connect and secure the sculpture and its base plinths to the Library floor. We anticipate a future publication by Paul Marcon of the studies undertaken to support this approach to the stabilization of the marble sculpture.

  1. The project also included the conservation and seismic stabilization of four marble portrait busts: Albert Edward, Prince of Wales and Princess Alexandra (Marshall Wood, 1870), Sir John Sandfield MacDonald (attributed to Marshall Wood, ca. 1871), and Sir Étienne P. Taché (Mathieu Meunier, ca. 1867).

  2. Paul Marcon directed this project for CCI.

  3. The Library and its contents were spared in the great fire of 1916 that destroyed the Centre Block of Parliament, but the building's exterior, interior, and contents did suffer some damage when the Library's domed roof caught fire in 1952.

  4. Due to its size and weight the sculpture required specialized packing and handling. A cage designed for this purpose was developed by CCI in collaboration with Atelier Ville Marie Ltd. and Morrison Hershfield, Consulting Engineers.

  5. Moffatt, E. Analysis of Samples from the Marble Sculpture of Queen Victoria. ARL Report No. 4262, March 19, 2004.

  6. Atelier Ville Marie Ltd. was awarded the contract for the Queen and plinth bases, and Craig Johnson Restoration Ltd. the contract for the portrait busts.

  7. Test spots were analysed by Scott Williams before and after exposure of the marble to the 3M Safest Stripper (Williams, S. Effect of Safest Stripper on Marble Statue of Queen Victoria from the Library of Parliament Determined by In-situ Reflection Spectroscopy. CPMR Report No. 88545, November 24, 2004). This study concluded that no surface change could be detected after exposure and that any residues of active components could be expected to evaporate within a few hours of exposure.

  8. The procedure for reinstalling the Queen was arrived at after extensive consultation. It began with an initial report by Jerry Podany (Report and Recommendations for the Disassembly and Seismically Stable Re-Assembly and Exhibition of the Monumental Portrait Sculpture of Queen Victoria and Four Portrait Busts in the Library of Parliament, August 21, 2000), followed by exhaustive investigations by Paul Marcon in association with Terra Firm Earthquake Preparedness Inc. and John G. Cook and Associates, Consulting Engineers, all of whom recommended coupling of the multiple sculpture assemblies to the building via drilling and placement of secured steel rods.