Rescuing Shakespeare

by Mary Shipp Bartlett

Most Scripps alumnae have never known a time when the eight bas-reliefs depicting scenes from Shakespeare haven’t been a part of the College environment. Set into the exterior walls of Sycamore court and Balch Hall, each depicts the important characters in scenes from eight of Shakespeare’s plays: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet,The Merchant of Venice, Macbeth, King Lear, Richard III, Hamlet, and Henry IV.

Now, the compelling scenes, which have become an integral part of the Scripps environment, are greatly in need of repair. Cracks run through them, chips and gouges appear, and features are losing detail because of the numerous coats of paint that have been applied to them over the years. Fortunately, thanks to the work of the Scripps College Landscape and Architectural Blueprint Committee, and the generosity of two Scripps alumnae, there is a plan and an initial means to restore them.The work will not only ensure that the beauty of the bas-reliefs will be enjoyed by many more generations of Scripps women (and friends), but will involve Scripps students in unique hands-on internships in art conservation. And the process has already begun.

The reliefs are the original plaster casts of the sculptured marble panels that were executed by John Gregory for the façade of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., in the 1930s. They were brought to Scripps, in the 1950s, through the efforts of Dr. Frederick Hard, Scripps’ president and Shakespearean scholar. They belonged to Amherst College, which administers the Folger Library, and had been stored in the Folger Library basement for more than 20 years. When the library underwent alterations, Dr. Hard, a friend of the library’s director, arranged for Scripps to obtain eight of the plaster casts. Amherst opted to keep the final ninth cast (“Julius Caesar”).

The hollow casts, approximately six feet by six feet each, are step two in a three-step process to create the marble sculptures. First, Gregory created full-sized clay models.These models were then cast in plaster, creating the bas-reliefs Scripps has today. It was from these casts that Gregory executed the finished marble sculptures.

At the time he created the Shakespearean figures, Gregory had already won a substantial reputation as a classicist in outdoor sculpture. Dr. Hard described the marble reliefs in a 1959 booklet, “The Sculptured Scenes from Shakespeare,” published by the Folger Shakespeare Library:”His [Gregory’s] work has most frequently been praised for its striking clarity of design, its sureness of execution, and its harmonious rhythm.The qualities just noted are fully evident in the nine panels of memorable scenes from Shakespeare. Indeed, considering the unavoidable limitations of space and number, the sculptor has achieved, through scope and variety of scene, a grouping that does remarkable justice to Shakespeare and to his own art.” Gregory’s other notable work includes “The Four Seasons” reliefs and sarcophagus from the Henry and Arabella Huntington mausoleum, completed in 1929 and located in The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, San Marino, California.

According to Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery Director Mary Davis MacNaughton ’70, the Gallery has long wanted to turn its attention to restoring the bas-reliefs. Because the Blueprint Committee has identified the bas-reliefs as a high priority area,”We now have the structure to do it,” she said.

The first step in the restoration process was to call in consultants and thoroughly assess the situation. Donna Williams, of Williams Art Conservation, Inc., and Eduardo Sanchez, of Eduardo P. Sanchez Art Conservation, made a preliminary examination of the bas-reliefs.While they reviewed all the pieces, they paid special attention to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” They removed the decorative wood molding from the outside edges of the relief in order to view the object’s sides, interior back surface, the support structure, and the mounting method. Here are some of their findings:

  • Each relief reveals a vertical crack or seam at the approximate center of the cast…they were previously filled with plaster in order to visually integrate the surface. Some of the applied plaster fill material has cracked and is now lost.
  • The exposed relief surfaces appear to be in fair to poor condition. Although each relief appears relatively stable at this time, an initial examination revealed severe surface cracking of the paint surface and exposure of already deteriorating plaster….Current maintenance practices have resulted in repeated painting of the relief surfaces. Losses along the borders and in the decorative surface elements of the panels have been filled.The fills generally do not match the surrounding surface area in texture or contour.
  • There is also evidence that the ferrous iron supports and mounting hardware have oxidized and are now corroding from the migration of humidity within the architectural structure.

Their recommendations concluded:”A conservation treatment is urgently needed.There has been a visible and accelerated deterioration of the individual reliefs evidenced by their present condition and material failure. Each relief is suffering from exposure to humidity migrating through the building’s walls, which is causing significant damage to the plaster matrix.The combination of a high, cool moisture environment between the concrete wall and the changing daily atmospheric temperatures at the face of each relief is accelerating this action.There is also material incompatibility between the original plaster substrate, which is very thin, and the applied surface paints…”

The conservation project will begin with treatment of a single relief, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which will serve as a template for further restoration. This initial step has been funded through the generosity of former trustee Victoria Andrew Williamson ’58. The College hopes to raise funds for conservation work on the remaining seven bas-reliefs.

In addition, an anonymous donor from the Class of 1969 has funded The Conservation Internship for Scripps students to work on the project. Amanda Batarseh ’05, who spent her junior year in Florence studying art conservation, has been chosen for this position, said MacNaughton.

The goal of the internship is to give Scripps students an opportunity to learn about conservation as a career and to get practical experience on a conservation project. “In order to get into graduate school in conservation, a student has to already have experience and a portfolio,” MacNaughton explained. “This is very hard to come by.”

Batarseh has already had a training session in conservation research with Valerie Greathouse, reference librarian of the Getty Conservation Institute, and has met with Laura Cogburn ’85, program associate of the Getty Grant Program, to learn about career opportunities. This spring, Batarseh will work with Donna Williams, beginning with researching the chemical makeup of the original plaster used by Gregory. Williams will oversee a scientific analysis of the various plasters, resin coatings and paint layers, then establish a baseline mapping of surface areas as well as the interior plaster surface. From this, an appropriate and comprehensive conservation treatment will be outlined and later executed.

As the project progresses, MacNaughton expects many more Scripps students to play a significant part in conserving the bas-reliefs. “This is a wonderful opportunity for them—not available at many other places,” she said. Gallery intern Caitlin Silberman ’06 has already completed a full biographical sketch of sculptor John Gregory, which has been helpful in understanding his methods and his influence. She writes: “Now, 50 years after his death, we may begin to reclaim the joys of Gregory’s harmonious design and artful simplicity. The intellectual purpose and careful planning Gregory used to execute his work exemplify an era of academies like the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and the National Academy of Design.The clash of his style with the tastes of postwar America meant that at the end of his lifetime, Gregory appeared old-fashioned, but at today’s distance one may appreciate his work for its harmony and clarity.”

As one of the first undertakings of the College following the recommendations of the Scripps College Landscape and Architectural Blueprint, the conservation of Gregory’s work will ensure that the Scripps community and its visitors will continue to share in this appreciation.