Frequently Asked Questions

1: Disaster!!

The garniture of five vases

The three broken 'vases' - a covered baluster jar and two yan yan type vases - are part of a matching set, or 'garniture', of five (Fitzwilliam accession numbers C.17.1 & A-1948, C.17.2 & A-1948, C.17.3 & A-1948, C.17.4-1948 and C.17.5-1948). The remaining pair of baluster jars, displayed in wall niches on either side of the stairs, was unharmed in the incident.

How old are the vases?

The vases were produced in late 17th or early 18th century China during the reign of Emperor Kangxi (1662-1722) of the Qing Dynasty. Intended to be decorative rather than functional, they are very large and extremely heavy. The baluster jar is 80cm high and weighs approximately 100lb (45.45 kg); it requires two people to carry it. The yan yan vases are approximately 71cm and 72.5 cm high respectively. The ceramic walls are up to 3cm thick in places. Sets of such vases were usually made for the European export market. They were popular with a wealthy clientele for decorating the rooms and corridors of their large houses.

What are they made of?

The vases are made of hard-paste porcelain decorated with geometric designs in underglaze blue beneath a blue-tinged glaze, then painted in overglaze enamels in the famille verte colour palette (meaning the colours are predominantly green) with gilded highlights. They are decorated with rocky landscapes and waterfalls surrounded by flowers, foliage, birds and insects, including peonies, roses, butterflies, phoenixes and pheasants. The vases' interiors are glazed but otherwise unadorned. The quality of the painting varies. The larger fields of coloured enamels on the baluster jar (but not its lid) are thick and clumsily applied, in places obscuring the patterns of the underglaze blue and subtle black outlines of the enamel designs, suggesting this piece may have been completed by a junior worker. Other mistakes are also apparent (see Retouching). In contrast, its lid and the yan yan vases are skilfully painted.

Hard-paste porcelain is a type of white ceramic body made from a special mixture of predominantly kaolin (China clay) and petuntse (China stone, a feldspathic rock) that has been fired in a kiln to a very high temperature (1200-1450°C/2192-2642°F). This causes the ceramic to become very hard, brittle, glassy and slightly translucent. (One can see through a very thin piece of porcelain if it is held up to the light). The manufacture of these vases would have required at least two firings - one for the ceramic body and glaze and a lower temperature firing for the overglaze enamels.

The damage revealed that the interiors of the vases are ridged, with a series of rings. These give clues to the way they were made: the pots were probably thrown, that is, made on a potter's wheel. The outside was then smoothed.

It also revealed that the yan yan necks were each made as a separate piece that was then joined, or 'luted', to the sloping shoulder of the vase with 'slip', a watery paste of the same porcelain clay. These are weak points in the construction. One vase broke along these joins when it fell, detaching completely.

The lid finial was also made separately and luted to the lid. The finial is hollow, with a small air-hole cut into its base to allow moisture and gases to escape during the firing. Without this vent, it could explode in the kiln

Had the vases ever been damaged before?

Yes. The yan yan vases already had some old restorations (joins, fills and repainted areas to replace the missing designs) on the bases and rims. The fills and overpaint on the rims had discoloured and yellowed with age. These yellow areas can easily be seen on the photo of the vases before they were broken. Most of the old fills broke off when the vases smashed.

How long have the vases been in the Fitzwilliam Museum?

The vases were given to the Fitzwilliam Museum in 1948 by Anthony de Rothschild through the National Art Collections Fund (now known as The Art Fund). Soon after their acquisition they were installed on the recessed windowsill of the grand staircase of the 1930s Smith and Brewer extension building, in line with the Fitzwilliam's distinctive house style. Here they remained on permanent display for decades, enjoyed by the Museum's 300,000 visitors a year. They were rarely moved, except for short episodes of routine building maintenance. The feet of the yan yan vases were secured to the sill on mounting blocks to stabilise their bases. The heavy baluster jar was cushioned on Plastazote™ foam.

Where did the incident take place?

The disaster happened on the landing of the grand stone staircase connecting the first-floor Flower Paintings gallery (Gallery 17) and ground-floor Islamic gallery (Gallery 33).

Museum Floorplan:

The main flight of stairs rises from the ground floor to a central landing beneath a large window, then divides into two smaller flights left and right. The visitor tumbled down the right-hand flight of stairs, then along the windowsill from right to left, colliding with each vase in turn. The impact reduced them to rubble and scattered them across the landing and stairs. The stone flags were gouged in places where he skidded on some of the hard porcelain sherds. Other fragments were crushed by staff coming to help him. The noise of the crash was immense and echoed through the galleries.

What happened to the visitor involved in the incident?

Museum attendants and first-aiders quickly attended to the visitor at the scene, moments after the crash. Although an ambulance was called, he later walked away unharmed.

Was there much media interest?

On Monday 30th January 2006, The Daily Telegraph newspaper published a photograph taken moments after the smash by another visitor with his mobile phone. It showed the man sitting amidst the devastation on the landing. The incident captured the public imagination and sparked a global media storm. The Museum was inundated with an unprecedented flood of queries from all over the world. The Fitzwilliam's small press team worked round the clock and cancelled leave.

The Museum has amassed several enormous files of press cuttings. The event became so well known that, by the time the restoration began, it continued to be lampooned in satirical political cartoons. References were even made to it in insurance adverts.

Later, the German sculptor Thomas Demand was inspired to replicate the exact scene of the smash, including the stairs and window sill. His work was exhibited in his exhibition 'L'Esprit d'Escalier' at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin, Ireland in Spring 2007.

Disaster!! |  Recovery |  Sorting |  Cleaning |  Reassembly |  Bonding |  Filling |  Retouching |  Completed