Aluminium Statuary

The construction methods, problems and treatment techniques associated with aluminium statuary.

Aluminium did not come into architectural use until the end of the 19th century. Early aluminium was so expensive that castings were initially restricted to very important decorative details. Statues were generally either sand cast or fabricated from sheet, and welded together using TIG (tungsten inert gas) or MIG (metal inert gas) welding with aluminium welding wire or rods.

In England, the figure of Anteros atop the Shaftesbury Memorial in Piccadilly Circus, London, created in 1892, is considered the earliest large aluminium sculpture to be cast (unusually, it is Roman jointed like a bronze).

Although the use of aluminium was developed and refined (particularly during the Second World War), which resulted in its increased application in architecture, aluminium statuary and sculpture are comparatively rare. Most aluminium sculpture was made after the Second World War.

Aluminium was exciting when it was new and exotic, but its disadvantages became apparent and stopped it from being commonly used. As a cast material, aluminium is brittle, it oxidises to a grey colour, which is aesthetically unpopular, and it does not do well in industrial or coastal environments.

Early aluminium sculptures were not painted or finished with other surfaces that would have concealed the aluminium (the modern metal had to be seen). The metal is sometimes used in more contemporary sculpture, where it is usually either painted or anodised to provide the necessary protection and aesthetic surface. Anodising was developed around 1927, but was not widely used until much later (anodised aluminium extrusion was a popular architectural material in the1960s and 1970s).

Common problems

Early cast aluminium statuary can suffer from structural problems and corrosion, mainly because of impurities in the alloys and limited knowledge of casting the metal at the time. This inherent fault makes it particularly susceptible to physical damage caused by impact and to structural problems due to stress. The latter result from the failure of fixings, welded joints or working parts, for example, or from excess loading of the structure.

Today, aluminium and its alloys are ubiquitous in architecture, engineering, decorative arts and modern sculpture. The material is now highly refined and specifically developed for qualities such as strength, malleability and corrosion resistance.

Treatment and repair

The repair of welded aluminium structures that have failed is seldom carried out on-site because specialist welding is often required. In many cases, it is easier or necessary to replace failed sections completely.

The maintenance of aluminium statuary depends on its finish, whether polished, anodised or painted, for example. As sculptures are rare and varied, there is no general approach other than caution. As with all metals, ongoing care and maintenance are required to provide long-term protection, and regular inspection is key. It is essential to involve a metals conservator who has experience working on aluminium statuary.