5 min read

Tales from the conservation studio: Weird wax caricatures of Labour politicians

a photo of a wax candle resembling Neil Kinnock

Neil Kinnock. © People’s History Museum

Kloe Rumsey, Conservator at the People’s History Museum in Manchester, gives us the conservator’s view on a series of wax caricatures that came out of the stores for the museum’s new exhibition on political caricatures, Savage Ink

We have some strange things in the collection, I don’t know if these are the strangest, but I think they’re pretty high up on the list of strange things.

They’re all wax candles, representing labour politicians of the 1980s; Neil Kinnock, Tony Benn, Dennis Healy, Roy Jenkins and Michael Foot. They are of different colours with a wick protruding from the top of the head, so in theory you could burn them if you were so inclined. Obviously that’s not the attitude that we would have in the museum.

The records on them aren’t actually that comprehensive but what we do know is that the artist is John Somerville, who is known for bronzes and for representations of famous people in different media and sizes. I believe he also produced a Margaret Thatcher candle, but I’ve not seen anything like them before. I suppose when it comes to artists’ works – that’s when things do tend to get quite unusual.

We have an interesting collection of caricatures here at the People’s History Museum but it’s always good in an exhibition like Savage Ink to have an element of 3-dimensional objects even if the majority is 2-D. And these are a particularly good example because as well as being a caricature from a known artist they are odd yet functional objects, so when the curator of the Savage Ink exhibition was interested in using them, I was asked to assess them.

a photo of a wax candle of a politician holding a bottle of wine

Roy Jenkins © People’s History Museum

a picture of a wax candle resembling Tony Benn

Tony Benn © People’s History Museum

Assessing them means checking their structural condition, the amount of time necessary to make them fit for display and whether they would be safe as objects? Will their condition worsen over time because they’ve been on display? And how cared for do they look? Are they grubby or covered in dust? Or are bits falling off them? My initial assessment of them was that they would be fine.

The wax was generally all in good condition but Roy Jenkins, who is holding a bottle of wine, had an interesting amount of crystallisation on some surfaces. It seems like in the past he might have been stored in conditions that were possibly too warm or too damp which caused a component of the wax to crystallise on the surface.

“Tony Benn had a marked lean – not to the left, sadly…”

Neil Kinnock was a particularly grubby one so I used cosmetic sponges, which have been tested by the British Museum for their stability, to surface clean the painted surface – it’s always good to make sure that none of the colour is actually coming off in the cleaning.

Tony Benn had a marked lean, not to the left sadly, but forwards. It was quite an exaggerated lean making him less secure than the others, so he wobbled a tiny bit. I had to make sure there wasn’t too much wobble when they went into the cases, because if it’s a sprung or bouncy floor it can cause problems with objects later on, especially if there’s too much foot traffic or people jumping up and down next to the cases.

But in conservation terms wax is much more stable than some modern materials like rubbers and tapes and things like that, which are inherently unstable.

a photo of a wax candle resembling Dennis Healy

Dennis Healy. © People’s History Museum

As well as the odd things that you see like the caricature candles, there’s a lolly in one of the boxes – and balloons and plastics in general as well as adhesive tapes – that kind of thing. It is extremely problematic to keep that kind of object from deteriorating and sometimes it is a case of trying to prolong their life for as long as possible.

But when it comes to wax there is quite a lot of study in the conservation community of painted and coloured wax – partly because of the number of medical wax models you get in museum collections.

It’s actually really interesting to be researching the care of 20th century caricature candles by using the studies that people have done on 19th century medical models. Conservation is quite a small close-knit discipline, so you can just text a friend and say “so I have this, and it’s weird.” It’s a very nice giving community.

At the People’s History Museum we are trying to outreach more and communicate with people about what we do in conservation. We are a world-renowned lab for textile conservation and there is a vast array of different types of things that could be considered as textiles.

Even if we were just talking about banner conservation (our collection of political banners dates from the early 1800s to the present day) – it can involve anything from working on painted silk to high pile velvet to plastics and all sorts of things. We also work on external commissions, assess new acquisitions and the museum’s annual banner changeover is a substantial amount of work taking up three months of the year.

a photo of a box with candles in it

The candles in their box – with a couple of ornamental pipes. © people’s History Museum

As well as the banners there’s the memorabilia and clothing from particular movements or demonstrations or events and we have a really fantastic collection of printed material including posters from all eras.

One of the things I like best about this collection is the huge variety of different materials and the different ways that people have used materials in politics either as amateurs or as professionals. I think sometimes objects just strike a chord, and I’m fascinated by the collection and its weird twists and turns.

Some conservators might be interested more in the fabric of the object itself, but with social history it’s almost impossible to look at the object divorced from its provenance and history and when you’ve worked on them for so long it can be very affecting to see objects on display. It’s not that they take on a power; it’s more that they are complete, in their right place and ready to be viewed.

As for the wax candles, when the exhibition is finished in May 2018 they will go back into their box, the box will go back into their environmentally controlled store and the database will be updated… until next time.

Kloe Rumsey was speaking to Richard Moss

Savage Ink: The Cartoon & The Caricature is at The People’s History Museum until May 13 2018.

For more on the Museum’s Conservation Studio see www.phm.org.uk/our-collection/textile-conservation-studio/


People's History Museum

Manchester, Greater Manchester

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