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Stanford Humanities Center International Visitor Q&A: Spike Bucklow

Spike Bucklow is the Senior Research Scientist at the Hamilton Kerr Institute, Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge. In February and March of 2016, Bucklow was the Ruth Garland Bowes International Visitor at the Stanford Humanities Center, having been nominated by the Department of Art and Art History.
 
During his visit, Bucklow gave a seminar in History and Philosophy of Science, a lecture in Art History, a lab session in the Cantor Museum and a public talk in the McMurtry building. He also had one-to-one sessions with students from Art History, History and Philosophy of Science, and Philosophy.
 
After earning a degree was in chemistry, Bucklow’s interest in art led him to formulate materials and make special effects for television and film, including Star Wars and Indiana Jones. With the advent of CGI, he retrained as a painting conservator and completed his PhD supervised by John Gage at University of Cambridge.
 
Since then he has been involved in the restoration (and documentation) of important 13- and 14-century paintings including the Thornham Parva Retable (2004) and Westminster Retable (2009). As a result of immersion in the technicalities of medieval painting he became interested in pre-modern cultural relationships with the material world, leading to The Alchemy of Paint (Marion Boyars, 2009) and The Riddle of the Image (University of Chicago Press, 2014). He has just completed a book entitled Red, the art and science of a colour (2016). Bucklow has just embarked on a project centered on a large seventeenth-century still-life painted in England during the Anglo-Dutch wars. The Dutch painter's identity is unknown but the patron was Sir Robert Paston, politician, founding Fellow of the Royal Society and friend of Sir Thomas Browne. The painting will be explored for evidence about attitudes to, and circulation of, material goods in the early-modern world.
 
Here, Bucklow gives us some insight into his research. 
 
What is the focus of your current research?
The research I am undertaking at Stanford Humanities Center is focused on a large seventeenth-century still life painting. The artist is unknown but the patron was Sir Robert Paston, 1st Earl of Yarmouth, and the subject of the painting, the Paston Treasure, is a selection of treasures from his family collection. It depicts, amongst other things, cups made from nautilus shells and ostrich eggs, musical instruments, time-pieces, exotic food, a globe (turned to show Mexico, America, the Pacific and China), a servant, young girl, a monkey, and a parrot. It is a unique portrait of a cabinet of curiosities.
 
What drew you to The Paston Treasure painting?
I work as a scientist in a painting conservation studio and saw, or worked on, the Paston Treasure every day for five years.  I was first drawn to it because it looked so strange. Technically, the painting was very skillfully executed but its composition seemed confused – it has some aspects that conform to single-point perspective (as one would expect) but other aspects that are more tabular and diagrammatic. The overall effect is rather disturbing and more like a cut-and-paste collage than an Old Master oil painting. I started to investigate its background and became interested in the patron, a member of the nobility, a minor post-Civil War politician, and a virtuoso. One of his family treasures was a collection of letters that went back about ten generations to a fourteenth century peasant farmer. These letters now form the oldest surviving domestic correspondence in the English language and are a famous resource for studies of life in fifteenth-century England. The painting therefore offers a visual summary of the accumulation of significant wealth over an extended period. However, in the wake of the Civil War, Sir Robert was under considerable financial pressures and, at the time of painting, items were being auctioned off. The painting therefore also offers a visual record of loss. Together, these factors made me want to study the painting in terms of the circulation of goods at the dawn of the modern world.
 
In your view why is it valuable to study this type of painting?
The painting is a product of early modern Europe. It was executed in a time and place that was undergoing revolutionary technological and social change. It embodies ideas that were formative for today’s global world, which is of course also undergoing revolutionary technological and social change. Many of the patterns of acquisition, loss, and circulation of goods that are current today were established as Sir Robert’s treasures flowed into, then out of, his home in Norfolk. The painting is a snapshot of world trade after the establishment of Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch empires and before the establishment of the British empire. My approach to this topic is through the lens of ‘material culture’ and the painting allows materials – the raw materials of painting and decorative arts, as well as the crafted products themselves – to be approached from the point of view of various cultures. The relevant cultures are those of the producers, mainly in the New World and Asia, as well as two quite distinct European cultures, the late medieval and the early modern. A slightly peripheral, post-Civil War object like the Paston Treasure provides a vantage point for numerous perspectives. Its value in this respect has been recognized by the Yale Center for British Art, which is organizing a multi-venue exhibition on the painting for 2018. (Discussions are currently in train about whether the painting will travel from Yale to Stanford as part of this program.)
 
How do you conduct your research?
Before coming to Stanford I had already undertaken research on the painting itself, using various analytical scientific techniques, in order to identify its material components. The results of that research would, on their own, be a rather dry laundry-list of found objects, metals, pigments, and media. The most important aspect of my research is to put those materials in context, and that is exactly what time at the Humanities Center has allowed me to start. I am using the University’s excellent libraries to contextualize a variety of Sir Robert’s things and materials – from Pacific Ocean shells, through Mexican cochineal, to Andean silver, and more. I have also enjoyed many discussions with members of several faculties who have enthusiastically embraced the interdisciplinary nature of a ‘material culture’ approach to an intellectually challenging work of art.
 
What would people be surprised to learn about your research?
Sir Robert was a Cambridge-educated founding member of the Royal Society and his correspondence with a network of natural philosophers shows him to have had an active interest in the ‘new science’ that was emerging in the 1670s. On the other hand, letters with his friend, neighbor, and family doctor Sir Thomas Browne show a sustained interest in the ‘old science’ that was waning through the seventeenth century. True to this ‘foot in both camps,’ at the time the painting was taking shape somewhere in Sir Robert’s Norfolk house, he employed an alchemical assistant to help him make the Philosophers’ Stone to provide a way out of his financial difficulties. The fate of his collection, house , and family suggest that he was not successful.