It would have taken days, weeks even, to reach South America. Then followed a journey on horseback into the Mexican jungle to work in searing heat, all the while battling fever and bites from numerous insects.
This is something of what Adela Breton, the Victorian artist and explorer, describes about her travels to ancient Mexico in two exhibitions currently on show. The first, at the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institute (BRLSI) looks at Breton’s personal life and her experiences working at the Mayan ruins.
Growing up in Bath, Breton began donating objects and works to the institute following her trips to Central America. Some of these are on display along with a timeline of her working life displayed on panels in the foyer of the institute.
One of the most interesting things are copies of her sketchbooks, which feature watercolours of the surrounding landscapes and people of Mexico as well as photos that give a real flavour of life in some of the towns and villages during that period.
The second exhibition at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery looks at Breton’s artistic practice. It’s on a somewhat grander scale, showcasing some of the huge tracings and paintings she produced while visiting the ruins.
The exhibition is the culmination of a much larger project to conserve, store and digitise the collection of her works. Breton began passing on her findings and works to the museum after the BRLSI could no longer provide the space to look after them. Bristol’s collection stands at over 1400 items and prior to the exhibition, the conservation team spent four years restoring and preserving the huge range of artworks.
Harry Metcalf, Paper Conservator at the museum, was involved in the project and says how the process gave them an insight into Breton – the artist.
“What’s interesting is that she used a variety of methods to record the decoration and carvings, including prints, watercolours, sketches and notes. This has enabled us to understand how she went about working at the sites and the techniques that she used.”
Many clues are visible in the works such as various cuts she made in the paper, which Harry believes were done to create a ‘flap’ that she could lift up to view the wall beneath her drawings. The cuts were then sealed with brown paper tape which discoloured over time. The conservators left it in place however, as it gives a valuable indication to how Breton worked.
There are also many sections that have been left blank, leading curators to believe that she wanted to remain true to what she was copying where detail had already been eroded or damaged. This highlights how crucial her work was in capturing the details of the remains before some of them were lost forever.
“One of the most important aspects of her work is that very little of the original colour exists so this collection is supposedly now the most comprehensive record of how they would have looked at the turn of the 20th century.”
Mounting the pieces proved quite a challenge as Breton worked exactly to scale. Harry used a technique called strip-lining, where pieces of a Japanese paper were used to attach the edges of the drawings to a rigid backing board.Using a conventional picture frame would have added too much weight for them to be moved and would also have caused problems in displaying matching sections of paintings.
One piece consists of four sections and there wasn’t enough space in the gallery to display them one on top of the other. But the team were still able to hang two pairs close enough so that visitors can see where the details join up.
“It’s not often that works of this size are put on display. It’s a great opportunity for people to come and view these extraordinary works and learn about the life of a remarkable person.”
Part of this article together with pictures of the conservation project can be seen on the website of Bristol Museum & Art Gallery.