Samson emerges from 60 layers of paint


In this update, we explore the fascinating Samson conservation work undertaken at Plowden and Smith's conservation studio in London.

Since late 2014, Samson has been worked on by a team, led by conservators Amy Anderson and Loredana Mannina. The conservation process has progressed through a variety of different stages, each with its own revelations and challenges.

Once Samson was delicately removed from his crate, conservators could examine him close up and create a plan of action.

Initial tests soon revealed that underneath the many, thick paint layers, the wood was crumbling and in many areas was as soft as a sponge. The team therefore had to consider how best to consolidate the figure, as sensitively as possible, enabling Samson to be strong enough to display.

The next stage was perhaps the most dramatic, with the removal of 60 layers of paint. Conservators discovered a sizeable gap between the outer core and the inner, which they presumed had been caused by the figure drying out over time indoors. There was now a gap wide enough to fit a pencil into at some points, making it possible to remove much of the paint in fairly large pieces without using toxic and messy paint strippers. This was done rather like removing a plaster cast from a broken leg, by cutting carefully in the right places, in this instance with a hammer and a sharp chisel rather than an electric saw. Latterly, a scalpel was used for the finer work.

Amy remembers, “Work had now begun on removing the paint and what we revealed was really very exciting. Beneath his thick carapace, the carved detail of the face, hair, arms and hands is as fresh and crisp as the day it was carved. Not all of the surface survives, there is still large areas of loss, particularly to his tunic and his chest and his feet which are entirely missing, but what remains shows the true quality of this beautifully carved piece.

Samson is a true body builder with huge biceps, laced with a network of protruding veins. His hair is as thick and luxurious as King Charles the Second’s wig, exuberant with deeply carved, swirling curls. His moustache and beard are delicately carved and on his shoulder, holding the sash in place across his bare torso, is a carving of a rather devilish face. Although there was a long way to go yet with removing all of the paint, particularly in the details, it was now very exciting to see the carved surface of the wood which had not been seen by any human in the last 300 years.”

Forensic tests on the removed paint then revealed how Samson may have been decorated. It was found that there are surviving traces of gilding in several places such as the trimming on his clothes, the buckle of his belt and on the teeth of the ass’s jawbone, suggesting that at some point quite early on in his life, although not in the very beginning, he was partially gilded.

With your help, we will be able to highlight this story and the beautiful details in a bespoke, state of the art display case which will enable Samson to be seen in all his glory once again.

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