Conserving a work in the Collection

Dr Susan Tebby, artist and restorer, was at Goldsmith’s School of Art from 1962 where she was a student of Kenneth Martin. In 1965 his artist wife Mary Martin visited Goldsmiths’ and recommended Susan to Kenneth: ‘I’ve found the perfect assistant for you’. Kenneth told her he had to wait until Susan had finished her course at Goldsmiths’. She began working for Kenneth in his studio – approximately two days a week but often more when he had an exhibition coming up. After Kenneth died, she continued to conserve his work – often being called in by museums and institutions to reconstruct works that were required for exhibition. The Government Art Collection (GAC) contacted Susan Tebby in 2011 to work on Mobile Reflector c.1953 by Kenneth Martin. Paul Martin – Kenneth and Mary’s son – came along as her assistant on the project.

Mobiles (1953)

© British Pathé

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Dr Susan Tebby described how looking at Kenneth Martin’s mobiles are like looking at a work in constant progress; they are never the ‘finished thing’. The slightest waft of air causes movement which means that each mobile can never be viewed in the same place twice. Susan looks at Kenneth’s works documented in photographs and tries as far as possible to recreate each one in real space. Clearly, this is a careful balancing act and that relies on each individual element suspended on wire not to rock or collide into each other. She describes how there are certain key pieces – in the GAC mobile it is the aluminium bar and disc at the top of the work – from which she can deduce where other parts go. Looking at this piece, Susan described how over the period of 50 years since it was first made there have been molecular changes to the metal which have caused the aluminium bar to curve under its own weight. To counteract this she has attached a weight to the bar.

On her workbench Susan showed me a series of beautifully preserved old tools – all marked with the patina of age – that used to belong to Kenneth Martin. She has made spares for all of the individual components of the GAC sculpture – a series of ‘S’ shaped loops, wires and hooks that she has carefully catalogued for future use on the mobile.  As with all restoration work, certain elements are no longer easily available. Both Susan and Paul felt that it is important to make obvious the newer elements added to the work rather than pretend that all the parts are original – the wire in Mobile Reflector is more silvery rather than the brown it once was.

Looking in detail at Mobile Reflector there are two basic repeated shapes that Kenneth Martin has used in the work – three coloured cardioids (heart shapes) and several white wedges. Despite the very deliberate and beautiful colour choices – white, yellow, scarlet and a deeper red – Susan was clear that Kenneth had not intended to create meaning by association through his choice of colours. Also in need of conservation, these shapes were recently cleaned which helped to restore the original colours.

When asked if he remembered the original work as a child, Paul Martin described seeing many versions of mobile reflectors at home and in his father’s studio and that he used to blow them to make them go round and round. These mobiles were being constantly modified, and many of the images that exist, including the one shown here, do not have exactly the same configuration of elements. Paul can also remember his father trying one out in the garden but then having to give up when the wind was too strong. Susan, who has worked on just about every mobile reflector piece that Kenneth Martin ever made, was keen to point out how these works were shown on a children’s ward at the Whittington Hospital in London in 1953, as seen in the Pathé newsreel footage above.