Nigel Williams (conservator)

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Nigel Williams
Black and white photograph of Nigel Williams with the Portland Vase, and an 1845 watercolour by Thomas H. Shepherd showing the shattered fragments
Nigel Williams with his restoration of the Portland Vase, copying a pose struck by the original restorer, John Doubleday; an 1845 watercolour by Thomas H. Shepherd shows the shattered fragments.[1][2][3]
Born Nigel Ruben Rook Williams
(1944-07-15)July 15, 1944
Surrey, England
Died April 21, 1992(1992-04-21) (aged 47)
Aqaba, Jordan
Nationality English
Occupation Conservator
Years active 1961–1992
Known for Reconstructing the Sutton Hoo helmet and Portland Vase

Nigel Ruben Rook Williams (15 July 1944 – 21 April 1992) was a British conservator and expert on the restoration of ceramics and glass. From 1961 until his death he worked at the British Museum, taking the position of Chief Conservator of Ceramics and Glass in 1983. There his work notably included the successful restorations of the Sutton Hoo helmet[4][5] and Portland Vase, in addition to more minor achievements.[6][7]

Joining as an assistant at age 16, Williams spent his entire career, and most of his life, at the British Museum. He was one of the first people to study conservation, not yet recognised as a profession, and from an early age was given responsibility over high-profile objects. In the 1960s he assisted with the re-excavation of the Sutton Hoo ship-burial, and in his early- to mid-twenties he conserved many of the objects found therein: most notably the Sutton Hoo helmet, which occupied a year of his time. Other objects, including the shield, drinking horns and maplewood bottles were likewise reconstructed.

The "abiding passion of his life" was ceramics,[6] and the 1970s and 1980s gave Williams ample opportunities in that field. After nearly 31,000 fragments of shattered Greek vessels were found in 1974 amidst the wreck of the HMS Colossus, Williams set to work piecing them together. The process was televised, "transform[ing] him into a television personality."[8] A decade later, in 1988 and 1989, Williams "crowned his career" by taking to pieces the Portland Vase,[9] "probably the most famous glass object in the world",[10] and putting it back together. The reconstruction was again televised for a BBC programme, and as with the Sutton Hoo helmet, took nearly a year to complete.

Williams died at age 47 of a heart attack while in Aqaba, Jordan, where he was working on a British Museum excavation. The Ceramics & Glass group of the Institute of Conservation awards a bi-annual prize in his honour, recognising his significant contributions to the field of conservation.

Early years

Nigel Williams was born on 15 July 1944 in Surrey, England. His schooling was "unlucky",[9] interrupted by rheumatic fever and slowed by dyslexia.[6][9] Williams went on to study silversmithing and metal design at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, before being recruited in 1961 to work as an assistant for the Department of British and Medieval Antiquities at the British Museum.[6][9] "Conservation" was not a recognized profession at the time,[6][9] and Williams became only the second member of the museum to study the field in a three-year part-time program at the London University of Archaeology.[9]

At the British Museum

After joining the British Museum in 1961 and studying conservation, Williams worked on "all types of antiquities".[6] He conserved metals (including clocks and watches), glass, stone, ivory, wood, and various other organic materials,[6][9] yet more than anything he worked with ceramics, which became "the abiding passion of his life."[6] Williams also proved "particularly adept" at working with archaeological finds, and among other tasks saw to the lifting of a Roman mosaic and a medieval tile kiln from the ground.[9] The highlights of his professional life came at the beginning and the end, with his reconstructions of the Sutton Hoo helmet and the Portland Vase.[6][11] Between these achievements Williams was also known for piecing together the nearly 31,000 fragments of Greek vases found in the wreck of the HMS Colossus.[6]

Sutton Hoo

The first major success for Williams came during the re-excavation of the Sutton Hoo ship-burial from 1965–1970.[6][12] In 1966 he was appointed the conservator of the Sutton Hoo finds,[9] and in the summer of 1967 he helped with the moulding of the ship impression.[6][9][13][14] The following summer the casts were reassembled in a warehouse and a fiberglass replica made[6][9][15] — "a process which was more dangerous than was realised at the time and which left Williams with a permanent allergy to styrene."[6]

