An incident in the Museum on Wednesday 25 January involving a member of the public resulted in damage to three oriental porcelain vases which had been on display for many decades.
At a press conference at the Fitzwilliam on 29 March 2006, Museum Director Duncan Robinson announced that the task of restoring the vases would be undertaken by leading ceramic conservator Penny Bendall of Suffolk-based Bendall Ceramic Conservation. Penny, who trained at West Dean College and holds a Royal Warrant, has for the past 18 years worked on major oriental ceramics collections around the world including The Royal Collection, Burghley House, Eskenazi in London and Charlottenburg Palace in Berlin.
The three Chinese vases are Qing Dynasty, reign of Kangxi (1662-1722) and date from the late 17th or early 18th century. From a set of five vases which entered the collections in 1948, they had been displayed for decades - in line with the Fitzwilliam’s distinctive house style and without incident - on a recessed window sill on an imposing 1930s marble staircase and enjoyed by the Museum’s 300,000 visitors a year.
Painted in enamels in the famille verte palette with traces of gilding, the vases are decorated with peonies and other flowering plants, phoenixes, pheasants, butterflies and insects. Two vases are of ‘yan yan’ shape (height 71 and 72.5 cm) and one is a heavy baluster jar with cover (height 80 cm) which weighed about 45 kg and could not be lifted single-handed by a curator. On display, the feet of the two smaller flanking vases had been secured to blocks which, in turn, were securely fixed to the window sill.
The impact that toppled the vases resulted in pieces of porcelain being distributed over a wide area of the staircase landing and no less than 28 steps. After careful evaluation of the damage, the site of the accident was photographed and the vases systematically documented and removed over a period of two and a half days. The pieces were then placed in 24 large lined trays, carefully labelled and cross-referenced with the location from which they were retrieved.