Uncovering the history of a St. Tammany weathervane

Guest post by Celia Arnaud, a senior editor at Chemical & Engineering News. Many pieces that started out as functional objects have crossed over into the realm of art. This is especially true for that genre known as folk art. Metal weathervanes are a prime example of such art. Because these pieces actually had a job, they weren’t carefully housed indoors. They were exposed to the elements—and the local gunslingers. At last week’s Eastern Analytical Symposium, Kate Payne de Chavez, a conservator at the Williamstown Art Conservation Center, in Massachusetts, described the steps she took to characterize and repair a St. Tammany weathervane that had seen some tough times. The St. Tammany motif features an Indian chief holding a bow and arrow and standing on the shaft of another arrow. He’s believed to represent a 17th century chief in the Lenni-Lenape tribe in the Delaware Valley, known alternatively as Tammany, Tamanend, or Tammamend. Because of his role in establishing peace between Native Americans and the English settlers in the Pennsylvania colony, he achieved near-mythic status, and his name was co-opted by various Societies of St. Tammany, the most famous of which grew into the Tammany Hall political machine. The largest and most famous St. Tammany weathervane—standing more than eight feet tall—is at the American Folk Art Museum in New York City. The one that Payne de Chavez repaired is only one-third the size, nearly three feet tall. When it was brought to Payne de Chavez by a dealer at Antiquarian Equities, the weathervane was covered with black paint. She analyzed several tiny samples from the weathervane and determined the many layers coating the underlying copper sheet metal and wire. The dealer who brought it to Payne de Chavez wanted to remove the modern paint to expose the corrosion, previous repairs, and the historic refinishing layers. Payne de Chavez discovered that the weathervane had undergone three “finishing campaigns.” The finishing campaigns were separated from one another by thin dirt layers. When the object was originally constructed, it was coated with a white ground layer, two oil layers, and gold leaf. Later refinishing campaigns included a yellow paint layer, an off-white paint layer, and the modern black paint. The dirt layers indicate weathering and are a good clue that the weathervane really dates back to the 19th century. “It’s hard to fake an actual dirt layer, because the particles are very fine,” Payne de Chavez says. “If someone were painting many layers trying to fake aging, they might not think about the dirt layer. It’s just one more indicator that the piece aged naturally.” Once she figured out that the underlying...

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Art conservation in an unexpected place

Guest post from Celia Arnaud, a senior editor with C&EN Today and tomorrow, I’m in Somerset, N.J., home of the Garden State Exhibition Center and the Eastern Analytical Symposium. Not a place that you’d expect to read about on a blog about conservation science. What people might not realize is that EAS hosts New York Conservation Foundation’s Conservation Science Annual, a symposium–as the name might suggest–on the science of art and cultural heritage conservation. If the conference that Sarah attended in Lisbon in September is the largest art conservation conference, then this is surely one of the smallest. The symposium has been a fixture of the EAS conference program since 1994, but I attended my first one in 2006, when I got the chance to report one of my favorite stories, a look at how electrochemical and spectroscopic methods are being used to save shipwrecks. In my years of attending the symposium, I’ve found that no matter how interesting the talks the audience tends to be me, the speakers, and maybe a handful of other folks. This year’s lineup is a bit scattershot, with everything grouped together under the general heading of “Analysis for Cultural Heritage.” Rather than try to shoehorn very different talks into one post, I’m going to share in separate posts over the next few weeks the ones that pique my...

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