Museum Secrets

Beneath the Blue

April 02, 2021 Ashmolean Museum / Lucie Dawkins / Tea Ghigo Season 2 Episode 2
Museum Secrets
Beneath the Blue
Show Notes Transcript

Lots of objects in the Ashmolean have got secrets hidden under their surface. Join the Ashmolean’s Conservation Research Fellow and colour detective Tea Ghigo, as she looks at a special bookcase with a suspicious shade of turquoise on it. Armed with an X-ray spectrometer and an infrared camera, she’s managed to find something strange lurking beneath the blue.

When Tea looks at this bookcase, she sees a Venetian carnival and smells citrus fruits. What about you?

The Great Bookcase – View it here

If you want to take a closer look at the object in this episode, you can view it at the link above, or visit the podcast page on the Ashmolean website:

Producer: Lucie Dawkins
Presenters: Lucie Dawkins and Tea Ghigo

Tea's research on the Great Bookcase is part of a European Research Council-funded project called Chromotope. Find out more.

About Museum Secrets: Welcome to season 2 of Museum Secrets. Every week Lucie Dawkins will  take you behind the scenes at the University of Oxford's Ashmolean Museum. There are a million objects here in the Museum, each with its own hidden story. Come on in, as we track down the weird and wonderful among them, to give us a bitesized pick-me-up in these challenging times. Join us every week for a daily dose of cheer.

Lucie: Welcome to Season Two of Museum Secrets. I’m your host, Lucie Dawkins, and every week I’ll be taking you behind the scenes at the Ashmolean. There are a million objects here in the museum, each with its own hidden story. Come on in, as we track down the weird and wonderful among them, to give us a bitesized pick-me-up in these challenging times. 

There are all sorts of objects in the museum which have a lot more to them than you can see with the naked eye. There are paintings on top of paintings, boxes with hidden compartments, artworks with something else on the back, and objects that have been upcycled, which all require a lot of detective work. Today’s museum sleuth is Conservation Research Fellow Tea Ghigo, who is looking at one of the Ashmolean most famous item of furniture. 

Tea: In the museum you won’t just find art historians, you can also find scientists like me. Museum objects are often displayed presenting their history or telling the stories they unfold. The perk of doing my job, is that I get to watch them from a different angle — I get to study colours, and the materials they are made of.

And for a colour enthusiast, gallery 66 of the Ashmolean Museum is a particular treat. It contains a bookcase. And not just any old bookcase - one that is so extravagant that it has come to be known as The Great Bookcase. It is an imposing piece of furniture of monumental dimensions—a majestic triumph of gold, turquoise, and a myriad of other vivid colours: every inch is covered with paintings. Whenever, I see it, it always reminds me of the vibrant atmosphere of a carnival in Venice with the elegant golden masks and bright-coloured costumes.

It was designed by the architect William Burges for the International Exhibition of London in 1862. Burges wanted to create something eye-catching that would showcase Gothic revival painted furniture at the Medieval Court of the Exhibition. He designed the bookcase himself, and brought together fourteen different artists—many of whom were associated with the Pre-Raphaelite movement—to cover it with mythological and biblical stories inspired by the Middle Ages.

The bookcase is divided horizontally into three different sections. The bottom one is decorated with half human and half animal mythological figures, while the three female figures decorating the top represent Art flanked by Religion and Love. The middle section is a mosaic of eight different painted panels framed by a sequence of golden arches. Each panel tells its own story as if it was an open window on a different world. There are gold and turquoise alternating backgrounds so that the bookcase maintains some visual uniformity. 

One of the reasons this bookcase is so colourful is that it was painted in the middle of the 19th century when the industrial production of pigments was at its peak and introduced new colours and shades every year. Burges and the artists were excited to experiment in all these new possibilities, and you can see how much they went to town on this bookcase. One could stare at the panels for hours and still not have a complete inventory of all their colours and shades. 

But to me, the most peculiar and attention-drawing colour is the turquoise used for the background on four of the eight panels. It looks like the sky's colour on a sunny summer afternoon, and it recalls the smell of citruses.

