What’s on : Lectures

Plastics in the World of Art

1 Jun 2021
Start time
7:30 PM
Professor Norman Billingham, University of Sussex
Plastics in the World of Art

Event Information

Plastics in the World of Art
Professor Norman Billingham

The last century saw dramatic changes in technology from natural to synthetic materials. As “plastics”, synthetic polymers have now become so ubiquitous that it is impossible to imagine a world without them. Artists are always at the forefront of adopting new materials and artists such as Gabo, Pevsner and Picasso were early users, not only of plastics but rubbers, paints and sculptural resins, working with cellulose esters, acrylics and alkyds as soon as they became available. Artists have worked with everything from new plastics and rubbers to waste plastics to create new work. At the same time, heritage conservators have enthusiastically adopted new polymers as adhesives, consolidants, and varnishes, and museum curators are increasingly acquiring heritage objects made from plastics and rubbers. Unfortunately, the chemical structures, which provide the valuable properties of synthetic materials, also make them susceptible to deterioration by different chemical and physical processes. Just as the history of the plastics industry is one of trying to overcome degradation so the modern conservator is faced with major challenges in preserving deteriorating art works. This talk reviews some of the 20th century developments in new materials and their influence on artists and their art. It also considers the challenges these materials present to collectors and curators and how (and whether) we may overcome them.

Brief Biography

Norman Billingham is Professor Emeritus of Chemistry at the University of Sussex. He spent his career researching how plastics degrade in service use and ways of slowing (or latterly accelerating) degradation. He has served on grant-awarding committees of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the Arts and Humanities Research Council. He currently teaches Materials Science to Postgraduate students in conservation at West Dean College and supports their MA programmes

This lecture will be held on Zoom and an invitation will be sent to everyone on the YPS emailing list.

Image: Jean Dubuffet, 1973: Creative Commons

Member’s report

Sixteenth-century European explorers of South America discovered that indigenous people made jewellery and decorative items from a strange new substance, rubber. Such items quickly perished and it wasn’t until the 19th century that better compounds emerged. Charles Goodyear discovered vulcanisation in 1839 and enabled the manufacture of the pneumatic tyre.

From the 1860s plastics such as celluloid and cellulose nitrate began to appear. The latter was used to manufacture photographic film but proved highly inflammable: in cinemas, if the film jammed, the projector caught fire. In 1899, Krische & Spittler patented milk casein for making a plastic widely used in the 20th century.

The chemistry of plastics was not understood until Hermann Staudinger discovered the long-chain molecular structures of polymers in the 1920s which led to the development of nylon, acrylics, acrylic emulsions, alkyds or house paints, casting resins such as epoxy and polyester, and plastics for insulating wiring and waterproofing fabric. Plastics enjoyed wide use by major artists, particularly for sculpture and jewellery, their colour a particular attraction. But plastics were unstable and degraded over time; museums and art galleries have seen exhibits lose colour and deteriorate structurally. Ironically, though plastics do degrade – the nylon US flag planted on the moon in 1969 has completely disintegrated – in environmental terms the process is too slow.

Ken Hutson