Category

accidental damage

The 1928 Flood in the Tate

Paul Delaroche, "The Execution of Lady Jane Grey," 1834. Oil on canvas, 246 cm × 297 cm (97 in × 117 in). National Gallery, London. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Paul Delaroche, “The Execution of Lady Jane Grey,” 1834. Oil on canvas, 246 cm × 297 cm (97 in × 117 in). National Gallery, London. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Yesterday I was watching an episode of “Fake or Fortune” that discusses a flood of the Thames River in January of 1928 (see 31:05 in the video episode linked above). The flood filled the lower galleries of the Tate up to eight feet of water and many paintings were damaged. One of these paintings was The Execution of Lady Jane Grey (shown above) which did sustain some damage and tears, but clearly was not destroyed. Instead, the painting rolled up and was forgotten until 1973, when a researcher at the Tate discovered it was rolled up in another painting that was presumed lost in the aftermath of the flood: John Martin’s The Destruction of Pompeii and HerculaneumI think there is an element of irony that a painting about the eruption of Pompeii was nearly destroyed in another force of nature, albeit rising water instead of falling volcanic ash.

Although eighteen paintings were listed as damaged beyond repair, these two paintings by Delaroche and Martin turned up decades later. The “Fake or Fortune” episode considers the possibility of finding another one that may have been lost in the aftermath of the flood (a painting by Edward Landseer), although I won’t divulge a spoiler here! Luckily, many other works of art escaped damage or experienced minimal damage, including the new murals by Rex Whistler which had been completed for the Tate restaurant only the year before in 1927.

The Tate has a list of the paintings partially damaged and damaged in the flood (as well as some photographs of the event), It looks like at least one painting, Frederick Lord Leighton’s Helios and Rhodes  (see below) has been kept in the collection but is unable to be restored.

Lord Frederic Leighton, "Helios and Rhodes," 1830-1896. Oil on canvas, support 165.8 × 109.9 cm. Tate. Creative Commons License

Lord Frederic Leighton, “Helios and Rhodes,” 1830-1896. Oil on canvas, support 165.8 × 109.9 cm. Tate. Creative Commons License

This flood has had an impact on contemporary art, too. Artist Julia Fullerton-Batten used photography and digital tools to create a scene of workers carrying a painting out of a flooded gallery within the Tate. More information about this image and the step-by-step process used by Recom Farmhouse to help Fullerton-Batten create the scene, “Tate Britain Flood,” is found here.

This flood of the Thames in 1928 reminds me of the flood of Florence in 1966, which also created considerable damage to art. Do you know of other works of art that have been damaged or destroyed due to floods?

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Making Damage an Advantage

Marcel Duchamp, "The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass)," 1915-1923. Oil, varnish, lead foil, lead wire, and dust on two glass panels, 9 feet 1 1/4 inches × 70 inches × 3 3/8 inches (277.5 × 177.8 × 8.6 cm)

Marcel Duchamp, “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass),” 1915-1923. Oil, varnish, lead foil, lead wire, and dust on two glass panels, 9 feet 1 1/4 inches × 70 inches × 3 3/8 inches (277.5 × 177.8 × 8.6 cm)

Last week, some of my students and I were discussing Duchamp’s readymades. One student mentioned something to the effect of, “Well, I wouldn’t be able to just march up to a museum and hand them a broken window and expect them to accept it as a work of art.” I chuckled a bit at that comment, since Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (also called The Large Glass) is made of large panes of cracked glass. The glass wasn’t broken initially, but it cracked in transit accidentally after an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in 1926-27.

Luckily for Duchamp, he found that the broken glass helped to complete the work of art. Previously, he had declared that the art was “definitively unfinished,” but then later determined the work of art to be complete after he pieced the glass panes back together. The cracks remind me of the delicacy of a bride’s veil. You can read more about the different forms in this object both here and here.

It is interesting to me how this accidental damage was used to help complete the work of art, and even become a feature that is celebrated as part of the aesthetic. This is different than the slashed canvases of Lucio Fontana, since those slashes were intentionally made by the artist as part of the original conception of the object.

In contrast to this accidental damage, I have blogged previously about art that is damaged intentionally, often as a result of attack. In addition, there are countless examples of works of art that have been damaged by accident, too, such as the boy who tripped in a museum in 2015, the Cairo Museum workers who accidentally knocked off King Tut’s beard (and then infarmously tried to glue it back on), and the $40 million painting by Picasso that Steve Wynn accidentally punctured with his elbow. In these instances, however, the works of art are restored to give a semblance of their original appearance; the damage isn’t celebrated from an aesthetic standpoint.

Duchamp’s cracked The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even reminds me of “biography” of a work of art – the concept that objects have lives of their own. The broken glass is a reminder of the fateful trip that the object took after the exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum – and it was the only time this work of art was displayed in a temporary exhibition! Interestingly, though, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which permanently houses The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, is interested in keeping the work of art in a more timeless and historicized space. The museum website proudly declares that the object is exhibited in the same space that Duchamp chose for it over half a century ago, when The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even was acquired by the museum in 1953. In a way, perhaps this static display counteracts the sense of a living “biography” that is suggested by the object itself.

Do you know of other works of art that were accidentally damaged, and then this damage was incorporated into the finished work of art? Of course, I’m thinking of situations that are more extreme than the “happy little accidents” that Bob Ross talks about in his painting show. If you know of anything, please share!

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.