Conserving Kew Garden's Wax Orchid Flower Collection
Conservation experts at Amgueddfa Cymru are called upon by the Royal Botanic Kew to conserve a collection of 25 intricate replicas of orchids — made of beeswax, silk, wire, feather and hair
In 2005, Amgueddfa Cymru conservators Annette Townsend and Vicky Purewal were asked to survey a collection of wax models belonging to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, London. It consisted of 25 lifelike models of orchids copied from Kew's living collection of plants by the botanical artist Edith Delta Blackman (1868-1947).
Made from beeswax, silk, wire, feather and hair, the models varied in size from a small group of flowers only 10 cm x 10 cm, to a large arching spray over 1 m wide.
Correspondence in Kew Garden's archive showed that the models were commissioned in 1893 by their former Director William Thiselton-Dyer at a cost of 4 pounds and 4 shillings per model.
Damage and neglect
The orchid models were on display at Kew for many years and were then put into storage. An atmosphere that was warmer and drier than ideal took its toll. Such conditions caused the wax to soften, peel and crack, and allowed dirt and dust to permeate the surface of the models, and over time more dust accumulated.
The conservation project
Fortunately, a visitor to the gardens fell in love with the damaged models and kindly sponsored the conservation of the whole collection. Annette and Vicky have unrivalled experience within the UK in conserving such botanical wax models, gained over many years working together on the Amgueddfa Cymru's unique collection of more than 1000 wax models. Therefore they were approached by Kew to undertake the work.
Slow and painstaking process
The project was carried out in stages over several years. Wax model conservation is a slow and painstaking process and the extreme fragility of the objects makes their transportation difficult. In 2007, the first group of models was packed up and transported along the M4 to Cardiff for the work to begin.
Small pieces of the broken wax were analysed using Fourier Transform Infra Red (FTIR) to determine the composition, so that suitable materials could be chosen for the repairs. Each of the models was photographed, documented, cleaned and restored.
Finally, they were very carefully packaged in custom made boxes. Before transportation, each package was tested for stability for the journey back to Kew. The final repair work was completed in 2010 and the last of the models returned to Kew.
Restored wax Orchids redisplayed
The models are now temporarily on display for visitors in the newly built herbarium at Kew Gardens. They are due to be remounted onto new display plinths, and will soon be put on public exhibition in Kew's Marion North Gallery.
Article by: Annette Townsend, Conservation Officer
Article Date: 2 November 2011