By J.E. Molly Seegers
In our times it is quite rare that an individual would remain at one institution for the entirety of their career. The work that Joyce Plesters accomplished during her tenure at the National Gallery, London proves that extraordinary accomplishments can be achieved within a supportive work place. Her pioneering work laid the foundations for a new field of study: the inspection and analysis of paintings, with a special focus on the materials and techniques of the medium.
In fact, she has been called the “founding mother of technical art history”. Art historians were influenced by Plesters’ work in that they were compelled to provide scientific analysis of paintings instead of anecdotal, educated commentary. Her writings enabled the conservation profession to publish with authority the implications of their findings within the narrative of art history.
On April 13 of 1927, Rosa Joyce Plesters was born in a small town south of Birmingham, England. She chose to study sciences during her time at the Royal Holloway College of London University. In 1949, at the age of 22, Plesters was hired by Mr. F.I.G. Rawlins to work in the scientific department of the National Gallery which only had two other employees at the time. Her talent and skills were immediately recognized by her colleagues. Through her work, Plesters was able to combine two of her greatest passions: science and paintings. Her first tool of inquiry was the microscope, analyzing miniscule cross-sections from paintings and coming away with tremendous insights into
the pigment makeup and the artist’s method of application; she contributed immensely to her field. Although many of her writings are published as articles in journals, they could have been published as books in their own right. The article, “Cross-Sections and Chemical Analysis of Paint Samples,” which she wrote in 1956 for IIC’s peer-reviewed journal Studies in Conservation is constantly referenced and cited as the authority on examination and interpretation of cross-sections.
Plesters was admired and well loved by her colleagues and friends. Although she took on a heavy load of work, writing for various publications and traveling to be a consultant in Europe and America, she remained, as John Mills noted, “light-hearted and good-humoured.” Plesters was far from being a cloistered practitioner; after the 1966 and 1967 natural disasters in Florence and Venice she helped set up conservation laboratories in the cities. Venice held a special place in her heart.
She contributed to the Venice in Peril Fund’s conservation of Tintoretto’s paintings in Madonna dell’Orto and became enamored with the artist, subsequently writing three separate articles on the National Gallery’s collection of his work.
Plesters was also one half of a conservation power couple; her husband, Norman Brommelle, was a well-known conservator. They met while working at the National Gallery, and they married in 1959. He went on to become the keeper of conservation at the Victoria & Albert Museum and a long-serving IIC secretary general.
Plesters had a particular affinity for cooking and gardening, so it is fitting that in 1987 she retired to Città di Castello in Italy where she enjoyed pursuing her hobbies. She also continued to write, consult, and participated in professional conferences after she retired. Her passing in 1996 was a very sad occasion for those who knew and cherished her.
Joyce published over 40 articles in 5 decades. See a compiled bibliography below (PDF).
Molly Seegers is the Museum Archivist at Brooklyn Museum. Previously, she worked at MoMA Library, FIT’s Special Collections and College Archives, Frick Art Reference Library, and Rockefeller Archive Center. She graduated from Haverford College with a B.A. in Sociology and from Pratt Institute with M.S. degrees in Library and Information Science and the History of Art and Design.
(Article featured in the December-January 2021 "News in Conservation" Issue 81, p. 22-23, celebrating 70 years of IIC)