Inside the furnace: ceramic survivals at Clandon Park

Salvage team cleaning a ceramic find

From the moment the house became accessible again, our salvage teams and archaeologists have been combing the rooms for surviving collection objects. Every day we find more items that we hope, with a little care and attention, can be revitalized and one day returned to a restored Clandon Park.

Re-fired by the blaze

The fire has given us a rare opportunity to study the effects of fire on ceramics. The extremely high temperatures experienced during the life of the fire caused chemical reactions resulting in permanent and irreversible change to some of our ceramic objects. This is quite amazing when you think that porcelain is made by firing clay in excess of 1200 degrees centigrade.
 
There was a lot of porcelain in the collection and so we now have lots of fragments showing different effects from the fire, and its aftermath, according to where they were on display. Some ceramics have undergone an irreversible physical and chemical change driven by the temperature of the fire. Glazes have softened or melted, dirt and debris has bonded onto surfaces and in some cases fragments have fused together in abstract clumps. Some glazes have completely changed colour so that what was once brightly coloured decoration is now dull and monochrome.
 
Equally we’ve had our fair share of success. Some of our most delicate pieces including animals and figurines have been recovered intact. After careful cleaning, some pieces are immaculate – you’d never know they’d been through a fire of such ferocity.
Meissen porcelain plate painted with figures

Meissen porcelain plate

One of a group of six delicately painted Meissen plates, it show scenes of love and friendship surrounded by flowers and insects. Much of the surface of the plate has been deliberately left white to show off both the quality of the porcelain and the skill of the painter. During the 19th century these plates stopped being used, were mounted in gilded and velvet frames and were displayed like paintings, only to be admired.


Stiff brushes and soapy water

Since the beginning of our project I’ve been in charge of the conservation and processing of finds salvaged from the house by our archaeologists. We’ve sought advice and collaborated with a wide range of experts to develop the most effective systems, setting up conservation studios to process the many exciting discoveries.
 
Once items have been found in the house they’re brought to us in labelled trays. That material is then sorted and, guided by a carefully conceived retention and disposal policy, we decide what should be kept. Every item and fragment is recorded so that we have a detailed account of how much material we’ve found and where. All the retained material is then stored according to the location in the house in which it was found.
Each ceramic fragment is cleaned individually by hand
Ceramic fragments during the cleaning process

We’ve set up facilities for both wet and dry cleaning. Plaster is cleaned with a stiff brush over a vacuum table which sucks up all the dust, whilst the ceramics are wet cleaned with water and conservation grade detergent. Each piece is cleaned individually by hand, carefully and systematically removing every trace of dust, ash and other fire deposits. We think that this stage of the process will continue until the summer of 2016, although we haven’t imposed any time limits and this will largely be governed by the amount of material the archaeologists find in the house. 
 
Items are stored in our facility off-site where later they’ll be identified and matched with related fragments. This huge jigsaw exercise will eventually allow us to confirm everything that’s been found throughout the salvage with a view to informing the next stages of the conservation and restoration of the building, and the display of the collection. 
A Meissen figure of a pigeon

Meissen figure of a pigeon

This delightful pigeon was produced by the Meissen porcelain factory in the 18th century. The modelling of the bird shows the great skill of Meissen sculptors, and the unpainted, white areas of porcelain reveal its high quality. The painting is delicate and naturalistic – a skill that was, and still is, widely admired. This bird was one of many in Hannah Gubbay’s collection.

Thrilling discoveries

Like many here on the night of the fire I wondered how much we’d find when the flames were extinguished, but we’ve been pleasantly surprised by the level of survival of material. As expected the survival rate for organic material such as wood and textiles has not been good, but we couldn’t have hoped for a more positive outcome in terms of inorganic materials including ceramics, metalwork and plasterwork.
Circular jade wine cup with a simple ring handle

White jade wine cup

Its rarity and its qualities of hardness and translucency have long made jade objects highly desirable, in China, New Zealand and across the world. This cup is more than 200 years old. It was made in China, brought to Europe and was part of Hannah Gubbay’s collection. It is remarkable that it survived falling through the fire at Clandon Park.

Video

Ceramic conservation at Clandon

Samantha Taylor, our project conservator, explains more about the processing of collection objects taking place at Clandon Park and the techniques we're using to clean and reinstate items.