April 1993 Issue 07
Conservation liaison: a case study
The purpose of this article is to document the detailed discussions which took place between a curator and a conservator, to determine the most suitable treatment for a print, recently acquired by the Museum's Prints, Drawings and Paintings Collection. It is not intended to suggest that there was anything exceptional in the existence or the nature of these discussions but merely to highlight a vital aspect of modern museum work. Since discussions of this type usually take place in the conservation studio, on a one-to-one basis, and in front of the object, they pass unseen by the museum visitor yet they play a crucial part in what the visitor eventually sees in the galleries.
The print concerned is a mid-nineteenth century hand-coloured French lithograph which had been mounted onto a cloth backing which was then nailed to a wooden strainer (Figure. 1&2). The lithographer, Alphonse Leon Noel (1807-1884), has reproduced a painting by the German portrait painter, Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1805-1873), entitled 'The Royal Family in 1846'. It depicts Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their five children; the Prince of Wales, Prince Alfred, Victoria the Princess Royal, Princess Alice and the infant Princess Helena. Winterhalter is recognised as having been the most talented exponent of the art of the court portrait in the nineteenth century and this painting, which was a royal commission, was considered by Queen Victoria to be his masterpiece 1 . The painting remains in the Royal Collection.
A hand-coloured print is a printed image which has been painted over by hand, typically in watercolours or gouache. The history of hand-coloured prints touches on the history of watercolour painting as well as that of purely printed images. Curators and conservators dealing with the preservation and public presentation of hand-coloured prints, need to draw on the technical and art historical expertise which has grown up around these distinct fields.
In 1987 the Prints Drawings and Paintings Collection staged a display, 'Hand Coloured British Prints' drawn from its own holdings 2 . As is frequently the case, the process of selecting and mounting a display acted as a spur to the acquisition of further examples of this little-studied class of graphic object. This process extended beyond the closing date of the display and has expanded to include non-British examples. Viewed as a potential acquisition this print was an example of hand-colouring of extraordinary technical virtuosity unparalleled in the Museum's existing holdings. Its technical accomplishment is especially apparent in the use of white gouache pigment on the flounces of some of the costumes, the effect of which can only be partially appreciated in a black and white illustration. The hand-colouring on this print increases the impact of an image which, even in black and white, has an iconic quality in its depiction of Queen Victoria as monarch, wife and mother.
Another active area of the Prints Section's acquisition strategy relates to prints as decorative objects intended for display. This is entirely fitting for a national collection of prints located within the National Museum of Art and Design. Prints which would have hung on people's walls, prior to their acquisition by the Museum, have hitherto been under-represented in the. Collection, in comparison with prints which would have been stored by their private owners in albums or portfolios. This policy of acquiring prints as decorative objects has resulted in the acquisition of a number of prints in frames contemporary with the prints. Sadly, the frame was already absent when this example was on offer to the Museum, but the manner in which the print had been lined onto cloth and nailed to a wooden strainer were conclusive evidence of a past life as a print hanging on a wall somewhere. The materials used suggest that it underwent this treatment during the third quarter of the nineteenth century. It is thus of great interest to print historians as an example of a method of preparing prints for display.
Two excellent reasons for wishing to purchase this print had to be weighed against its far from perfect condition. Frameless and with small but disfiguring surface losses, the most distressing of which was along Queen Victoria's hairline, meant that it would need to be assigned a condition code 3 (damaged), on a scale of 1 (sound) to 5 (highly unstable) on an acquisition form 3 . Extensive conservation work would be necessary to bringing it up to the exhibitable condition. The importance of the subject matter to the history of the museum was the deciding factor in proceeding with its acquisition and its was immediately earmarked as a conservation priority. When it was chosen as one of the wide range of V&A objects for an exhibition entitled 'The Arts of the Victorians', opening at the Hankyu Department Store in Kobe, Japan on 1st October 1992, this introduced a deadline for the completion of the work.
The object had, at some point in its life, been stored in wet conditions with the result that the loosely woven cloth and paper laminate had cockled in large waves across the surface (figure 3). In addition the gum, used to glaze the watercolour pigment in the darkest areas to give it depth similar to oil paint, had dissolved and moved through the pigment, changing its refractive index. This caused the formation of bloom in a diagonal band across the upper right hand corner.
The cloth itself was in poor condition. Not only was it filthy and stained, but where the nails had rusted it was weak and had given way in many places under tension. The paper was lightly foxed and discoloured everywhere except where the strainer bars had protected it from the air flow. The right side of the print had been unevenly trimmed inside the image area, probably before mounting in order to fit on to the strainer, leaving a jagged edge. The surface of the print had been damaged by a sharp object which had gouged out small areas, penetrating beneath the painted surface but not all the way through to the cloth lining. In the agreed terminology for condition this object was C3, in poor condition.
