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In the scholarly study of paintings and other artworks, research topics such as:

  1. an artist’s creative process and influences;
  2. the historical development in artists’ materials and techniques or
  3. the current condition of the object, can be investigated by the chemical analysis of small micro-samples, physically removed from the artefact of interest.

The samples will often contain organic materials, generally natural products such as oils, waxes, resins and proteins, all of which have the potential to profoundly influence the appearance of a work, its current condition and its response during conservation treatments. They may be original components, such as paint constituents (the binder, colorant or other additives, for example) or non-original materials (such as repairs or later retouchings, varnishes or other surface coatings). They are typically very small and only a limited number are normally taken, so it is essential to extract as much information as possible from each unique sample.

However, the analysis of organic components within samples remains challenging for a number of reasons. There have been a number of recent technological advances in mass spectrometry that offer substantial advantages over the current instrumentation typically used by heritage scientists.

Through the collaboration with Bristol, this project will evaluate the use of a number of these cutting-edge mass spectrometry techniques to improve our ability to analyse organic materials within small, heterogeneous samples from paintings or other cultural heritage artefacts in order to answer the broader art historical and conservation-related questions.

It is anticipated that this project will result in an enhanced ability to;

  1. securely identify organic constituents, leading to much better characterisation of the organic material(s) within samples,
  2. detect low-levels of organic constituents, thus making it more likely that even small amounts of organic material(s) within a sample will be detected and characterised and,
  3. identify alteration products produced during processing or ageing, thus increasing the likelihood of gaining new insights into ancient or historic technologies or the complex degradation processes that occur over time.