The laser cleaning of Anna Hyatt Huntington’s aluminum sculpture “The Torch Bearers”

Michael Barrett, Andrew Baxter, Mark Lewis, and Scott Nolley

Abstract

A prolific and innovative American sculptor, Anna Hyatt Huntington (1876-1973) was noted for her large equestrian statues. With her husband, Archer Huntington, the artist helped found 20 museums and wildlife preserves as well as America’s first sculpture garden, Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina.

The second cast of Anna Hyatt Huntington’s The Torch Bearers, the artist’s sculptural symbol of Enlightenment ideals and the effort required for their preservation, was gifted to the city of Norfolk Virginia in 1956. In the letter offering the large multi-figure work to Norfolk, Huntington cited her late husband’s long affiliation with Hampton Roads and that his father Collis P. Huntington had founded the Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company.

Fabricated from an aluminum alloy, located outdoors in close proximity to coal yards, industrial facilities, and shipyards and located a few hundred feet from the brackish tidal inlets of the city, the sculpture, cast in this highly reactive metal, had succumbed to continuous exposure in this aggressive environment. The once luminous, “lunar” luster of the sculpture’s burnished surface had overtime acquired a substantial accumulation of chemically complex corrosion products that obscured delicate surface detail and tool marks typical to this artist’s work. It was considered necessary to reduce these accumulations – layers of substantial thickness that threatened the long-term stability of the form and that remained largely unaffected by reasonable and traditional techniques for surface treatment of the soft aluminum casting.

A QuantelTM Nd:YAG Q-switched laser (Laserblast 60) was employed in the effective and controlled reduction of the layers of corrosion products with considerable success. This presentation will provide a brief historical overview of the artist’s aluminum castings and laser technology as it has been employed in the treatment of metal sculpture, a short explanation of the unique reactivity and complex corrosion chemistry of aluminum when employed as an outdoor sculpture material and the specific methods development and treatment procedures carried out on this particular work.