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The Paper Conservation Studio

March 15, 2011

In the Conservation Department we’ve been working hard to get all the works ready for display in the new Portrait Gallery. My colleagues have written two blogs about our projects; the second is by Clara de la Pena McTigue.

damage behind poorly-framed mounts

Works on paper are extremely fragile and complex, often consisting of layers of materials and history. Over time, prints and drawings can often become discoloured, stained and warped and their inks, emulsions and paint layers can be unstable, faded or abraded. Conservation treatments aim to bring back the chemical and structural integrity of artworks, as well as improving their general appearance.

Conservators need to have a good knowledge of the materials, technique and history of the artworks in need of treatment. The photographs here show the complex treatments, which are sympathetic and reversible, carried out in the paper conservation studio. Aqueous treatments can often be a very effective and beneficial way to treat paper supports.

When paper is directly in touch with wooden stretchers discolouration migrates and weakens the paper

Submerging an oversized print into a bath and performing a washing treatment

After testing the resistance and permanence of materials to water and abrasion, we immerse objects in baths or use gentle methods, such as applying moisture from the reverse of the artwork in a blotter wash. Soluble discolouration is pulled through the reverse of the document in a washing procedure. When the document is wet, adhesives and displeasing or damaging repairs are easier to remove.

Slanted blotter wash treatment - water is fed through the reverse of the work

The artwork is then dried under controlled conditions with light weights and blotters to avoid distortions and undulations. Bathing treatments give prints or drawings a fresh feel, reduce stains and as a result the works look brighter, with more contrasts, and are less fragile to handle.

The next stage is repairing any losses or tears to recover the structural unity of the object. Under magnification and light, we use strong paper fibres and special Japanese papers to bring tears together or reinforce weakened and thinner areas of the support such as folded corners or skinned papers. Taking into account the structure and manufacture of the paper, losses are filled sympathetically, sometimes using fragments of European papers from the same period and with similar characteristics, such as texture or colour. The thickness of these fragments is pared down to level the support and cut to fit the shape of the loss.

The last stage of the conservation process is recovering the visual coherence of the image and the media so the viewer is not distracted by any losses or abrasions and can read the image as a unity. The same ethical concepts, such as reversible and appropriate paints and techniques, are applied to this stage of the process.

Once the conservation treatment is complete, the drawings are attached to mounts then prepared for handling and display by the conservation technicians. The works and treatment are thoroughly documented and photographed and their future exhibition and storage is monitored.

Look out for these items and many other newly conserved works which will be on display when the new Portrait Gallery re-opens in November 2011.

The blotter sucks the discolouration and then flushed out by tilting the artwork.

Inpainting with watercolours under magnification

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