There was an air of excitement about the Royal Mint Museum this week as we prepared to receive a very special object into the collection. As part of a reorganisation of the Royal Mint engraver’s workshop we were to transport a large wooden work bench into the Museum space. The work bench stands at approximately one metre high and one and a half metres wide. It is constructed of mahogany and pine and has evidently seen much use. There is nothing ostentatious about this bench. It is simple, elegant and above all, practical. So why is this unassuming object so special to us?
The bench was used by Benedetto Pistrucci (1784 - 1855), Chief Medallist at the Royal Mint. Already a respected and acclaimed gem engraver when he arrived from Italy in 1815, Pistrucci was soon introduced to William Wellesley Pole, Master of the Royal Mint. A relationship began between Pistrucci and the Mint that would prove turbulent and trying for both parties but would produce renowned designs such as St George and the dragon and the controversial, expensive and ultimately un-struck Waterloo Medal.
In order to move the bench from the engraver’s workshop to the Museum we needed some expert advice and assistance. Fortunately we were able to call on the skills of Hugh Haley and his team from Phoenix Conservation. Established in 1990 by Hugh Haley, Phoenix Conservation has provided conservation advice and services at many high-profile sites, including the Welsh Assembly, National Museum Wales and Lloyd George Museum.Hugh and his team began by taking the bench apart. This was accomplished surprisingly easily. It was assumed that the uncontrolled humidity within the engraver's workshop would have caused the wood to swell thereby tightening the joints but this was not the case. The heavy bench top was simply attached using a mortice and tenon joint and once removed this showed evidence of its working life.
On the underside we discovered hammer dents from previous efforts to remove the top. There are also groups of intriguing puncture marks, caused by the engraver removing the jagged raised edge, also known as a burr, from his engraving tool. The physical imperfections of this object serve as a reminder of the long hours the artist spent perfecting his designs.
Once the top section of the bench was detached, the pine back panel could be unscrewed from the two drawer sections and the bench was ready to be moved. Hugh’s team made short work of the journey between the engraver's workshop and the Museum where the bench was reassembled. On its arrival a discussion took place regarding the object’s conservation. In the past the instant reaction would have been to wax the bench to protect it. However, it is now understood that the addition of a sticky wax can attract dust. Dust is a problem for the conservation of organic objects as it attracts moisture which in turn can attract pests and biological growth. It can also be abrasive when removed or become adhered to the surface of the object.
Hugh’s advice after assessing the condition of the bench was that it needed relatively little conservation. There was no sign of recent pest activity and apart from a slight warping in one of the doors the object was in good condition. Hugh suggested making a new key for this door and stated that the action of locking this door in place could be used to pull the door back into alignment. The only other conservation issue was a set of stickers that had been attached to the drawers themselves. It was agreed that, as these were relatively recent additions and in places covered original brass labels, they should be removed.
Whilst he was in the Museum we also consulted Hugh regarding some other objects in the collection, including a set of antique pistols that originally came from the Royal Mint at Tower Hill. One of these pistols has a split in the wood on the barrel and Hugh was able to assess the damage and agree to carry out conservation.
We are also the proud caretakers of a cabinet said to belong to Sir Isaac Newton, the celebrated physicist, mathematician and most famous Master of the Royal Mint. This cabinet now requires some attention. Sections of its veneer decoration are lifting slightly and some later decorative additions from the 1800s need to be removed. It was decided that this work should be carried out off site at a later date.
Now that Pistrucci’s bench has found a new home in the Museum we are looking forward to telling visitors about its illustrious past, although there are still questions regarding its use. The height of this object dictates that the artist would have needed to stand or employ a very high stool and it is not clear which of these would have been most practical, or whether in fact a combination of both was more likely. This may remain a subject of debate between conservators, curators and engravers for many years. Regardless of this unanswered question, it is clear that through the bench we will be able to tell some of the important stories associated with the Royal Mint’s most famous artists and bring history to life.
For more information about Pistrucci and his work please visit our website.