Grinling Gibbons on the move

If you have visited Abingdon Museum, you will have seen the mirror with the large ornately carved frame hanging on the wall in the Sessions Gallery. However, if you have visited very recently, you will not have seen the mirror. That is because it has temporarily travelled elsewhere.

The frame is one of Abingdon Museum’s most splendid possessions. It was made with some certainty (though not 100%) by Grinling Gibbons, who is often described as the premier woodcarver of his age. He died in 1721, which makes this year the 300th anniversary of his death. To mark the occasion, the Grinling Gibbons Society is organising a year-long programme (from summer 2021 to summer 2022) of exhibitions, talks, etc. One big event is the exhibition currently showing at Compton Verney Art Gallery: “Grinling Gibbons – Centuries in the making”.

And that is where our mirror has gone. The wooden frame consists of delicately carved fruits, flowers, foliage and two heads in limewood on a pine backing. It is considered by experts to be a lovely example of Gibbons’s art, and so the request was made to include it in the exhibition. Abingdon Museum was of course happy to have the opportunity to show off this piece to a wider audience, and agreed.

But what actually happens when a work of art like that goes on tour? This post will give you a glimpse behind the scenes and tell you how it was done.

If you look at the mirror, you will see that it must be handled with great care. The carvings are delicate and fragile, and they protrude around the edge of the mirror. When artworks like this go on loan, they are moved and handled by professionals, people who are trained to do just that. As the Collections Officer, I am trained in the handling of museum objects, but something like this would obviously be too big, too heavy and too difficult for me to move around.

If you have seen the mirror on display, you will recognise a second problem: it hangs very high up on the wall, so you can’t just step up to it and take it off. You have to somehow get up there yourself.

So when it was time for the mirror to move, the professionals from a company called Paradigm arrived fully prepared. They came with three people, two long ladders and a crate ready to receive the mirror.

The first ladder reaching up to the mirror on the wall. A second ladder was added to give two people access.

The first step was to take the mirror off the wall. They put up their two long ladders, and two of them climbed up while the third person and myself held the ladders at the bottom. Between them they could take the mirror and carry it down, where I had prepared a table for it to rest on.

Now I had easy access to the mirror, which gave me the opportunity to remove dust and check for any damage.

Removing dust from the delicate carvings with a soft brush.

Next, the mirror was moved into its crate. This was a wooden rectangular box, open on one side, specially made for the mirror with the measurements given beforehand. The question was, how to fix the mirror in the crate. It wouldn’t have been enough to put it in and pad it around the edges. That would allow for too much movement when travelling. Besides, the crate would only fit into the van upright. On the wall, the mirror hangs from a couple of hooks with a chain running along its back, but that method would not be suitable for travelling either. The solution was to take the chain off and fix mirror plates to the mirror. If you don’t know what mirror plates are, they are metal lugs with a hole in them, which are fixed to, say, a picture frame, and then you can fix the frame to a wall by putting a screw through the hole in the lug. The mirror had gone on loan once already some years ago, and had mirror plates fixed to the back plate on that occasion. Therefore the same could be done now. By choosing mirror plates of the same size, we could even use the same screw holes. This kept interference with the artwork to a minimum, and the fine limewood carvings would not be affected at all.

Fixing mirror plates to the back plate from underneath.

With the mirror plates in place, the frame was carried carefully to the crate and lowered to the bottom. It was then fixed to the bottom, so the mirror wouldn’t be able to move around at all.

Once it was snug and secure in its crate, the open side of the crate was covered with polythene sheeting, to keep the elements out. Of course the crate would not be standing around outside, but there was no guarantee that it wouldn’t rain when it was to be carried to and from the van.

The crate with its protective sheeting.

Finally the crate was turned upright, and in a great feat of strength the art handlers carried it down the stairs and into their van.

Once inside it was strapped to the side of the van, and then it was ready to go.

The crate on the van, ready for the trip to Compton Verney.

At its destination, the mirror was taken out of the crate and fixed to the wall of the exhibition space with the same mirror plates. This was not supervised by me, but by the collections professionals at Compton Verney. I did however see the mirror as it is currently presented as part of the Grinling Gibbons exhibition. And very fine it looks, too!

The mirror displayed at Compton Verney. The dramatic lighting really brings out the fine details of the carving.

The exhibition “Grinling Gibbons – Centuries in the Making” is on at Compton Verney Art Gallery until the end of January 2022. It tells the story of his life and work through many of his sculptures, carvings, drawings and other objects. The rest of Compton Verney is well worth seeing, too.

If you want to know about Abingdon Museum’s carved frame, head to our YouTube channel and check out the video “Fruits of the Mirror”.

Elin Bornemann, Collections Officer

Featured image: the mirror in its crate ready to go down the stairs. All photos taken by Elin Bornemann.

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