Laurie Price: Reflections on the First Term

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Sitting at my very own desk, scarred with an assortment of scratches and scrapes my predecessors have inflicted on their way to becoming professional conservators of metalwork and there I was, a novice in the conservation industry fresh from university. I never had my own workspace before so I was already excited and I even had my own spinning wheelie chair so I was overjoyed with my new situation.

The first few weeks seem like a distant memory now: introduction to numerous facilities for students, new passwords to remember (or forget in my case), new classmates to attempt to nervously make conversation with for a few days. However, in a place like West Dean there has been so much to explore and so many adventures for the students to embark on that all these tasks seemed so effortless.

In between a hectic timetable of inductions we actually managed to get some metalwork done, believe it or not. I made myself a scriber (a pointy piece of metal for marking out other pieces of metal, for those of you like my dad who did not have a clue what I was going on about) and although it is not the best functioning tool, it looks pretty at least. I decided on the most laborious copper wire handle, first stripping the copper from a bunch of plastic-coated electrical cable and then twisting it around itself to use it as my handle. I have already had some experience in metalwork but am more used to blacksmithing and nonchalantly bashing a piece of steel about into numerous useless spirals and twists.

It was not until the third week that the Graduate students were asked to conserve a Victorian cupboard lock each. It took a few hours of cautious analysis, anxious looks and worried glances between my colleagues before actually starting any proper conservation. I have treated all the deep pitted areas of corrosion and the lock now has an antique nutmeg gleam, a thick layer of wax disguising all traces of its rusty past. It also needed a key, which was an easy task with only two simple wards to work around compared to the four or five in my fellow students' locks. These wards are small fixed obstructions inside locks which can prevent a key from entering or turning and fewer of these definitely made my life easier.

We have progressed so far as the problematic padlock project, having to first manufacture padlocks of our own design and then handing them over to be mutilated by our tutor. This part of a conservation exercise of course so that the process of corrosion could be observed, whilst I cried in the corner over the slow decomposition of my laborious efforts. I am sure that he takes no pleasure in corroding our cherished handiwork although I do think he enjoys the authority he has to decay our many hours of hard work. This is followed by many hours of conserving the object to retain its corroded historic surface while restoring its functional integrity.

So far the transition from solely making metal objects to conserving them has been relatively smooth. I have made use of the skills I learnt from my years at university but am beginning to incorporate ideas of conservation ethics. The past few weeks have definitely shown a more concise and more scientific approach to the subject, not only relying on sketchbook work and fabrication but also the study of the history of pieces, the science behind how materials work, and the heritage of these objects and the importance they have in society. It has been useful to already know some manufacturing methods and a basic knowledge of how pieces might be made, but other than that the experience so far has been new and exciting.

I have been overwhelmed with my new surroundings in the beautiful West Sussex countryside, it is the perfect environment to get lots and lots of work done. I am strangely looking forward to the next few painstaking weeks, experiencing the elation of finishing my padlock before being presented with another challenging conservation job...I can't wait.