For 19th-Century Modern, which opened last month, the conservation department undertook the cleaning and stabilization of many objects, among them the five-piece silvered bronze candlesticks and clock/thermometer set that forms the centerpiece of the exhibition.
The set was created by the French designer Guilmet Cie around 1885. Cie is known to have created other clock garnitures, mostly with nautical themes. This unique grouping, however, celebrates industry and modern mechanization, sporting diminutive models of engineers’ tools (for example, a drafting compass and carpenter’s square) on the bases of the five pieces. Elegantly styled gears, nuts, and bolts feature prominently on all of the pieces within the garniture, but the designer’s penchant for nautical themes was not completely jettisoned in this series, as the metal spheres on three of the five pieces in this set are strongly reminiscent of early diving helmets and submarines.
Originally, the candle-supporting arms of the two larger candelabra would have been capable of moving up and down with lighted candles in them via graceful, toothed gears. The central piece of the set is a clock which not only once displayed the time and date, but also the temperature in two scales. A thermometer once rose from the sphere of the clock below. The case which held it still remains in place today, and features the Fahrenheit temperature scale on one side and on the other, the Reamur scale- a temperature scale first proposed in 1730 by René Antoine Ferchault de Réamur. The day is displayed in a flat, round metal case on the base, which once rotated to reveal the appropriate number (today it displays “23”), while above this contraption, a canvas scroll operated by small gears turned to display the appropriate month written in French (it is currently set to “Juillet,” or July).
Conservation of this complex work began with taking an inventory of which pieces (nuts, bolts, and other decorative elements) were missing, followed by an investigation into whether or not the once moving parts could ever be made to move again. The work was painstakingly polished over the course of many weeks. New pieces were then cast from epoxy in silicone molds to replicate missing parts. The epoxy replacement parts were sanded and painted silver to match freshly polished original parts.
The replacement parts were adhered to the original work using an adhesive that can be easily removed in the future if necessary. Special molding clay was used to hold the painted epoxy pieces in place while the adhesive dried.
The moving parts will not be made to function again, as this would likely mean bending warped or bent pieces back to their original form- an action that could damage or break the already fragile armatures.
If the work eventually begins to tarnish again, the finish will no longer match that of the replacement parts, but our goal is to keep the work in a climate and environment that will prevent or postpone tarnishing. In the meantime, come and take a look at the work, see if you can spot the replacement parts on this very special timepiece, and enjoy the exhibition!
Joannie Bottkol is the current Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Objects Conservation at the Brooklyn Museum. She received her Master's Degree in Art History and Conservation from the Conservation Center of the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University. In addition to her recent work at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, she has completed internships at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and worked at private conservation studios specializing in modern and contemporary art and at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. She has also participated in archeological excavations at Selinunte in Sicily and Samothrace in Greece, and worked on conservation projects at NYU's Villa la Pietra in Florence.