From doorknobs to iron railings, the contribution of metalwork detail to a house is often overlooked, and old work discarded when it could be saved. Rupert Harris, whose London-based company is metalwork conservation adviser to the National Trust and a consultant to English Heritage, trained as a sculptor, which he says is not unusual in his field, although many museum-based conservators started from the science side. He set up a bronze foundry in the 1970s, and then did the V&A’s metal conservation diploma, before turning freelance in 1982.
Understanding the material science of different metals is essential to the job, and as metals are attached to so many different types of objects, a good grounding in the science of materials such as wood, stone, leather, ceramics and glass is important, too. Although they use traditional techniques, metal conservators need to keep up to date with advances in conservation science, and this includes a knowledge of the latest processes, and of the best products available for such surface treatments as lacquer, paint and varnish, as well as adhesives and consolidants. Then there is the history of art component ‘We do a lot of research into makers and historic techniques,’ Mr Harris says.
Practical work takes place both on site and in the studio, and includes the full spectrum of metal objects, from jewellery and decorative silver and ormolu pieces, to sculpture of all sizes, arms and armour, architectural ironwork, lead statuary (one of the firm’s specialities) and modern pieces made of such materials as aluminium or stainless steel.
Usually, the problem affecting these objects is physical damage caused by lack of maintenance, weathering or bad handling a statue may have lost a limb, fallen over or been improperly cleaned or restored. In addition to repairing or replicating pieces and treating tarnishing and corrosion, Mr Harris does a lot of routine maintenance of sculptures and other decorative metalwork, advises on their care and protection, and carries out survey work and condition reports. Even the physical security of outdoor sculpture comes within his remit attaching security fixings, for example, and working with electronic alarm systems.
Another area of the job involves analysing paint samples to ascertain the original colour of a piece of metalwork. (Interestingly, it is only since the late 19th century that ironwork such as street railings have been painted black previously, colours such as green and maroon were more common.) Mr Harris also does condition surveys and a lot of general consultancy work, and writes specifications for traditional blacksmiths undertaking jobs that require conservation input.
Rupert Harris: 020 7515 2020; www.rupertharris.com