Frequently Asked Questions

3: Sorting the Fragments

How many pieces were there?

The first jar to be hit, on the right of the sill, sustained the most damage and smashed into approximately 120 big sherds. The middle vase, the baluster jar, broke into around 100 large fragments, its lid into about 30 and the last vase to break into 80 main pieces. There were thousands of smaller additional fragments.

How was the conservator chosen?

From the beginning, and despite press scepticism, the Fitzwilliam's small conservation team were confident the vases could be restored. However the Museum only has two conservators who work with 'three dimensional' objects (the others dealing with 'flat' art such as paintings, paper and manuscripts) and their work schedules were already full. This would be a long, time-consuming job. The work would need to be done by a specialist independent conservator. It would also be expensive. Happily, soon after news of the smash was reported, local firm Hewitsons Solicitors offered to sponsor the restoration.

Who carried out the conservation?

Some press had misleadingly reported that the Museum did not know where to turn for assistance. As a result, the Museum was inundated with offers from conservators and restorers all over the world, including from Chinese conservators made through the British Embassy in Beijing.

In fact, the Museum had already selected a specialist. In March 2006 Penny Bendall, an experienced independent ceramics conservator, was appointed to carry out the conservation and restoration of all three vases. Mrs. Bendall trained at West Dean College and holds a Warrant to work on The Royal Collection. She brought 18 years experience of working on major Oriental ceramics collections around the world.

How did the conservator sort the fragments?
How could she tell where each piece should go?

The conservator was presented with a room full of trays of sherds.

She sorted out which of the larger pieces belonged to each vase by doing a draft reconstruction of all three at the same time. The shapes, curvatures and diameters of the three vases are all slightly different. So too are the underglaze and overglaze designs and the colour schemes, for example the rim and foot patterns differ on the two yan yan vases. The conservator uses these clues to match pieces and and put them together. The thicknesses also vary greatly - from 3cm near the base of the largest jar to less than 1cm near the rims. Pieces of the lid, flat bases and glazed rims were very easy to identify. The recovery system used meant that many of these were found adjacent to each other in the relevant grid squares/trays. The neck and base of the baluster vase that had sat on the left of the sill were largely intact.

The quality of the painting also varies. The painted enamels on the largest baluster jar is much coarser than that on the other pots (see Disaster!!) and the painted leaves only have one tone of green. In contrast, the yan yan vases and the baluster vase lid have both dark and pale greens. Penny occasionally referred to old photographs to examine details of the designs. Her years of experience meant she quickly mastered all three 3D jigsaws. At this stage, she also identified found the positions of many, though not all, of the smaller surface fragments.

From the reconstruction. Penny discovered that much of the surface design was intact and, except for the impact points, there were very few areas so damaged that they were beyond recovery. Some of the pieces had completely disintegrated, leaving holes. When she had finished, she was able to determine how many holes would need filling. Fortunately the reconstruction also showed that the porcelain had not 'sprung' significantly (see Springing below).

Amazingly, she was able to sort the fragments and reassemble all three vases in a single working day! The following day, the sherds were numbered in order of assembly, then the pots were dismantled for cleaning. The fragments were packed up and taken to the Bendall Ceramics Conservation studio.

If it only took a single day, why is she wearing two outfits in the photographs?

The photographs on the interactive show Penny wearing two outfits. On the first day (dressed in blue) she sorted and reassembled all the vases. On the second day (dressed in grey and red) she labelled and dismantled them all. The pictures have been merged into one slideshow.

Possible complications: Locking out

The temporary reconstruction also helped Penny identify the correct order of assembly for each vase. This is very important. If the fragments are put back together in the wrong sequence, some can be 'locked out' by their neighbours and can't be inserted. When this happens, the joins must be dismantled back to the point where the locked-out sherd can be included, then built back up again. The conservator constantly has to think ahead.

For large ceramics broken into many pieces, even an experienced conservator finds some tricky areas require several attempts before finding the correct sequence. You can see this happening for real in the time-lapse film of the reassembly of a yan yan vase, especially around the point of impact. (See Reassembly)

Possible complications: Springing

The temporary reassembly also confirmed that most of the vases had not 'sprung' as had been feared. Ceramics fired at high temperatures, such as porcelain, are often under tension. These stresses can be released when the object is broken. The fragments literally 'spring' apart and curves straighten out, making accurate reassembly almost impossible. Springing may affect a ceramic to such an extent that the distorted sherds cannot be realigned without applying considerable force (for example, using clamps) and sometimes not at all. This can complicate the restoration. Some conservators consider reshaping under tension unethical, because it reintroduces stresses that may cause new breaks in other areas. In these instances, the mismatched gap is filled to strengthen and stabilise the ceramic. It may be possible to disguise a narrow gap by retouching, but larger gaps will always look slightly strange.

In fact, one portion had sprung slightly. The top of one of the yan yan vases (originally positioned left on the sill) had separated as an almost complete fragment. A vertical crack down one side of the neck had sprung open by half a millimetre. Taping brought the edges of the join almost completely back together but the join was not perfect and had to be filled like other cracks.

What tape did she use to make the temporary joins?

Penny used a colourless transparent plastic self-adhesive tape, ('sticky tape') of the kind found in most stationers. This has sufficient strength and grab to temporarily support the heavy sherds.

How did she apply the tape?

It is important to position the tape properly when taping up joins or the fragments will not be supported and may sag. A ninety-degree angle across the join gives the greatest strength. The tape is pulled tight across the fragments. Tape is not applied over fragile areas of surface decoration, such as flaking enamels or gilding, although this is unavoidable for some small fragments. The tape can be peeled off cleanly from areas of intact glaze with the assistance of acetone. Any residues are also removed with acetone.

Where were the 'points of impact' on the vases? How many were there?

Areas which sustained the greatest damage, especially the 'point of impact' – the part which first hit the ground and took the weight of the fall – were often extremely fragmentary, with many losses. They are usually on the widest point of the vase, i.e. on the shoulders of the yan yan vases, the upper body of the baluster vase and the curve of the lid.

These were particularly difficult to reassemble. In some cases, for example on the baluster jar, the decorated outer surface had exploded into miniscule fragments and the thick porcelain wall splintered into wafer thin slices. Pieces of a reasonable size only survived on the inner surface. These had been fractured by typical star-shaped crack pattern that radiated out from the centre of the impact point. On the yan yan vases and the lid, even this inner wall was too fragmented to reconstruct, leaving each with a large hole in its side. The first vase that toppled (a yan yan) had two points of impact, one on either side of the body.

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