24 July 2009

dancing in the gardens

Yesterday we were pleased to be present in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney, when the marble statue "La Ballarina" was unveiled after conservation works by us. Here is the transcript of Julian Bickersteth's speech about our work on the statue at the unveiling:

The role of statuary as an essential part of great gardens is a universal one. I was recently at Sissinghurst, the Kent Castle where Vita Sackville West and Harold Nicholson created one of the great gardens of England between the wars. Harold was the garden planner, and on purchasing the property with its derelict gardens he hot footed it to Italy to buy classical statuary to provide focus for his garden vistas and spaces.

Fifty years previously Charles Moore, the Director of these Royal Botanic Gardens had been driven by the same desire to see statuary as an integral part of the design of the Gardens. "La Ballarina" as she stands somewhat coyly before us, is a direct result of his vision. Moore was lucky in that he was living in a time when contemporary values supported this vision. Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s consort, was keen on the so-called ‘uplifting of the lower orders’, and promoted the use of classical statuary in gardens to educate those who could not afford the ‘grand tour’. Much closer to home Sir Henry Parkes was an enthusiastic provider of public sculpture to beautify the colony, and was responsible for sourcing and importing various sculptures from Italy for the 1879 Garden Palace International Exhibition.

"La Ballarina" (please note the 'a' in the middle where we would expect an 'e') dates from 1883 when it was part of a group of eight marble statues imported from Italy. These include the four allegorical statues of the "Seasons", and the "Boy extracting a thorn", a still much loved statue on the hill behind us. As was reported at the time:

An additional attraction has been given to our Botanic Gardens, in the form of eight marble statues which now gleam white against masses of dark green foliage in various angles of the many walks which are so much appreciated by our citizens and visitors”.

So what do we know of "La Ballarina"? She is a copy of a famous statue by Antonio Canova, the Venetian sculptor who lived from 1757 to 1822, whose work included "The Three Graces" now in the Hermitage, and "Theseus and the Minotaur" in the Victoria & Albert Museum. The original of "La Ballarina" has since disappeared but it is listed in Canova’s work as "La Danzatrice con il dito al mento (the Dancer with the finger on chin)". Finished in 1814 she was sold to a Russian diplomat.

The copy you see before us was almost certainly (I shall come back to the almost later) sculpted by an Australian, Charles Summers, who although born in Melbourne in 1858, had moved to Rome with his parents aged 11. He ran a successful business reproducing famous sculptures including those of Canova, was said to be friendly with two popes and made regular trips to Australia to sell his wares.
Unfortunately, however, over the years these sculptures fell upon hard times. Physically they were damaged by anything from a falling branch to a reversing truck. And perhaps more disastrously they fell victim to changing attitudes, ranging from the ‘menace to public morals’ of the more flagrant nudes in the early twentieth century, to the mass replication of classical statuary in suburban gardens in the 1970s, making them appear somewhat naff. How "La Ballarina" came to be headless and footless we do not know but at some stage in the 1960s or '70s she was moved to what is known by the RBG staff as ‘the Graveyard’, behind the Succulent Garden.

We now live in more enlightened times and it is wonderful to see these vital elements of the Gardens being restored. So my company was delighted when we were approached to undertake the restoration of "La Ballarina" as part of the Royal Botanic Gardens' heritage statuary program. The process has been an interesting one, as it is not quite as simple as plonking a block of marble on La B's head and carving something appropriate.

First of all we needed to ensure we knew what we were carving, bearing in mind La B’s title ("the Dancer with the finger on chin") in that we had no chin nor a finger to touch it with, nor incidentally a right foot. So we went to the Canova Foundation in Canova’s home town of Passagno near Venice, where they hold a gypsum copy of the statue, to see if they could either organise the copy of a head for us to be carved, or provide good quality photos that we could copy here. Quick as a flash came back a letter from one Carlo Nicoli, declaring that he could see from our photos that the statue had been made in an ‘exceptional way’ by his great grandfather, another Carlo Nicoli, and that he would be happy to reproduce the head if we could ship the whole statue to him. Happily however we were able to source from the Canova Foundation high quality photos of the copy, and more happily source here in Lidcombe the carving skills of Polish-born master mason Jacek Luszcyk. So what you see before you is Jacek’s wonderful work, copying from photos the form and feel of the original.

But the story was not quite over yet, as finding a piece of pure white Carrara marble of suitable size and carving quality is not as easy as popping down to your local Bunnings. We could find nothing in Australia and so went back to the Carrara area eventually sourcing from the appropriately named Cave Michelangelo a block of stone of the right quality and size. I say appropriately named because it was from the Seravezza quarry in Carrara where Michelangelo sourced the blocks of marble of such astonishing size and purity from which David and the Pieta and indeed all his sculptures were carved. Of such value was this marble that Michelangelo laconically noted the deaths of two marble workers in the quarry during lowering down a piece of marble whilst bewailing the shattering of a piece of marble that represented months of labour and many thousands of dollars in its retrieval.

The process of replicating a carved work is a complicated one. Firstly the photographs were gridded up and divided into a series of points to allow for accurate measurement. Then clay mock ups of the missing head and limbs were crafted on the statue. These were extensively reviewed and altered until all parties were happy that they reflected the original. The clay forms were then removed and plaster casts made of them. The new marble was cut to size and the process of carving began, working from the plaster casts. Before these were finished they were doweled and glued to the original statue, and the finer details around the join completed. The result was once again reviewed and small alterations made, and now you see the result before you.

Thus has been the story of the restoration of "La Ballarina". Her vital missing elements have been restored, her original parts cleaned, and she has been returned to her proper form and place here in the Gardens. Her head, fingers and feet once again gleam white against the dark foliage, and though this currently appears somewhat as odds with her original elements, rest assured in no more than a few months she will have weathered to once again look her full harmonious and seductive self.

Thank you.

You can read more about the unveiling in the Sydney Morning Herald, watch the ABC News report, or look at more photos from the unveiling.

David West
International Conservation Services

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