An Experiment in Materials
When Henry Moore’s Mother and Child (1939) came to the Harvard Art Museums in 2003, 11 of the 12 strings that Moore had laced between the sculpture’s lead body were broken and one was completely missing. An example of the artist’s experimentation with media and scale, the small sculpture required a creative conservation treatment and a conservator with knowledge of fiber materials. Nicole Ledoux, who had experience working on archaeological and anthropological objects, such as textiles and basketry, was the perfect fit.
Ledoux treated the sculpture during her Samuel H. Kress Objects Conservation Fellowship in the museums’ Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies—one of the many advanced-level training opportunities offered by the museums. She worked closely with Mary Schneider Enriquez, the Houghton Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, to develop an approach for the repairs. “It wasn’t a straightforward treatment,” said Ledoux. “The strings are so inherent to the overall form and meaning of the object. We had to discover how to repair the strings in a way that looked seamless.”
Ledoux and Schneider Enriquez considered a variety of treatment options that would allow them to retain the sculpture’s original strings. They also needed to ensure that the repair would be strong enough to withstand handling, transit, and installation. Ledoux sought out advice from colleagues and researched conservation techniques for woven materials, ultimately creating mock-ups to test materials and methods.
She finally settled on twisted pieces of Japanese tissue, an incredibly fine material, to bridge the repairs where the string was broken. For an adhesive, she used wheat starch paste, a material often used in paper treatments. At the suggestion of Rob Napier, a local ship model restorer, Ledoux used electrical wire test clamps to hold the strings in tension until the adhesive was dry. She replaced the missing string using modern linen thread that she painted to match the color of the originals; the plies of this thread twist in the opposite direction of the original strings, so future conservators and curators will be able to distinguish the original from the replacement.
“This was one of my favorite treatments at the Harvard Art Museums,” said Ledoux, who is currently a project conservator in the Straus Center’s paintings laboratory. “I enjoy treatments where there isn’t one definitive solution. Even with materials that you test and don’t ultimately use, you still learn something interesting from the experimentation.”
Ledoux recently presented this project at the American Institute for Conservation’s annual conference. “Whenever you try something outside the box, it’s important to share that information with colleagues in the field.”
Mother and Child is now being installed in the museums’ galleries, the first time the sculpture has been exhibited since it was acquired in 2003. Soon visitors will be able to admire Moore’s experimentation—and that of the museums’ conservation staff.