As the re-excavation at Sutton Hoo reached its conclusion and with problems apparent in the reconstructions of several of the finds, in 1968 Williams was put in charge of a team tasked with their continued conservation.[6] In this capacity he conserved a "very large number of objects,"[9] chiefly among them the helmet, shield, drinking horns, bottles, tubs, and buckets.[16][6] The Sutton Hoo helmet was his "pièce de résistance";[6][9] "the most iconic object" from "one of the most spectacular archaeological discoveries ever made",[17][18] it had previously been restored in 1945–46 by Herbert Maryon.[19] Taking this reconstruction to pieces, from 1970 to 1971 Williams spent eighteen months of time and a full year of work rearranging the more than 500 fragments.[5][20] No photographs of the fragments in situ had been taken during the original excavation in 1939, nor were their relative positions recorded.[21] The task for Williams "was thus reduced to a jigsaw puzzle without any sort of picture on the lid of the box",[21] and, "as it proved, a great many of the pieces missing".[22] Unveiled on 2 November 1971,[23] the new reconstruction was "universally acclaimed".[6] It was published the following year by Rupert Bruce-Mitford,[4] and posthumously by Williams in 1992.[5]

HMS Colossus

In a precursor to the work he would do on the Portland Vase, the 1970s saw Nigel Williams reconstructing fragments of smashed Greek vases.[6] The 1798 sinking of the HMS Colossus had taken with it part of SIr William Hamilton's second vase collection, where it lay smashed for the next 200 years.[24] A salvage operation following the wreck's 1974 discovery unearthed some 30,935 fragments,[25] and when acquired by the British Museum Williams set to work reconstructing them.[6] This endeavour was aided by eighteenth century drawings of the vases by Tischbein, and shown on television, where the "natural"[6] talent of Williams "transformed him into a television personality."[8] "He worked as if he were alone, and many people remember the moment in the resulting Chronicle programme when he uttered a four-letter word as one of his partially-completed restorations fell apart before the cameras."[6] In 1978 Williams and his team restored seven vases, in whole or in part, for an exhibition at the museum in conjunction with the 11th International Congress of Classical Archaeology.[26] Beyond that too little generally survived to completely reconstruct the surviving vases, although ultimately 115 individual examples were identified.[26]

Portland Vase

The crowning achievement to the career of Williams was his 1988–1989 restoration of the Portland Vase.[9] "[P]robably the most famous glass object in the world", the vase is "a masterpiece of Roman cameo glass."[10] First known to have been sighted in 1600–1601,[27] the vase is dated "to the decade 30–20 B.C., or very soon afterward."[28] After being on display in the British Museum since 1810,[29] it was intentionally smashed in 1845 by a young man[30] who admitted to "indulging in intemperance for a week before".[31] It was restored the same year by John Doubleday,[32] and then again in 1948–49 by J. W. R. Axtell.[33] By 1988 the adhesive used was "very yellow and brittle, with poor adhesion",[34] and Williams, who five years earlier had been made Chief Conservator of Ceramics and Glass,[6] was tasked alongside his assistant, Sandra Smith, with restoring the vase for a third time.[34][6][35]

The restoration of the vase began in June 1988,[36] and was filmed by the BBC History and Archaeology Unit.[37] Deconstruction of the vase was achieved by wrapping it inside and out with blotting paper and letting it sit in a glass desiccator injected with solvents for three days, at the end of which it was separated into 189 pieces.[38] After removing the remnants of the old adhesive[39] and cleaning the fragments,[40] an epoxy adhesive, Hxtal NYL, was used in conjunction with an acrylic resin to join the pieces.[41] Although efforts were made to avoid "trap-outs", where the placing of a fragment prevents the next from fitting in,[40] Williams and Smith left for Christmas in 1988 "not knowing whether they would be able to fit the last few shards without having to dismantle six months' work."[6] These fears proved unfounded; "[a]fter several weeks of assembling and reassembling the top half of the Vase, the final fragment of rim dropped in and fitted perfectly."[42] At the end of nine months' work, only 17 minuscule fragments remained unplaced,[42] rather than the 34 that were omitted from the previous restoration.[43] After filling in the cracks with coloured resin,[44] Williams gave his verdict: "It's OK... ruined my Christmas."[45]

