Archive for November, 2012

Artist Spotlight: Mark Catesby (1683–1749)

In conjunction with the 300th anniversary of Mark Catesby’s first voyage to the New World, the Gibbes is hosting a special exhibition of Catesby’s prints and two rare bound volumes of his work. This British-born artist, scientist, and explorer, set sail for the American Colonies for the first time in 1712. During his seven year stay, Catesby began studies of the natural world that would occupy the rest of his life. He traveled through parts of the Appalachian Mountains and to Jamaica collecting botanical samples and making sketches of American flora and fauna. His discoveries impressed the scientists of his day and after Catesby returned to England in 1719, London’s Royal Society—then led by Sir Isaac Newton—reviewed his findings and raised funds for Catesby to return to the Colonies for further study.

Catesby made his second voyage to British North America in 1722. This time, his port of arrival was Charleston. This four year sojourn, which allowed Catesby to explore and document the natural habitats of the Carolinas, Florida, and the Bahamas, ultimately resulted in the first major work on New World botanical and animal life, The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands. Catesby personally translated his original watercolor paintings into the 220 engraving plates of birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, insects, and mammals that illustrate his monumental, two-volume study—a process that took him nearly twenty years. Accompanying the plates, are Catesby’s descriptions of the plants and animals as well as the soils, climate, agriculture, and Native Americans that he observed during his journeys.

Though Catesby considered himself a scientist first and an artist second, his lively depictions of animal and plant life are considered masterful works of art and his meticulous observations served as the foundation for the work of other significant scientists and artists including Carl Linnaeus and John James Audubon.

This special exhibition featuring rarely seen works from both private and public collections will be on view until January 30, 2013.

Sara Arnold, Curator of Collections, Gibbes Museum of Art

Thanksgiving is All About the Details

Shorter days, warmer coats, and fewer leaves on the trees; these all come to mind when we think about fall and Thanksgiving. It’s a great time of year for traditions and for appreciating the things that are really important in our lives. The true meaning of the holiday can become lost sometimes in the busyness of the preparations though, which is why it is so important to slow down and give thanks for both the big and little things in our lives.

One thing I give thanks for everyday is the beautiful city of Charleston that I proudly call my new home. Not only can I walk out the front door of the Gibbes Museum and witness firsthand this vibrant city, but the works depicting Charleston within the walls of the museum are also cause for thanks. I feel blessed to work at the Gibbes each day where the city’s beauty and history have been captured by such talented artists. I’m reminded of all those who have come before us and called Charleston home when I look at John William Hill’s Panorama of Charleston and wonder how Charlestonians in years past marked the Thanksgiving holiday.

I’ve called many places home over the years, and the distance has kept me from being near family and friends on several occasions. I feel instantly closer to my family in New Hampshire though when I see the Gibbes Museum’s painting Autumn Foliage by William Aiken Walker . I can see them fighting over the last apple cider donut a few days from now as the remainder of the leaves fall from the trees. Emma Gilchrist’s painting On the Arno, Florence reminds me of the Thanksgiving I spent in Italy, where the occasion was marked with $10 cans of cranberry sauce and an unsuccessful search for a turkey. Art has the power make our memories more vivid when we see them come to life on the canvas. We each have our own traditions and versions of home that will always be uniquely special to us. This Thanksgiving, no matter where or how you celebrate, remember to slow down and appreciate those details you might otherwise miss.

Amanda Breen, Membership Coordinator, Gibbes Museum of Art

Uncovering the History of the Gibbes Rotunda Dome

In late August, I met with Gibbes staff members Zinnia Willits and Greg Jenkins, and Chris Botti from Botti Studio of Architectural Arts, Inc. to discuss the dome in the Rotunda Gallery on the second floor. Botti has worked on many ornate Beaux Art ceilings including the Tiffany Domes at the Chicago Cultural Center and at the Driehaus Museum in Chicago. First, we sat in the conference room to just talk about the 107-year history of the dome and the issues that we thought needed to be addressed. Then we walked out to the gallery and studied the ceiling, noting the various repairs that have occurred over the years. We discussed the very elaborate ceiling decorations, and imagined their earlier grandeur and ornate finishes, long since painted white.

Chris Botti on the scissor lift

Then it was time to climb the ladder from the second floor up to the old attic space. Getting into the area around the dome is like navigating a labyrinth in the stifling Charleston heat. We crawled through the very small hatch into the attic area above the second floor Main gallery. We walked across the ceiling, holding on to the steel pipes and cabling while we navigated from one steel support beam to the next to protect the very delicate and fragile plaster below. Finally, we squeezed through the last doorway into the Rotunda light attic. The light attic is a large space that is engineered to catch as much light as possible and focus it onto the surface of the dome—almost like a giant tanning parlor.

The glare-guard above the dome.

When we got up to the dome we walked around it balancing on the large steel beams that the dome rests upon. As we skirted the perimeter, Chris began to talk about how the dome was made and installed, and pointed out some of the areas in need of conservation. The arched steel “T” shaped beams that formed the bones of the dome were all stamped “Carnegie” which identified them as being made by the famous company in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania that supplied most of America’s steel at the beginning of the twentieth century. We have not found markings on the dome as of yet that identify it as being designed and manufactured by the studio of Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848 – 1933), but the Carnegie Foundation has kept very good records so we anticipate that we might be able to find out if the steel was ordered by Tiffany’s company. Chris said that we may find one of Tiffany’s famous lead tags stamped “Tiffany,” or the Tiffany name etched somewhere in the bottom right corner of one of the large triangular leaded glass panels.

Carnegie stamped the steel ribs used to support the stained-glass panels of the dome.

To create the dome, each piece of stained glass was hand cut in the studio. Then, they were assembled into leaded glass panels resting on a large table and soldered into place. At that point, the panels were shipped to the museum. Upon arrival, the panels were laid into triangular spaces between the steel beam supports and secured with solder or wooden shims. Lead cross bars were wired onto the back of each of the panels to prevent the heavy pieces from collapsing due to gravity. Installers carefully aligned the bars, so that the bracings would then line up when viewed from the floor level below.

A view above the dome shows the ribs and cross bars that support the glass panels.

As we reviewed each of the panels we identified cracks and points of minor damage that had occurred during installation and over the years. Overall, Chris was not worried about the security of the dome, and suggested that it should stay in place rather than being taken down for repairs. We concluded that one of the most important safety repairs we could make would be to install safety railings and walkways around the entire dome area.

A detail of the intricate patern of cut stained glass.

The final prognosis for the entire dome was that it simply needed a complete cleaning and certification that the leading and bracings were all secure. The glass is covered with a thick layer of dust, but one section which we wiped clean with damp cloths showed just how much crisper and brighter the stained glass will be once it has been professionally cleaned. Special solutions will be used that are specifically made for cleaning stained glass without harming the glass or leaving any film residue. As a funny aside, Chris said that some people actually clean the stained glass with horse shampoo because it has the right consistency and delicacy for gently getting the grime off the stained glass windows!

A section of the glass dome that has been cleaned.

Once the entire dome has been cleaned we will all look very carefully for any signature or a lead stamp to certify that the dome was made by the Tiffany studios. We will continue to do further research with the Carnegie archives and consult with Tiffany scholars for additional clues. Our hope is that before we re-open the renovated museum to the public, our investigation will reveal the undeniable proof of Tiffany’s craftsmanship. But regardless of its provenance, the Rotunda Dome will remain a major showpiece for the museum that will sparkle much brighter with a little TLC.

Jeff Daly, museum designer and guest blogger