Art History majors Erin Kitagwara (’14) and Manuela Toro (’14) participate in a conservation project at NYU’s Villa la Pietra

24 Feb

Erin Kitagawara (Art History ’14) and Manuela Toro (Art History ’14) participated in a fascinating conservation project at NYU’s Villa la Pietra last summer.

The multi-year project entails the treatment of a lacquer panel that was made from a seventeenth-century Chinese Coromandel lacquer folding screen.  The panel is a member of the remarkable Acton Collection, comprising over 5,000 works in a wide range of media and styles and housed at NYU’s Villa la Pietra.  Michele Marincola, Sherman Fairchild Chair and Professor at the Conservation Center of the Institute of Fine Arts, and Ellyn Toscano, Executive Director of NYU in Florence and Director of Villa la Pietra, co-direct the project.  The project was developed and is managed by Pamela Hatchfield, Robert P. and Carol T. Henderson Head of Objects Conservation at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and a graduate of the Conservation Center at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts, who also serves as conservation consultant to the Acton Collection.

Since 2008, numerous students have worked on various stages of the examination and treatment of the panel, including developing an understanding of the original materials and how they were modified; identifying the factors that contributed to the object’s current, poor condition; stabilizing the panel’s structure; consolidating and ensuring the re-adhesion of the lacquer; and developing a plan for the long-term exhibition of the panel in its original location.

Thanks to the initiative and support of Michele Marincola, Erin and Manuela spent two weeks at Villa la Pietra in July 2013 assisting on the project.  Erin’s coursework and strong background in East Asian art and culture, as well as her coursework in studio art, proved valuable in her work.  Manuela brought to the project not only a strong background in art history and studio art but also her experience in Adjunct Professor Corey D’Augustine’s popular “Introduction to Paintings Conservation” course, taught in the Department of Art History each spring.

The project will be presented as a poster at the International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (IIC) in Hong Kong later this year, with the title “Reduced, reused and recycled: the treatment and re-display of a repurposed 17th century Coromandel lacquer screen”.   The conference theme is “An Unbroken History: Conserving East Asian Works of Art and Heritage”.   For more information, see the abstract and accompanying photograph.

“Manuela and Erin have contributed in a most substantive way to the conservation and study of this very interesting object,” observed Hatchfield.  They are listed as co-authors in the poster and the abstract.

“This once-in-a -lifetime experience strengthened and confirmed my desire to become a conservator,” comments Toro.  “To be a participant in the project as an undergraduate student was very exciting, and learning from Professor Hatchfield was not only a great opportunity but also a true delight.”

Hearty congratulations go to Manuela, Erin, and to the entire conservation team for their excellent work on this project.  We are extremely grateful to Michele Marincola of IFA and Pam Hatchfield for extending this remarkable opportunity to Department of Art History majors.


Pamela Hatchfield and Amy Tjiong setting down lacquer  Photo:  Jessica Pace

Pamela Hatchfield and Amy Tjiong setting down lacquer
Photo: Jessica Pace

IIC 2014 Hong Kong Paper Synopsis Submittal

Reduced, re-used and recycled: the treatment and re-display of a repurposed 17th century Coromandel lacquer screen in the Acton Collection, Villa La Pietra, Florence

Pamela Hatchfield*, Diana Johnson Galante**, Erin Kitagawa***, Jessica Pace**, Amy Tjiong**, Kristen Watson Adsit**, Raina Chao**, Rita Berg**, Megan Randall**, Manuela Toro ***

*Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, ** Conservation Center, New York University Institute of Fine Arts , ***New York University

Boston, MA and New York, NY USA

Keywords:  Chinese, lacquer, conservation, treatment

The Acton Collection at Villa La Pietra, Florence, comprises a diverse collection of artwork, textiles, and objets d’art from around the world, often purchased and placed for decorative effect, rather than for their inherent value or pristine nature. A decorative Coromandel lacquer panel repurposed from a folding screen was in poor condition after 60 years of display, urgently requiring treatment. (i)  Severe cupping, flaking, and instability were caused by the original manufacture, extenders added to the lacquer, methods used in re-fabricating the screen into a decorative panel, and the object’s exposure to unstable environmental conditions. The treatment and redisplay were guided by the idiosyncratic aesthetic of the Villa, which the Acton Collection strives to retain.

The Acton panel relates closely to a 12-part folding screen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (ii) depicting a Summer Palace dated 1689 and inscribed 挹翠/ yi cui, indicating the Pavilion of Prince Teng (iii). The Acton panel was made using 4 sections of a similar folding screen. The substrate preparation included gypsum, clay, organic fibers and binder; the lacquer was incised and painted. Through the transformation from folding screen to flat panel, the backs and borders of the sections were sawn off, the raw wood backs glued to a cradle-like wooden structure whose supports were positioned underneath joins. The edges were glued to a thin, black-painted wooden frame. The active loss of lacquer was exacerbated by flexing of the structure. The panel joins were filled and heavily overpainted.

Treatment methods utilized materials and methods culled from eastern and western traditions. A treatment support was fabricated from aluminum, while shimbaridai wooden frames facilitated the application of pressure to localized areas using bamboo dowels. Cupping and loose flakes were relaxed and readhered with a combination of gentle heat, weight, pressure, solvents and Paraloid B-72™ (iv). Cotton swabs covered with China silk were used for cleaning, minimizing lint accumulation on the surface.

Treatment decisions such as the retention of discolored overpaint and the use of tinted tissue paper fills for loss compensation respected the aesthetic of the Acton Collection, which remains as it appeared during the Actons’ lives. Extensive discussion about remounting and glazing the panel considered its post-treatment condition, aesthetics, location, and environmental conditions in the Villa. The treatment support was used for the mount, incorporating a backing board capable of housing conditioning gel.

This project provided an opportunity not only to resolve challenging treatment problems, but also to develop creative solutions to aesthetic and environmental dilemmas in the context of a collection where many stakeholders and issues must be considered.


i. Coromandel Lacquer Panel, Inv. G. Conti LX.C..5; Scene of a Courtly Palace with Figures, Trees and Pavilions.  Acton Collection, Villa La Pietra, New York University

ii. Signed by by Feng Lianggong, Metropolitan Museum of Art (09.6a-l)

iii. in its incarnation from the 12th to 14th centuries. For example, Tang Di’s Pavilion of Prince Teng, Metropolitan Museum of Art (1989.363.36)


Suzanna Shaw, National Gallery of Victoria, Australia; Arlen Heginbotham, Getty Museum; Michele Derrick, MFA Boston; Ellyn Toscano, Michele Marincola, Francesca Baldry and Helen Spande, Acton Collection, Villa La Pietra.

Fig. 1 Pamela Hatchfield and Amy Tjiong setting down lacquer

Photo:  Jessica Pace


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