The curator wanted the minimum treatment possible. She was very concerned that the method of mounting and framing was preserved as historical evidence and that all parts were preserved and kept intact. Ideally, no new materials were to be added. While the surface damage could be treated cosmetically, if necessary, it was clear that even minimum treatment must include dealing with the surface distortions and strengthening the edges of the cloth enough to hold the object on the strainer safely. Removing the lining from the print was considered the best way of approaching these problems. This would have the additional advantage of allowing the print to be treated by washing in order to reduce the discolouration in the image area and to remove the associated degradation products.
After discussion, the curator was persuaded that this was the best course of action to take and a treatment programme was agreed upon which included removing the lining, treating the lining and print separately, and re-attaching the same lining to the print, and rurally mounting the whole onto the strainer.
Tests followed. An attempt to remove the lining dry resulted in the occurrence of some skinning. It was noticeable how white the verso of the plate paper was and how well it had been protected by the lining, indicating that the support was in surprisingly good condition. This was followed by endeavouring to remove the lining aqueously by spraying the verso lightly. The plate paper, which was very soft, gave away easily and the adhesive remained well stuck, resulting in further skinning. The moisture penetrated to the recto causing damp blotches to form. Other methods of aqueous removal were tried including using Goretex (a polytetra fluoroethylene (PTFE)-felt Iaminate) and poultices, but none was successful.
The fact that the agreed treatment programme failed to go as we had planned made us stop and reconsider the problems. At this stage further discussions were held between the curator and a number of conservators to decide the best course of action. It was interesting to note that each conservator consulted had a different idea of what should be done. One paper conservator believed that the most important aims should be to remove discolouration, an indicator of degradation and of the presence of acidity, and to buffer the paper 'to prolong the life of the object'. A paintings conservator discouraged attempting to remove the cloth as she believed that once removed it could not be replaced, being too loosely woven and weak to be put under any tension. This would mean that if we wanted to preserve the object intact we would have to abandon the idea of dismantling it and putting it back together. The corollary to this was that any chemical treatments to clean or deacidify the print would not be possible.
Even if we accepted that we could not treat the object chemically we were still left with the problem of flattening the object and reinforcing the edges of the cloth. Two options remained:
Reinforcing the edges of the cloth by strip-lining in the tradition of paintings conservation and then flattening it by adding false margins and straining it out on a board (a traditional Japanese drying technique).
Removing the lining and not replacing it. Washing and deacidifying the print and attaching a new cloth lining. The second option was rejected by the curator who was not in favour of a facsimile approach. She felt that the object in its integrity was more important than preservation for its own sake. Both of us agreed on this.
The final treatment programme consisted of re-attaching the cloth where it had been lifted during tests, cleaning and de-acidifying aqueously only the edges of the cloth, repairing the cloth with Japanese tissue and wheat starch paste, strip-lining using new cloth and Beva 351 (heat-sensitive adhesive) and drying under tension after humidification. Finally, the losses were filled and retouched and the degraded gum was reactivated using 1:1 parts gum arabic and water. The cloth was re-attached to the strainer using the original, cleaned nails.
Once conservation of the object was complete it was necessary for a frame to be found for it. The surviving evidence pointed to the print on its strainer having been close framed. As there was no way of knowing what the original frame would have looked like, a positive decision was taken to avoid having a frame which might mislead the viewer into thinking it was original. For reasons of economy an empty frame which had once contained a watercolour was reused. This gilt frame of twentieth century manufacture had a relatively simple moulding which complemented the appearance of the print but was not visually intrusive. It was expertly cut down, built up on the back and given a new backboard by the Museum's joiners and the gilding conserved by Furniture Conservation. Once it had been framed up in the PDP workshop the back and sides of the print were hidden from view. Information about the strainer and linen backing is recorded in written and photographic form in the catalogue entry for this print available for consultation in the Print Room, and in the documentation held by the Paper Section of the Conservation Department.
The outcome of this project was a compromise. The wish of the curator that new materials be avoided could not be strictly adhered to, nor could the conservator's to remove discolouration and buffer the paper. However, we were both happy with the outcome which preserved the beauty of the hand-colouring and gums as well as the original mounting method which had once been so popular and of which so few examples survive today.
1. R. Ormond and C. Blackett-Ord, Franz Xaver Winterhalter and the Courts of Europe 1830-1870, National Portrait Gallery exhibition catalogue, London, 1987
O. Millar, The Pictures in the Collection of Her Majesty The Queen: The Victorian Pictures, Cambridge 1992, No. 823
2. E. Miller, Hand Coloured British Prints, London, 1987
3. The Museum has now adopted a system of condition grades 1-4 as developed by Suzanne Keene. (Collections Condition Surveys: Report on a research project funded by the Office Of Arts and Libraries, by Suzanne Keene for the Working Party, September 1991.)