by Sue Giles, Senior Curator of World Cultures
The Adela Breton collection is one of the treasures of the museum’s collections. Why are copies of old wall paintings on what looks like lining paper so interesting and important? That question takes a while to answer properly.
Adela Breton was brought up in Bath, the eldest child and only daughter of a Naval family. She had the usual Victorian education for a girl of her class, including painting and music, but she was also educated by her father: she said that she inherited her interest in history from him, and they were both interested in geology. Her father, or her Army brother Harry, taught her to survey and map a site, a skill very useful amongst the Mexican ruins.
When her father died in 1887, she was left an inheritance that allowed her to do what she wanted. And that was to travel.
We don’t know why she went to Mexico, but from her first visit in 1892 she was in love with the country, and returned year after year. She came to know the country and the archaeological sites very well. Being keenly interested in archaeology, she soon came to know the many archaeologists working there, who were discovering lost buildings and cities, and surveying the ruins.
How she met them, we don’t know, nor why Alfred Maudslay thought she could carry out the task he suggested, of copying the wall paintings in a temple at the site of Chichén Itzá. We do know that other archaeologists working there thought she was a nuisance and ‘an unsatisfactory old soul’ bothering the professionals. Yet, with her knowledge of Mexico, her facility for languages, her desire to learn and her hard work, she became a professional herself, later consulted by the very man who called her a bothersome old soul.
As a trained artist, she was interested in colour, and she used her artistic skills to copy the wall paintings she saw. This is what makes her such an important figure in Mesoamerican archaeology and her work so important today: she was the only person to make accurate, full-size, full-colour copies of the wall paintings. Go there today, and those paintings are a shadow of their former selves. They were faded and damaged in 1900, but she copied what was there – and her paintings are now the best record, accurate enough for researchers to use her work to interpret what is happening in the paintings.
She spent five weeks copying the frieze uncovered at Acancéh. But her masterwork was the copying of the Upper Temple of the Jaguars at Chichén Itzá. This took her roughly a year, working for one to three months at a time over several years. The whole space, up to the top of the vaulted roof, was painted, although much was already damaged by rain, swallows, bats and tunnelling bees, not to mention visitors writing their names on the walls.
The current exhibition is the end of a project funded by the Esmé Fairbairn Collections Fund, which allowed us to conserve, better store and digitise the collection. The exhibition closes on 14 May. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to see the wall painting copies in their full length glory before they go back into the dark storage that preserves the colour that Adela Breton was so anxious to get right.