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Things That Have Interested Me

A Touch of Expertise

James Fenton
copyright © 2007

Originally published in The Guardian
6 October 2007

What is this, and how is this done? are the first two questions to ask of any work of art. The second question immediately illuminates the first, but it often doesn't get asked. Perhaps it sounds too technical. Perhaps it sounds pedestrian. But I think it's a good idea to ask the simple questions first. What kind of painting is this? It is an altarpiece for a church/ a private devotional painting to hang in a bedroom/ a street shrine from a renaissance city. How is it done? In oil on canvas/ in tempera on a panel/ in fresco. Simple answers give us a little firm ground on which to stand.

In sculpture especially, it makes a big difference to know how an object was made and in what material: is it carved or modelled (is it hewn from the stone, or built up with little pieces of clay), and in what material? Knowing the answer takes us a long way towards understanding why it looks the way it does. Some of the commonest materials give a very wide range of results: marble is versatile, clay even more so. The rarest materials, by contrast, tend always to look like themselves: rhinoceros horn, for instance, always looks like some revoltingly thick toenail; the red coral of Trapani always looks like red coral, even when cunningly carved and assembled to look like a Crucifixion scene; amber always looks like amber.

Rock crystal is interesting, being much rarer than one thinks. It is nothing to do with the type of cut glass called Crystal. It is a kind of translucent quartz, cold to the touch and therefore believed once to be water hardened by the gods into permanent ice. A jug or ewer carved from this material is never likely to be thin like glass - it must have been laboriously hollowed out by hand, and there would always have been a risk of the piece shattering. To know the rarity of the material, and the laboriousness of the execution, is a part of understanding and appreciating the piece.

In The Making of Sculpture, a guide to the materials and techniques of European sculpture, newly issued by the Victoria and Albert Museum (edited by Marjorie Trusted), there is an illustration of one such ewer, dating from 14th-century France. I remember an occasion when someone was trying to sell a similar object, and the difficulty arose: how would you be able to prove (given the rarity of such a work) that it was not a fake, or that it was not - say - 19th-century? You could prove that it was a fake (if you could show that it had been made by modern tools, for instance). But how could you prove it was not a fake? And how could you establish how old it was and where it came from?

Exceedingly rare objects in semi-precious materials have a way of surviving for centuries, incorporated into objects from previous eras. Roman cameos get used as ornaments on crucifixes or among the jewels on a reliquary. Cups or other vessels carved out of remarkable stones get provided with gold or silver mounts from a later era, as a tribute to their rarity and the bravura of their execution.

There is something particularly satisfying in knowing that the specific virtues of certain materials have been used in a brilliantly apt combination. For instance, if you find a disc of slate on which a wax portrait has been executed in profile, that could well be a model for a coin or medal. The slate is being valued for the flatness of its surface. The wax, by complete contrast, is being exploited for its malleability and its suitability for the execution of minute detail. Together, these two materials do an excellent job. Whereas slate alone, though it can be carved, could never remotely take such detail.

Some materials, such as mother-of-pearl, are exceedingly intractable to carve. Others, like alabaster, are easy. You can go at alabaster with a carpenter's rasp, and it will yield. You can polish it with glasspaper. But you will never get the kind of detail, including the perilously thin, translucent panels, that you can achieve with, say, ivory.

Ivory, now extinct as a sculptor's material, was exceedingly valuable in early times, and there were eras in which it was (through reasons of war) simply unavailable in Europe. When it could be found, it was used economically, so that the curve of the Virgin's body, in a Gothic statuette, reflected the shape of the tusk being used. One has to think of all the shavings being carefully conserved, and burnt, to make the pigment Ivory Black. The ivory of piano keys was economically produced by a machine like a potato peeler which took a long thin slice off the rotating tusk. Jane Austen's "little bit, two inches wide, of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush" is of course a metaphor to compare her fiction with the miniaturist's art, but it preserves a typical sense of economy of means. The piece of ivory the miniaturist painted on was both small and very fine.

Most of the illustrations in The Making of Sculpture show objects from the V & A's collection, which gives the book a double purpose. You can use it as an introduction to the large range of traditional sculptor's materials, or you can use it as a guide to objects you will find in South Kensington. Paul Williamson, in his foreword, points out that visitors to the museum are "fascinated by the creative process, by the actions which transform often intractable materials into works of the highest quality."

And this is one of the V & A's quintessential tasks, to promulgate knowledge of the processes of production of the fine and decorative arts. There are chapters on wax, terracotta, bronze and lead, marble and stone and so forth. What is covered is only the European tradition, so there is no point in going to this work to find out about, say, jade. And it is only an introduction - each of the chapters could have been a book. But it's a starting-point, and that's what we all need, when asking what an object is, and how it is done - our basic questions.

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