Artists who work in ceramics love porcelain for the way its inherent plasticity when wet can be fired into strong, vitreous material stronger and more delicate than glass. The tension between the delicacy, strength, and plasticity of ceramics is one of the reasons our artistic heritage is so full of ceramic art. Porcelain is special for its fine texture, and the whiteness of the clay that takes colours so beautifully. Unlike many works of art made from materials that are more susceptible to environmental degradation, ceramics interact very little with the environment. Low fired earthenware, such as terra cotta, is softer, and more likely to deteriorate when exposed to earth or sea water, but even earthenware can last for generations. Porcelain can last forever, if we can keep from knocking it off a shelf.
The strength, plasticity, and beauty of porcelain comes with a fatal flaw. It is brittle, and will break when dropped or handled inappropriately. If porcelain cups are stacked into a pile, lips and handles can be chipped. If they are knocked over, banged, or otherwise handled roughly, they will crack and shatter. While many ceramic artists love porcelain and treat it with more care than a first-borne child, the rest of the world tends to treat ceramic objects as if they were just- dishes!
Because objects made from ceramics form such a large part of our cultural and artistic heritage, careful methods of conservation have been developed. Their long-lasting nature, combined with their inherent fragility, give many conservators a great deal of experience in repair and restoration.
Conservationists consider where an antique piece of ceramics has been before making decisions about methods and materials. Both glazed and unglazed ceramics that have been submerged in seawater or buried in soil in an archaeological site will require specialised techniques to deal with the effects of these extreme environments.
For a piece of ceramics art that has not been exposed to these extremes, conservation begins with a careful assessment of condition, documentation, and reasons for restoration. Most usually, repair and restoration of a piece of ceramics is done so the beauty of the piece can be restored, and so the piece can regain its ability to provide its own structural support. For a piece that is going to be displayed, the ability to stand without moving, for instance, is important. A handle that needs to be reattached can allow a piece to reclaim the grace and symmetry of the original design.
There have been a number of developments in the material sciences fields which allows conservators to repair and restore cracked and broken ceramics with adhesives that mimic the plasticity and strength of the original materials, without the brittleness of fired clay. The materials used for slips, glazes, and other surface decorations have not changed significantly over time, and surface decoration can be restored. All of these changes and repairs are carefully documented on a conservation report.
While many objects that are part of the cultural and historical record are considered hands-off for restoration work, ceramics are different. Their inherent fragility means the pieces can either be restored, or the broken pieces lost to display and use. With documentation of all work, ceramic objects can be restored to their original beauty and structural integrity. Find out more about our ceramics and porcelain restoration.