The Orrery (or Planetarium) 

Washington and Lee University

HISTORIC OVERVIEW

Before Treatment: Assembled OrreryAn Orrery is a mechanically driven scientific instrument or model that illustrates the relative positions and movements of the planets and their moons within the solar system. Orreries are also referred to as planetariums due to their obvious association with the planets. The first modern Orrery was designed in the early 1700's by George Graham. His drawings were then given to instrument maker and scientist, John Rowley, who was hired to fabricate this mechanism for Charles Boyle, the 4th Earl of Orrery. It was from this commission the Orrery received its name. Later models were designed and constructed by various individuals, however, some of the most impressive ever built were designed by Thomas Harris Barlow. Mr. Barlow constructed more than fourteen Orrerys spanning fifteen feet (15') in diameter and standing close to five feet (5') tall. Barlow's Orreries accurately depicted the relative positions and movements of Mercury, Venus, Earth and the Moon through the years 1800 to 1900. Research showed that he designed and built these room-sized Orreries sometime within the period of 1849-1860. Of the fourteen known to have been built, there are only three known survivors located at the University of Mississippi, Lexington, Kentucky, and at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. The Orrery at Washington and Lee University was donated by General Robert E. Lee, who had acquired it from Barlow's son, sometime between 1867 and 1869 for $1,000. It was used by the University's Science Department until 1995, when the Orrery was disassembled and stored.

 

PRE-TREATMENT CONDITION

After Treatment: Polished SilverThe Orrery's support structure is made from machine finished cast iron, painted blue and decorated with gilt details. The gears used to drive the planets and the orbit of the Earth's moon is made of close-plated brass; the silver plating is severely tarnished and disfigured by a dark layer of oily grime. The sun is fashioned from a blown, glass sphere with gold leaf lining the interior, creating a mirror like surface. Approximately 45% of the gold was either flaking or completely missing. The moon, Venus and Mercury are wooden, lathe turned spheres and were coated with 22 Karat gold leaf. The Earth is coated with a thin layer of gesso and covered with printed paper gores depicting the geography. While structurally sound, the paper shows evidence of water damage and is covered by a layer of grime. Two wooden rings form the perimeter of the Orrery; the larger outer ring is covered by sections of paper indicating the days and months and is decorated with painted and gilt astrological signs. The small, inner ring denotes the years 1800-1900. The paper that was adhered to the surface of the ring shows evidence of water damage and has numerous small tears and losses. Washington and Lee University contracted B.R. Howard & Associates, Inc. to conserve and reassemble the Orrery.

 

TREATMENT

Assembling the OrreryThe iron components were thoroughly cleaned, areas of active corrosion chemically stabilized, and coated with a clear, protective synthetic resin. Areas of lost paint and gilt decoration were inpainted using a reversible inpainting palette and then given a final reversible resin coating to protect against future loss. All silver plated elements were carefully polished, degreased and lacquered. Several gears were repaired and sections were fabricated to fill losses. The glass sphere that represented the Sun was cleaned and areas of loss were re-gilt; the inner planets were also cleaned and re-gilt as necessary. All gilding was coated with a protective lacquer. The wooden rings surrounding the Orrery were cleaned; lifting paper was readhered and paper inserts were created and toned to match the original surfaces. A final protective isolation coating was applied to the varnished paper. Upon completion, the Orrery was carefully crated and transported back to the university where it was then reassembled, (OR.3) a process complicated by the fact that B.R. Howard & Associates, Inc. had not disassembled the Orrery and only seen it in its assembled form through historic photographs. It is currently displayed in the Rotunda of the museum gallery at Washington and Lee University.

 


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