Museum Crush

Preserving Salvador Dali’s Lobster Telephone

Salvador Dali, Lobster Telephone, 1936 – West Dean College, part of The Edward James Foundation. © Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, DACS 2017

Adelheid Hansen, student conservator of ceramics and glass at West Dean College of Arts and Conservation, on how to look after one of the most iconic objects in 20th century art: Salvador Dali’s Lobster Telephone

This Lobster Telephone belonged to Edward James, the designer, poet, publisher and patron of surrealist art who founded West Dean College in his former home in Sussex.

James was a friend and admirer of Salvador Dali – as well as Magritte and others – and in the 1930s when Dali didn’t have a lot of money, James agreed to sponsor him for a year on the condition that everything Dali made would be for him.

That’s why the college has the lobster telephone. We also have the famous Mae West lips sofa.

The lobster itself is made of plaster, which is painted. The phone, which was actually a working phone when they started making them, is Bakelite.

Because the phone is quite rare and iconic it travels a lot; every time a museum stages a surrealist exhibition this is one of the things they like to have. But before it goes anywhere it has to be meticulously condition-checked for small hairline cracks and other signs of wear or damage.

Everything gets checked and photographed, which takes hours. Then it gets packed into a custom-made casing. Somebody always travels with it to its exhibition destination.

The same thing happens again when it comes back to us; we check it very carefully. We have photos going back to 2003 and documentation that goes back to 1972, when it first travelled.

Basically you look at all sides very, very carefully without touching it too much because it’s a fragile object, and then you check if there are any small cracks that correspond with the pictures that were taken before. If there is a change you annotate the picture so that the people who come after you can see that again.

We last checked it when it came back from Rotterdam, where it had been in an exhibition, prior to it going out again to the Royal Academy in London for their Dali Duchamp Exhibition.

In Rotterdam they did some small conservation work because there was a crack that had opened up slightly. Of course that’s always in agreement with the owners – and they did a pretty good job. But considering its age the phone is actually in remarkably good condition.

West Dean College, part of The Edward James Foundation  © Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, DACS 2017

But it still took us all afternoon. It sounds crazy, but you have to be meticulous. You look at it while it’s in the case and you have a torch that you shine on it. Then you take it really, really carefully out of the casing which is padded with Tyvek – a material that doesn’t scratch. The lobster receiver is in one hole and the phone is in another, and just taking it out of the casing takes quite a long time.

Then we put it on a table where we start to look at the top, then all of the sides and then at some point we hold it upside down with the utmost care. Every scratch you see you think: ‘is that the same as the other one? Or is it another one at a different angle?’

To be a ceramics and glass conservator you need to be very patient and have really good manual skills, because it’s very fine work. You have to work very clean because if there is any dust on an object you will see that on the break line when you try to adhere shards together. You also have to have good colour sense because we do lots of colour matching and we learn science here as well – you have to know how materials react, how you can get stains removed and how adhesives work.

We also learn about the ethics in conservation because you want to do as little as possible to the original material and we always try to do work that is reversible in case another material is found in the future that’s much better so it can be re-done in a better way.

“There is one story about the time Dali put himself into a deep sea diving suit… and he couldn’t breathe”

I think conservators are now much more inclined to do minimal intervention but there always has to be this balance. You need to ask is the object at risk or not? Intervention will always have some risk attached to it but sometimes the risk is bigger if you don’t do anything.

Nowadays there is more of a tendency towards preventative conservation, which means that you check the relative humidity, you take care that there are no pests and the lighting won’t be damaging. Most museums focus on that much more than actually working on the objects.

An object like the Dali Lobster telephone is so iconic with all kinds of connotations, yet you don’t really think about that when you’re working on it. You really need to be focused – but it does cross your mind what it must have been like here in the 1930s when there were lots of artists at West Dean.

There is one story about the time Dali put himself into a deep sea diving suit with an old fashioned diving helmet for an exhibition. Something went wrong with the breathing pipe and he couldn’t breathe. At first people thought it was part of the performance – but it wasn’t and Edward James got him out just in time. That diving helmet is also at West Dean College.

Adelheid Hansen was speaking to Richard Moss

The Lobster Telephone can be seen in the Royal Academy exhibition: Dali and Duchamp until January 3 2018.

West Dean College of Arts and Conservation is set in West Dean in Sussex in the former home of Edward James. It offers an inspirational setting for focused study, creativity and innovation in conservation and art education. Find out more at www.westdean.org.uk

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