Art Technological Source Research

By Ad Stijnman[1]

On March 20th, 2002, a group of ten professional researchers with backgrounds in the fields of art history, conservation science and bibliography for historical art technology met for a one day meeting at the Netherlands Institute for Cultural Heritage in Amsterdam. The meeting was convened by Christoph Krekel and Ad Stijnman and the participants discussed what they would term ‘art technological source research’.[2] The term ‘sources’ then covered such various materials as technical treatises and books with recipes, imposts and artist’s inventories, studio interiors and depictions of tools, construction drawings of machines and plans of workshops, while the art objects themselves were seen as primary sources.

16th century recipe book
Fig. 1: Kunstbüchlin, Frankfurt aM: Egenolff, 1535, Bibliotheek Rijkmuseum, Amsterdam.

As a result, they founded the Art Technological Source Research (ATSR) working group, because the one thing the participants had in common was a close interest in and study of coeval documentation of the technology of any type of art or craft discipline through all times. It was then considered that – although most participants had a certain interest in the conservation of art objects – research of art technological sources could be linked to many other disciplines, for example: art history, the histories of economy, science and technique, and to the modern practices of artists and craftsmen.[3] The working group’s main objective became ‘to be a platform for the exchange and dissemination of information on the subject of sources of art materials and techniques’.

The definition of what these ‘sources’ could be – and consequently what ‘art technological source research’ should comprise – was defined rather in a general manner at the time, as it also included examination of objects and contextual art historical study. This approach caused some confusion about what ATSR stood for and often enough – although many abstracts were promising – resulted in presentations at ATSR meetings that showcased the results of successful art conservation projects that would have been better suited to conferences in the fields of Conservation, Conservation Science or Technical Art History. The actual research of ‘sources’ was then usually limited to a short reference to a historic text, sometimes an image, but often without critical apparatus (no consideration of the source’s deeper meaning and context, or evaluation of the validity of the published transcriptions or translations).

The sixth ATSR symposium Sources on Art Technology: Back to Basics (Amsterdam 2014) therefore focused on the working group’s core business: the art technological sources themselves and their research, less so what could be done with the research results, as was a common theme in preceding symposia. These, on the other hand, had demonstrated that the profound disclosure of sources relates coeval information on art technology to the style and the material condition of art objects, which is important for all further study of such objects, in whatever field.

Instead of an all-encompassing definition of the working group’s activities, it may be better to describe ‘art technological source research’ as: the close study of contemporaneous textual and visual documents which communicate information on art technology of the period under study. Understanding these documents requires variously: language skills, knowledge of palaeography and codicology, an art technological training, some background in science, an interest in art history, an eye for political, religious and social aspects, an understanding of historical weights and measures, etc. In some instances, understanding of sources is greatly enhanced by carrying out reconstructions, ranging from preparing basic recipes to re-enactments and historically accurate reconstructions.

The need for Art Technological Source Research can be illustrated by the progress that has been made in the last decades in the understanding of technical terminology in historical texts. Due to the interdisciplinary perspective and focus that researchers have brought to this field, a growing amount of source material that had long been neglected can now be appreciated and understood, as its specialist vocabulary whose meaning had been lost over time, has been deciphered for modern readers. Without the backgrounds in science, craft, materials and the technology of contemporary objects that is typical of ATSR researchers, the historical terminology for art materials and processes remains opaque, ignored as it is by etymological dictionaries and art historical discussions due to its highly specialised nature. Without testing and reconstruction, the validity and meaning of many sources remained hidden; after recent researches, we can now better distinguish between the practical and the alchemical, the intellectual construct and the workshop note in many cases.

Art Technological Source Research of visual sources is largely pending, however. Although initial progress is made with some dedicated projects researching historic studio interiors any standardisation of this kind of research and definition of visual elements is still in its infancy.

Fig. 2: Catalogue of Charles Roberson & Co, London (c.1900), private collection.

This leaves the question where Art Technological Source Research stands in relation to Art History, Conservation, Conservation Science, Technical Art History and a range of other historical disciplines, as well as modern art making practice. It can be a discipline of its own, but can also form a cornerstone of one of these disciplines, while otherwise one of these can be a cornerstone for ATSR. It will depend on the initial research question and the background of the researcher. While ATSR concentrates on textual and visual sources, the information obtained from it can be applied in yet larger ways, contextualising it to allow us to better understand the materiality of our artistic heritage.

Further Reading

Proceedings of the ATSR working group’s symposia:

M. Clarke, J.H. Townsend and A. Stijnman (eds), Art of the Past: Sources and Reconstructions, London: Archetype Publications, 2005.

S. Kroustallis, J.H. Townsend, E. Cenalmor Bruquetas, A. Stijnman and M. San Andrés Moya (eds), Art Technology: Sources and Methods, London: Archetype Publications, 2008.

E. Hermens and J.H. Townsend (eds), Sources and Serendipity: Testimonies of Artists’ Practice, London: Archetype Publications, 2009.

S. Eyb-Green, J.H. Townsend, M. Clarke, J. Nadolny and S. Kroustallis (eds), The Artist’s Process: Technology and Interpretation, London: Archetype Publications, 2012.

H. Dubois, J.H. Townsend, J.Nadolny, S. Eyb-Green and S. Neven (eds), Making and Transforming Art: Technology and Interpretation, London: Archetype Publications, 2014.

ATSR became an official working group under ICOM-CC in 2008:, and published papers in the proceedings of its Triennials:

J. Bridgland (ed.), Preprints of the ICOM-CC 15th Triennial Meeting, New Delhi: Allied Publishers, 2008, 3–24.

J. Bridgland (ed.), 16th ICOM Committee for Conservation Triennial Meeting, Lisbon, Paris: ICOM-CC, 2011. [CD-ROM]

[1] This text represents my personal view on ATSR and its relation to other disciplines, but I want to acknowledge Jilleen Nadolny for her additional suggestions and discussions.

[2] ‘Kunsttechnologisch bronnenonderzoek’ (Dutch), ‘Kunsttechnologische Quellenforschung’ (German).

[3] A. Stijnman, M. Clarke and J.H. Townsend, ‘Foreword’, in Art of the Past: Sources and Reconstructions, M. Clarke, J.H. Townsend and A. Stijnman (eds), London: Archetype Publications, 2005, v-vii.

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