A Good Challenge: Conserving and Matting a 1970s Caricature

The following is a guest post by Senior Paper Conservator Mary Elizabeth Haude of the Conservation Division.

As a paper conservator at the Library of Congress, I am expected to conserve a wide variety of paper-based collection items. So I was not surprised to be asked to perform a conservation treatment on a caricature of George Washington. The drawing, by editorial illustrator Jean-Claude Suarès, was published in the article “Presidential Trivia: What Was Ulysses S. Grant’s First Name?” in the September 10, 1972 issue of the New York Times Magazine. The question in the illustration’s caption, “Whose was the shortest inaugural speech?” is answered in the article, with George Washington having the shortest speech of only 135 words for his second inaugural address.

By the looks of it, the treatment was going to be difficult. The reasons for this were twofold. For one, the drawing was a collage that consisted of pencil and black ink on tracing paper on which a black and white silver gelatin photograph of Washington’s face was glued. Both tracing paper and photographs can be difficult to treat: tracing paper because its inherent characteristics inhibit many traditional conservation treatment techniques and photographs because they can be sensitive to chemical interaction with pollutants and off-gassing from some materials. Another reason the treatment looked to be difficult was that large amounts of rubber cement were used to adhere the drawing to a sheet of white cardboard and the photo overlay to the drawing. Since I like a good challenge, I enthusiastically accepted the treatment.

Ink and paper image of George Washington on browned paper, with a silver gelatin photograph of Washington's head imposed on the image.

[Whose was the shortest inaugural speech?], Cartoon Drawings: Swann Collection of Caricature and Cartoon, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Before conservation treatment, normal illumination, M.E. Haude, Conservation Division, 2022.

The first thing I needed to do was remove the drawing from the white cardboard. Fortunately, the drawing came off easily because it was only attached in the center. It was also easy to remove because the rubber cement was no longer tacky, but was now a dry brittle film sitting on the surface of the paper instead of penetrating it. This is because tracing paper is manufactured to be smooth with a closed surface through which adhesives cannot penetrate easily. To separate the drawing from the white cardboard, I inserted a long spatula between the drawing and the cardboard and gently pried them apart.

The same ink, paper, and photograph image of George Washington, with an illumination showing that the middle of the paper is adhered to the cardboard backing.

Raking illumination showing the drawing adhered only in the center of the cardboard. Before conservation treatment, M.E. Haude, Conservation Division, 2022.

I then set out to remove the rubber cement from the verso of the drawing. Because of my years of experience removing pressure-sensitive tapes and rubber-based adhesives from paper, I knew that rubber cement could be solubilized with ethanol. So I tested a small area on the drawing by lightly rolling an ethanol-soaked cotton swab on the rubber cement that I then immediately followed with a dry swab to absorb the solubilized adhesive. It worked! I proceeded in this manner until all the rubber cement was removed from the verso of the drawing.

During this part of the treatment, I noticed that the photo overlay of Washington’s face was also partially detached from the drawing in several areas. This concerned me because if I didn’t remove the photo overlay during the treatment, I worried that it would eventually fall off and become permanently separated from the drawing. With the permission of the Prints and Photographs Division Curator Sara Duke, I removed the photo overlay with the intention of reattaching it with an adhesive safe to use with silver gelatin photographs. I then removed the adhesive from the verso of the overlay and the recto of the drawing, where the overlay was attached, with the same technique I used on the verso of the drawing. I also removed the long strip of brown paper tape and a small piece of masking tape attached on the top edge of the recto of the drawing.

Now I needed to figure out how to reattach the photo overlay to the drawing. As a paper conservator, I knew that adhering the overlay with a water-based adhesive, such as wheat starch paste, was not an option because tracing papers are extremely reactive to moisture. And given the smooth closed surface of the tracing paper, I didn’t think it would adhere. I therefore reasoned that a heat-activated adhesive was the obvious choice. I also knew that it was necessary to find an adhesive that would not cause deterioration, such as silver deterioration, to the photograph.

I consulted with Library of Congress Photograph Conservator Alisha Chipman about reattachment techniques and appropriate adhesives to use with photographs. She suggested that I line the verso of the overlay with long-fibered paper to create an isolating layer between the photograph and the adhesive. I accomplished this by adhering Korean Hanji 1201 paper with wheat starch paste to the overlay’s verso. I then tested several heat-activated adhesives using expendable photographs and store-bought tracing paper. Unsurprisingly, I found that the smooth surface of the tracing paper inhibited these adhesives from adhering. It was then I recalled that my former colleague Holly Krueger, who was an expert in treating cartoons, often used BEVA 371 film to reattach overlays to cartoon drawings. After consulting with Alisha about the use of this film with a silver gelatin photograph, I decided to try it. As BEVA film is quite strong, I opted to test this approach by adhering an expendable photograph to a piece of tracing paper with small pieces of BEVA film activated with heat. I was happy to discover that the photograph was securely adhered to the tracing paper using this method. I then proceeded to attach approximately 4mm x 2mm pieces of the film around the edges and in the center of the overlay’s verso on the isolating Hanji paper. Once the pieces were in place, I repositioned the overlay onto the drawing’s recto and adhered it using a low-temperature tacking iron applied to the verso of the drawing in the areas of BEVA film.

Once the conservation treatment was completed, it was time to turn my attention to providing a secure housing for the drawing. Curator Sara Duke specified that the drawing be stored in a traditional window mat, but with as little of the mat overlapping the drawing as possible to enable most of the editorial markings to show. I knew that the traditional method of using paper hinges adhered with wheat starch paste would not work for this drawing since the paste would not adhere to the tracing paper. I decided to use corners to hold the drawing in place, but I knew they would show because of the minimal overlap of the window mat. Thus, I needed something that would be visually sympathetic to the tracing paper. Chartham paper seemed an obvious choice as it is a transparent paper we use in the Conservation Division inside mats as a transparent, protective barrier for artwork. I cut the Chartham paper into strips for the corners. To secure these paper strips to the back mat, I chose pressure-sensitive Filmoplast P tape that is safe to use in housings for silver gelatin photographs. The drawing is now securely attached to the back mat, and the Chartham paper strips, while visible in the corners, blend in nicely with the drawing’s tracing paper. I was pleased that this method of attachment securely held the drawing in place while allowing minimal overlap of the window mat.

The treatment and housing of the caricature “Whose was the shortest inaugural speech?” were certainly challenging. By facing those challenges, I was rewarded with providing the Prints and Photographs Division with a drawing that is now more visually legible and is also preserved for the long term.


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