Preparing for Adela Breton

Posted on by Lauren MacCarthy.

By Alex Rankin, Senior Visitor Assistant

On Saturday 6 August an exhibition of drawings and paintings by Adela Breton went on display at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery.

Breton was a Victorian traveller and artist who devoted the later part of her life to capturing ancient reliefs, carvings and decoration on Mayan temples across Mexico.

A huge amount of behind-the-scenes work has gone into preparing for the exhibition. Conservators have spent nearly four years restoring and preserving the artworks in order for them to go on public display.

Harry Metcalf, Paper Conservator at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, was involved in the later stages of the project and says how the process gave them an insight into Breton – the artist.

Conservation work begins

Conservation work begins

“What’s interesting is that she used a variety of methods to record the decoration and carvings, including prints, watercolours, sketches and notes.

This has enabled us to understand how she went about working at the sites and the techniques that she used.”

Many clues are visible in the works such as various cuts she made in the paper, which Harry believes were done to create a ‘flap’ that she could lift up to view the wall beneath her drawings.

The cuts were then sealed with brown paper tape which has discoloured over time. The conservators left it in place however, as it gives a valuable indication to how Breton worked.

There are also many sections that have been left blank, leading curators to believe that she wanted to remain true to what she was copying where detail had already been eroded or damaged.

Mounting the works

Mounting the works

This highlights how crucial her work was in capturing the details of the remains before some of them were lost forever.

“One of the most important aspects of her work is that very little of the original colour exists so this collection is supposedly now the most comprehensive record of how they would have looked at the turn of the 20th century.”

Transporting works to gallery

The size of Breton’s work meant moving them was a challenge

Mounting the pieces proved quite a challenge as Breton worked exactly to scale. Harry used a technique called strip-lining, where pieces of a Japanese paper were used to attach the edges of the drawings to a rigid backing board.

Using a conventional picture frame would have added too much weight for them to be moved and would also have caused problems in displaying matching sections of paintings.

One piece consists of four sections and there wasn’t enough space in the gallery to display them one on top of the other. But the team were still able to hang two of them close enough so that visitors can see where the details join up.

“It’s not often that works of this size are put on display. It’s a great opportunity for people to come and view these extraordinary works and learn about the life of a remarkable person.”


Adela Breton: Ancient Mexico in Colour is on display in our Upper Second Floor exhibition gallery until 14 May 2017.

5 comments on “Preparing for Adela Breton

  1. P.B. Robinson

    The Bristol Museum has given us the privilege to look at and wonder at Adela Breton`s incredible collection and to wonder even more at how she accomplished this work



    1. Alex

      You’re very welcome!


  2. Paul R. Julian

    Perhaps the Museum could make available some prints. The market for Maya material
    is strong in the USA. The recent biography of Adela by Mary McVicker (2005) has
    given us some idea of her work.


    1. sue giles, Senior Curator World Cultures

      We are thinking about print on demand for our collections, including her watercolours of ancient sites: look at the Collections Online with Breton as the search term. Almost all the watercolours have a high quality image. If you are interested contact us and we can discuss further.


  3. n. walsh

    So disappointed I missed this exhibition. I saw some of her collection at the BRLSI in Bath years ago, remarkable lady.


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