Personal life

For 20 years Williams lived with his partner Myrtle Bruce-Mitford,[46][47][48] a professional cellist[46] and the daughter of his colleague Rupert Bruce-Mitford.[49] The two met in 1964.[46] She herself contributed to the Sutton Hoo finds, being employed by the British Museum to work on the remnants of the lyre and co-authoring a paper with her father.[50] She additionally revised and published the second edition of Williams's text Porcelain: Repair and Restoration,[51] which he had been working on at the time of his death.[6] Williams and Bruce-Mitford had a daughter together, Matty, who was born in 1976 or 1977.[46]

Death and legacy

Nigel Williams died of a heart attack on 21 April 1992, at the age of 47.[6][9] He had recently arrived[52] in Aqaba, Jordan,[6][9] and was taking a break on the beach from his work as the on-site conservator for a British Museum excavation at Tell es-Sa'idiyeh.[47] Though his death came "too soon," Williams "made a great contribution to the art and science of conservation, to the archaeological record and to the preservation of great collections, and above all to the public's appreciation and understanding of the past."[8] The Ceramics & Glass group of the Institute of Conservation awards the bi-annual Nigel Williams Prize "both as a memorial to Nigel’s work and to encourage continuing high standards at all levels within the profession."[7] Noting the dramatic highlights of Williams's career, and "that for most conservators today the opportunities to conserve or restore high-profile objects such as the Portland Vase are rare", the Institute awards the prize "as much in a spirit of encouragement as in that of healthy competition, recognising the value of consistent and day-to-day professional practice."[7] The three-member judging panel is headed by Sandra Smith,[7] who restored the Portland Vase with Williams while at the British Museum; along with the £1,000 awarded to the winner comes a "virtual" copy of a gilded replica of the vase, the original copy of which was donated by Wedgwood.[7][53]


  1. ^ British Museum 1.
  2. ^ British Museum 2.
  3. ^ Williams 1989, pp. 6–7.
  4. ^ a b Bruce-Mitford 1972.
  5. ^ a b c Williams 1992.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab Oddy 1992.
  7. ^ a b c d e Icon.
  8. ^ a b c Painter 1993, p. 159.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Painter 1993, p. 158.
  10. ^ a b Journal of Glass Studies Foreword 1990, p. 12.
  11. ^ Painter 1993, pp. 158–159.
  12. ^ Bruce-Mitford 1975, p. 230.
  13. ^ Bruce-Mitford 1975, p. 301.
  14. ^ Maslin 2011, p. 7.
  15. ^ Bruce-Mitford 1975, p. 284.
  16. ^ Bruce-Mitford 1979, p. 35.
  17. ^ Davis 2013.
  18. ^ Google Arts & Culture.
  19. ^ Maryon 1947.
  20. ^ Bruce-Mitford 1972, p. 123.
  21. ^ a b Bruce-Mitford 1972, p. 120.
  22. ^ Bruce-Mitford 1978, p. 140.
  23. ^ Marzinzik 2007, p. 28.
  24. ^ Woodford 2001.
  25. ^ Smallwood & Woodford 2003, p. 26 n.107.
  26. ^ a b Smallwood & Woodford 2003, p. 20.
  27. ^ Painter & Whitehouse 1990a, p. 24.
  28. ^ Painter & Whitehouse 1990b, p. 123.
  29. ^ Painter & Whitehouse 1990a, p. 62.
  30. ^ Painter & Whitehouse 1990a, pp. 62–68.
  31. ^ Painter & Whitehouse 1990a, p. 65.
  32. ^ Painter & Whitehouse 1990a, pp. 69–71.
  33. ^ Painter & Whitehouse 1990a, pp. 82–84.
  34. ^ a b Painter & Whitehouse 1990a, p. 84.
  35. ^ Oddy & Cook 1989.
  36. ^ Williams 1989, p. 6.
  37. ^ Williams 1989, p. 5.
  38. ^ Williams 1989, pp. 8–10.
  39. ^ Williams 1989, p. 10.
  40. ^ a b Williams 1989, p. 15.
  41. ^ Williams 1989, pp. 6, 16.
  42. ^ a b Williams 1989, p. 19.
  43. ^ Painter & Whitehouse 1990a, p. 83.
  44. ^ Williams 1989, p. 21.
  45. ^ White 1989.
  46. ^ a b c d Kennedy 1992, p. 33.
  47. ^ a b Oddy 2002.
  48. ^ Pile 2010.
  49. ^ Biddle 2015, p. 75.
  50. ^ Bruce-Mitford & Bruce-Mitford 1970.
  51. ^ Williams, Hogan & Bruce-Mitford 2002.
  52. ^ Tubb & Dorrell 1993, p. 50.
  53. ^ Swift 2009, p. 16.

