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ETC helps show ancient artworks in a new light

ETC Source Four LEDs light the 500-year-old Raphael Cartoons on display in London's Victoria & Albert Museum

When lighting designer Amarasri Songcharoen (aka Marci Song) of Seam Design was looking for the best lighting fixtures to light the 500-year-old Raphael Cartoons – a series of large artworks by Rafael on display in London’s Victoria & Albert Museum – she knew she needed something special. It had to be something which would output minimal or no ultraviolet light, as well as provide a perfectly lit atmosphere for a giant mirrored sculpture which was to be installed as part of the London Design Festival.

As part of the month-long Precision & Poetry in Motion exhibition, design agency Barber Osgerby developed a system of two giant mirrored aeronautical ‘wings,’ which were suspended in the room and would slowly rotate on motors, altering the reflections of the Raphael Cartoons as they did. To light the artworks, she used 16 ETC Source Four LED Series 2 Lustr fixtures, controlled by an ETC Ion control desk.

“We were asked to provide a lighting strategy and design for the room and of the sculpture to reveal the Barber Osgerby sculpture in its best light,” says Song. “We also had to pay careful consideration to providing appropriate light sources and light levels for priceless art pieces, which are on loan from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.”

The sculpture’s wings were clad with a highly polished mirror finish. Song says that the best lit effect was to light the elements surrounding it, rather than lighting the piece itself – but since the floating objects occupied most of the view to the ceiling, the existing high level lights for the artworks would be blocked periodically, making them unsuitable for this installation.

Seam Design’s proposal therefore involved a completely new system for lighting the room, using striking illumination to the Raphael Cartoons and a dramatic wash to the floor. The Cartoons are then reflected on the wings above them, so that they can be seen by the people standing underneath.

“Through its slow rotations,” describes Song, “the sculpture is disorientating and mesmerising, emerging from high level in an uncanny way. The dramatic light enhances these experiences.”

Each of the cartoons, which were commissioned by Pope Leo X in 1515 and were intended to hang below Michelangelo’s famous ceiling in the Vatican Palace, are up to 3.5m high by 5.3m wide, which meant that even in the very large 46m long x 25m wide gallery, Seam had just 70cm of clearance between the wings and the face of the artworks’ surfaces. They therefore needed a product capable of very wide beam throw that still allowed for an ability to control light spill to the walls – plus, with ultraviolet light being a danger to artwork, they needed a low or zero UV fixture, making LED the obvious choice.

“ETC’s Source Four LED Series 2 Lustr with a 90 degree lens tethered to an ETC Ion desk met all of our requirements,” explains Song. “We were able to shutter and frame the light to enhance the artwork. The success of the lighting scheme is that the polished wings rely heavily on the illumination of the cartoons and the floor to be perceived. In the intimate darkness of the room with focused light taking your attention to the artwork, the sculpture becomes very mysterious – almost imperceptible until they catch the light and reflections illuminate their surfaces. This is an incredible dimension to add to the experience of the installation, which is an epic feat of engineering in its own right and exhibits attributes entirely beyond its impressiveness as a machine.”

Seam worked closely with ETC and Hawthorns, who installed the lighting and helped to program the colour tuning and settings. The fixtures were set to a very warm 2600° colour temperature – the colour of candlelight – helping the Cartoons appear almost like tapestries as they may have looked in the 16th Century.

Attending the launch event, ETC’s regional manager for the UK and Ireland, Mark White, was asked a number of times if the lighting on the cartoons was really LED and not tungsten. “LEDs are usually associated with the blue-white cold light fitted these days to bathrooms and the like,” he says, “so to see apparent candlelight coming from the Source Four LEDs was an eye-opener.”

The Double Space for BMW – Precision & Poetry in Motion exhibition is on display at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum from 13 September- 24 October 2014. Entry is free.