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Conservation > Overview

An important first step for the conservator is documenting the work and its condition prior to treatment. As well as the work itself, the conservator will examine its mount, to determine whether it is of an archival standard. Yellowing or discolouration of board often indicates it contains acidic material which can cause paper to deteriorate and further discolour. Surface cleaning is done using a variety of techniques, including a soft natural fibre brush.

Preventive conservation deals with minimizing the deterioration of cultural materials. In the case of prints, appropriate housing can reduce several threats to works on paper. Archival solander boxes, for example, buffer fluctuation in temperature and relative humidity, provide a physical barrier against insects and an acid-free environment for the items they contain. For many of the prints treated in this project rehousing is an important part of ensuring continued survival. Removing and replacing acidic hinges and mounts is a very common task for a paper conservator. Between 2004 and 2008 with the support of the Russell and Mab Grimwade Miegunyah Fund, the Baillieu Library Print Collection benefitted from a rehousing project carried out by conservators from the Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation. Thanks to this work, many of the prints treated here were already housed in archival-grade materials appropriate for long-term preservation.

In 1959, when Dr Orde Poynton’s collection of old master prints was donated to the University of Melbourne, stamping the prints with a stamp bearing the university crest was considered an appropriate method of preventing theft of these valuable items. For today’s conservators, however, these collection stamps provide a challenge as the ink will often be quite soluble in water. This means that the ink from the stamp will need to be removed prior to any washing treatments to reduce staining to the print.

Andrew Lawrence after Salvator Rosa, The Witch of Endor

One of the more interesting treatments was the removal of a print after Salvator Rosa by Andre Laurent (above) from a book in which it was bound. The print of The Witch of Endor was tipped in to an anatomy book, Albinus, Tables of the skeleton and muscles of the human body (London, 1749). The curators of the special collections carefully considered the arguments for retaining the print within the book and for its removal. Ultimately it was decided removing the print would enable more appropriate storage as well provide greater access for viewing or research purposes. Removal of the print from the book also made it practical for washing and stain removal to be carried out on this item.

Tear repairs are another important part of the paper conservator’s work. For example, the tears in the Ludovico Mattioli print (see the detail below) will be repaired and the loss in the top right corner infilled. Tears can be repaired using Japanese or Western papers and dilute wheat starch paste. These materials are favoured in conservation because of their inert (acid free) nature. The papers are strong providing adequate support for the print paper substrate. Often repair papers are toned with Winsor and Newton watercolour paints to match the original work and disguise the mend. The wheat starch adhesive can easily be reversed or removed in the future should another repair technique be warranted.

Click on an image to see a larger version.

Detail of Ludovico Mattioli, The Carriage of Time, before conservation treatment.

Jacob Binck, Death and the Foot-Soldier, in its conservation-grade mount.

The photograph above shows Jacob Binck’s Death and the Foot Soldier in its conservation standard mount, together with a greyscale card and measure for colour calibration and scale.  The mount is made from conservation grade acid free board. By comparison, the photograph below shows the Family surprised by Death after Lucas van Leyden in a non-archival mount. The acidic content of the non archival mount can cause damage to the print (recollections, 1998). The non-archival window has the potential to stain and discolour the original work in which it is in direct contact. The type of damage is known as mount burn and follows the shape of the window. Staining can also be seen here on top of the skull.

Unknown copier after Lucas van Leyden, A Family Surprised by Death.

The Mattioli print shows very clear signs of having been folded in four, as can be seen in the detail photograph below. There is also staining and a loss in the top right hand side corner. The print will be given a surface clean, washed to reduce stains and the loss infilled. Tears on the edges of the print will also be repaired.

Detail of Ludovico Mattioli, The Carriage of Time, showing fold.

Further details, including before and after treatment comparison photographs, are available on the conservation treatments page.

Further Reading


Max Schweidler, The restoration of engravings, drawings, books, and other works on paper, trans. & ed. Roy Perkinson, Los Angeles : Getty Conservation Institute, 2006.


Tim Ould and Sophie Lewincamp from the Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation

 on the links below to view a particular print or book undergoing conservation, and to read more about it.

Conservation in Progress - De Bruyn

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