Works by Williams

  • Williams, Nigel (1980). "Pottery restoration: An account of spinning technique used in the British Museum". The Conservator. Institute of Conservation. 4 (1): 34–37. doi:10.1080/01410096.1980.9994936. 
  • Williams, Nigel (1983). Porcelain: Repair and Restoration (1st ed.). London: British Museum Publications. ISBN 9780714180519. 
  • Williams, Nigel (1988). "Ancient Methods of Repairing Pottery and Porcelain". In Daniels, Vincent. Early Advances in Conservation. British Museum Occasional Paper. 65. London: British Museum. pp. 147–149. 
  • Williams, Nigel (1989). The Breaking and Remaking of the Portland Vase. London: British Museum Publications. ISBN 0-7141-1291-7. 
  • Williams, Nigel (1992). "The Sutton Hoo Helmet". In Oddy, William Andrew. The Art of the Conservator. London: British Museum Press. pp. 73–88. ISBN 9780714120560. 
  • Williams, Nigel; Hogan, Loretta & Bruce-Mitford, Myrtle (2002). Porcelain: Repair and Restoration (2nd ed.). Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 9780812237030. 


  • Biddle, Martin (3 December 2015). "Rupert Leo Scott Bruce-Mitford: 1914–1994" (PDF). Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the British Academy. British Academy. XIV: 58–86. Retrieved 25 November 2016. 
  • Bruce-Mitford, Rupert & Bruce-Mitford, Myrtle (March 1970). "The Sutton Hoo Lyre, Beowulf, and the Origins of the Frame Harp". Antiquity. XLIV (173): 7–13. doi:10.1017/S0003598X00040916. 
  • Bruce-Mitford, Rupert (Autumn 1972). "The Sutton Hoo Helmet: A New Reconstruction". The British Museum Quarterly. British Museum. XXXVI (3–4): 120–30. JSTOR 4423116. 
  • Bruce-Mitford, Rupert (1975). The Sutton Hoo Ship-Burial, Volume 1: Excavations, Background, the Ship, Dating and Inventory. London: British Museum Publications. ISBN 0-7141-1334-4. 
  • Bruce-Mitford, Rupert (1978). The Sutton Hoo Ship-Burial, Volume 2: Arms, Armour and Regalia. London: British Museum Publications. ISBN 978-0-7141-1331-9. 
  • Bruce-Mitford, Rupert (1979). The Sutton Hoo Ship-Burial: Reflections after thirty years. University of York Medieval Monograph Series. 2. York: William Sessions. ISBN 0-900657-46-4. 
  • Davis, James (25 June 2013). "From Sutton Hoo to the soccer pitch: culture with a click". Google Blog. Google. Retrieved 28 August 2017.  open access publication – free to read
  • "Foreword". Journal of Glass Studies. Corning Museum of Glass. 32: 12. 1990. JSTOR 24188027. 
  • Kennedy, Dominic (9 April 1992). "Take Two Girls". Daily Mail (29800). London. pp. 29, 33. Retrieved 16 August 2017. 
  • Maryon, Herbert (September 1947). "The Sutton Hoo Helmet". Antiquity. XXI (83): 137–144. doi:10.1017/S0003598X00016598.  closed access publication – behind paywall
  • Marzinzik, Sonja (2007). The Sutton Hoo Helmet. London: British Museum Press. ISBN 978-0-7141-2325-7. 
