Crystoleum Conservation

The newly conserved Crystoleums of Walter and Willie Whitmore Jones

Crystoleum is not a word you hear everyday. It's a term used to describe a type of hand-painted photograph produced on glass. They were popular in the second half of the 1800s and Chastleton is home to two fine examples.

A family of inventors

The Whitmore Jones family lived at Chastleton during the reign of Queen Victoria. They were an eccentric family of creators, writers and inventors. Mary, the eldest daughter, wrote books about strange village superstitions and invented a portable board for use in railway carriages to play the card game, Patience. 

The Whitmore Jones family relaxing in the Great Hall at Chastleton House in the 19th century
The Whitmore Jones family relaxing in the Great Hall at Chastleton House in the 19th century
The Whitmore Jones family relaxing in the Great Hall at Chastleton House in the 19th century

One of the middle sons, Walter, became relatively well-known for codifying the rules of croquet and inventing an odd array of gadgets ranging from a bootlace winder to an explosive bell pull. 

Walter Whitmore Jones
Walter Whitmore Jones
Walter Whitmore Jones

It's therefore not surprising then that a member of this quirky family would invest in the, at the time, fledgling technology of photographic production.

The newly conserved Crystoleums of Walter and Willie Whitmore Jones
The newly conserved Crystoleums of Walter and Willie Whitmore Jones
The newly conserved Crystoleums of Walter and Willie Whitmore Jones

These small glass images can tell us something of the lives of Chastleton's former residents. Willie and Walter Whitmore Jones sat for their portraits, along with the rest of the family, sometime before 1863. Years later, after both brothers' deaths, their photographs were made into crystoleums. It is even possible that a member of the family made them into crystoleums themselves using a kit which could be purchased at the time. 

Handle with care - the conservation process

All photographs are vulnerable to damage. Traditionally-produced photographs usually have a fragile layer often referred to as the 'emulsion'. This carries light sensitive particles, often made of silver, which forms the image. Photographic emulsions can be put onto many different materials but are mostly found coated onto paper, glass, film or metal.

The reverse of the portrait of Walter showing the paint layer and sticky tape.
The reverse of the portrait of Walter showing the paint layer and sticky tape.
The reverse of the portrait of Walter showing the paint layer and sticky tape.

The crystoleums are each made from two peices of cocave glass, the upper layer has emulsion on the back and the reverse of the lower layer is painted with the coloured pigment. These two peices are then sandwiched together to give the image the look of colour photography. Comprising of just two layers makes the crystoleums particularly tricky objects to conserve. 

Painstaking conservation work had to be carried out by specialist photographic and glass conservators to stabilise the two crystoleums for long-term preservation. The crystoleums were in their own individual card mounts with a firm backboard. This helped to protect the paint and emulsion layers which are particularly vulnerable. Emulsion is easily scratched and can be marked by the natural oils from our fingers. 

In recent years the crystoleums have been tucked away in storage, shielded from the damaging effects of light which can cause fading. The crystoleum of Walter Whitmore Jones was is a worse condition than that of Willie. It looked like it might have been dropped at some point.

Cracks can be seen on the surface of the photographic portrait of Walter Whitmore Jones.
Cracks can be seen on the surface of the photographic portrait of Walter Whitmore Jones.
Cracks can be seen on the surface of the photographic portrait of Walter Whitmore Jones.

It looked like that somebody had tried to repair it by using sticky tape to hold the individual broken parts in place. This stopped the pieces being lost, but it was hard for the conservator to remove the tape without also removing a layer of the paint. It was painstaking work.

The conservator using tweezers to remove the sticky tape holding the plate together
The conservator using tweezers to remove the sticky tape holding the plate together
The conservator using tweezers to remove the sticky tape holding the plate together

Once the pieces were apart the conservator carried out careful surface cleaning of each piece, stabilising the loose fragments of glass along with the emulsion and paint layers. Silicone putty was used to fabricate the shape of the glass plates before they were taken apart, this mould was then used to keep the domed form of the glass when the pieces were carefully reassenbled. Once the adhesive had dried the glass plate had to be left for two weeks for the glue to cure. Once complete the crystoleum could be placed back inside its original mount. 

Crystoleum portrait of Willie Whitmore Jones
Crystoleum portrait of Willie Whitmore Jones
Crystoleum portrait of Willie Whitmore Jones
Crystoleum portrait of Walter Whitmore Jones
Crystoleum portrait of Walter Whitmore Jones
Crystoleum portrait of Walter Whitmore Jones

Taking apart the crystoleum allowed rare access to see all the layers that make up the object. One of the curious things we discoved is that the backboard, for the portrait of Walter, was reused. The cardboard appeared to be cut down packaging addressed to Mary Whitmore Jones. The postmark of 25th February 1886 allows us to date the card so we know that the crystoleum was put in its mount after this date. This does not tell us the year in which the crystoleums were made, however, we can be confident that it was only shortly before this date because this form of photography was not available until the 1880s.  

Conservation allowed access to see inside the backboard of the crystoleums, revealing the card had a previous use.
Conservation allowed access to see inside the backboard of the crystoleums, revealing the card had a previous use.
Conservation allowed access to see inside the backboard of the crystoleums, revealing the card had a previous use.

On the card it reads 'Book post'. This refer to an arrangement in the postal service where printed material and books could be sent at reduced rates of postage. The A7 postmark suggests the letter would have originally been posted in Richmond, Yorkshire. We do not know what Mary was sent, however the stamp, a half penny stamp first introduced in 1880, and the post mark of 25th February 1886, help us date the card. 

You can find out more about Walter Whitmore Jones by reading our article on 'Croquet and Chastleton'.