The material investigation of an object starts by observing what you have in front of you closely. I often sit in contemplation of an artwork for long enough to become familiar with every detail and flaw and to have a sense of the steps the artist must have taken to accomplish it. I started the visual examination of the bookcase precisely observing the turquoise background. I noticed at once, that its painting quality is quite different from the carefully painted figures. The width and thickness of the strokes are uneven; even rough on the borders. It seems to me as if the background was filled up in a great hurry by someone not very skilful in using the brush. It was a somewhat surprising observation since the background of a painting usually is very attentively executed as it serves as a ground for the rest of the composition depicted on top. I wondered which of the fourteen artists could have been using their turquoise brush so carelessly. Was it a bad day? Were they frustrated, or in a rush? Or was it someone else’s hand…

And there is more: while I was analysing with a portable microscope the panel with the Greek myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, I saw that on the right border, where the blue background meets the arched frame's golden capital, a reddish colour seemed to peep from below. Something seemed to be off…

I set about my detective work. I used an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer, to detect the chemical elements of the turquoise background and compare it with the dark blue colour used for many details and objects on different panels. I found out that this dark blue colour contained cobalt. Therefore, I was expecting the turquoise shade of the background to be cobalt-based as well, although mixed with white paint to obtain a lighter shade. Instead, I found it to be of a completely different nature: it doesn't contain cobalt at all! It’s a very different paint to the other blues in the bookcase. 

How bizarre, I thought. Hints were slowly adding up: the different painting quality of the turquoise background compared to the rest of the bookcase, the diverse nature of the pigment used for the turquoise and dark blue shades and the reddish colour peeping from below the background in the panel of Pygmalion. All of this seemed to suggest that the turquoise background was not originally part of the bookcase. I had to dig deeper.

I headed off to the galleries with an infrared camera. Most pigments are transparent to the infrared light. Because of this, an infrared picture reveals the underdrawing below the painting layer. It’s a bit like photographic archaeology. I set up the camera on a tripod, focused it on the Pygmalion's panel, and started the infrared scanning. For the next ten minutes I stood there, in anxious expectation, staring at the picture while it slowly appeared on the computer screen, one tile after the other. 

By the time the scan reached half the panel, I was amazed. the scene depicted on the screen looked very different from that on the bookcase. Where before stood a pomegranate tree in a plain turquoise background, I could now observe the legs of a human figure on the right of the tree and what seemed to be an arm of another figure on its left. Furthermore, there was a drapery running behind the whole scene, much like the curtain on a theatre stage. 

Beneath the blue there is a whole different picture, which at some point someone painted out, with rather clumsy strokes. This blundering hand decided to change significantly the original composition! But why? And when? And most importantly: did anyone ever see the original drawing? What is going on here?

For now, all these questions are still shrouded in mystery. I can only let my imagination run free. Perhaps William Burges himself (who, after all, was an architect and not a painter) looked at what the fourteen friends had done and realised that the composition was a bit over the top. So he picked up a nice bright turquoise and a shiny gold and blocked out the background of alternating panels to help create some sense of unity. Perhaps one of the artists got frustrated with his initial composition, and quickly painted over it to hide it. Or perhaps there was a rivalry going on in the group, and one artist in a temper tantrum erased the work of another.

The joy of my job is that it is all about chasing down clues. I haven’t finished my work on the bookcase yet, and I wonder what other secrets are hidden under the background of the other panels… Perhaps an answer will reveal itself, and tell us more about the story of this group of artists, gathered together to create this carnival of a bookcase.

So now, when you think of the museum with its doors closed due to coronavirus, you know it’s not completely empty. Here I am, in gallery 66, together with my infrared camera, working out the mystery of what is going on beneath the blue. I hope I’ll have an answer for you soon.

Lucie: To take a look at this mysterious multi-coloured bookcase for yourself, follow the link in the podcast notes. And if today’s episode has intrigued you, and you want to find out more about the Pre-Raphaelite artists, you are in luck! The Ashmolean is due to open an exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite drawings and watercolours when the museum reopens. You can find details on the website. Join me next week, for a story about an Ancient Egyptian family feud.