  • Maslin, Nigel (July 2011). "Benjamin Britten and other visitors" (PDF). Saxon (53): 6–7. Retrieved 19 December 2016. 
  • "Nigel Williams Prize". The Institute of Conservation. Retrieved 15 August 2017. 
  • Oddy, Andrew & Cook, Brian Francis (1989). "Preface". In Williams, Nigel. The Breaking and Remaking of the Portland Vase. London: British Museum Publications. p. 4. ISBN 0-7141-1291-7. 
  • Oddy, Andrew (25 April 1992). "Obituary: Nigel Williams". The Independent. London. p. 34. 
  • Oddy, Andrew (2002). "Foreword". In Williams, Nigel; Hogan, Loretta & Bruce-Mitford, Myrtle. Porcelain: Repair and Restoration (2nd ed.). Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 6. ISBN 9780812237030. 
  • Painter, Kenneth & Whitehouse, David (1990a). "The History of the Portland Vase". Journal of Glass Studies. Corning Museum of Glass. 32: 24–84. JSTOR 24188030. 
  • Painter, Kenneth & Whitehouse, David (1990b). "Style, Date, and Place of Manufacture". Journal of Glass Studies. Corning Museum of Glass. 32: 122–125. JSTOR 24188036. 
  • Painter, Kenneth (1993). "Nigel Williams (1944–1992)". Journal of Glass Studies. Corning Museum of Glass. 35: 158–159. JSTOR 24191075. 
  • Pile, Ronald (September 2010). "The Nigel Williams Prize" (PDF). Icon News. Institute of Conservation (30): 14. ISSN 1749-8988. Retrieved 16 August 2017. 
  • "The Portland Vase". The British Museum Collection Online. The British Museum. Retrieved 23 December 2016. 
  • "The Portland Vase Disc". The British Museum Collection Online. The British Museum. Retrieved 23 December 2016. 
  • Smallwood, Valerie & Woodford, Susan (2003). Fragments from Sir William Hamilton's Second Collection of Vases Recovered from the Wreck of HMS Colossus. Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum: British Museum. 10. London: British Museum Press. ISBN 0-7141-2236-X. 
  • "Sutton Hoo: Anglo-Saxon ship burial". Google Arts & Culture. Google Cultural Institute. Retrieved 16 December 2016.  open access publication – free to read
  • Swift, Rachel (January 2009). "Nigel Williams Prize 2008" (PDF). Icon News. Institute of Conservation (20): 15–16. ISSN 1749-8988. Retrieved 16 August 2017. 
  • Tubb, Jonathan N. & Dorrell, Peter G. (1993). "Tell Es-Saidiyeh: Interim Report on the Sixth Season of Excavations". Palestine Exploration Quarterly. Palestine Exploration Fund. 125 (1): 50–74. doi:10.1179/peq.1993.125.1.50. 
  • White, Roland (23 June 1989). "Original Sinclair". Punch. No. 6766. London. p. 45. Retrieved 18 August 2017. 
  • Woodford, Susan (Winter 2001). "Tischbein and the Fragments of Vases Recovered from HMS Colossus". Notes in the History of Art. The University of Chicago Press. XX (2): 1–7. JSTOR 23206797. 
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