A Trio of Literary Ladies Conserved

This is a guest post authored by Gwenanne Edwards, Senior Paper Conservator in the Conservation Division.

Drawings personifying genres of literature, Fancy, Romance, and Tragedy, were recently treated in the Conservation Division. The drawings were made in 1896 as preparatory sketches for mural paintings in the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress and were generously donated to the Prints and Photographs Division by the family of the artist, George Randolph Barse Jr., in 2018. The acquisition and history of the three drawings were detailed in a Picture This blog post. The preparatory drawings help tell the story of the creation of Barse’s stunning paintings which are located in the East Corridor on the second floor of the Thomas Jefferson Building, overlooking the Great Hall.

Left to right: preparatory drawings (before conservation treatment) and mural paintings of Fancy, Romance, and Tragedy by George Randolph Barse Jr., 1896. Photos of preparatory drawings by the Conservation Division, 2019-2020. Photos of the mural paintings by Carol M. Highsmith, 2007.

Left to right: preparatory drawings (before conservation treatment) and mural paintings of Fancy, Romance, and Tragedy by George Randolph Barse Jr., 1896. Photos of preparatory drawings by the Conservation Division, 2019-2020. Photos of the mural paintings by Carol M. Highsmith, 2007.

Materials

Barse drew the preparatory sketches in red chalk over graphite underdrawings on machine-made, short fibered paper, which was probably made from acidic wood pulp. Chalk is a highly friable drawing material – it is dry, powdery and susceptible to separating from a paper support. However, the three drawings were coated with a fixative, a dilute adhesive or varnish commonly used by artists to secure dry media to prevent smudging and loss.

The Barse drawings arrived at the Library attached to multiple backing layers. Each drawing paper was mounted overall to a canvas lining with a brown adhesive, probably made from animal glue. The canvas linings originally may have had larger margins which were wrapped around and secured to wooden strainers, a common mounting technique for preparatory drawings so that they could be easily handled and used for reference when painting. Additionally, the canvas linings of the Barse drawings were all dry mounted to paperboard. Dry mounting is a 20th century technique commonly used by framers when mounting works on paper. The technique uses heat and pressure to attach a work to another support using thin tissue coated with an adhesive on both sides.

Before conservation treatment. Left: detail of the bottom right corner of Fancy drawing showing the multiple support layers; right: cross-section diagram of the support layers of the Barse drawings.

Before conservation treatment. Left: detail of the bottom right corner of Fancy drawing showing the multiple support layers; right: cross-section diagram of the support layers of the Barse drawings.

Condition

The drawing materials – the red chalk and graphite – were in good condition. The fixative held the red chalk and graphite securely to the paper supports so there was little loss or transfer of the dry media.

However, the primary paper supports were in poor condition, yellowed with age and extremely brittle, exhibiting numerous tears. The cause of physical damage was two-fold: first, the drawing paper was adhered to disparate supports that expanded and contracted at differing rates as they aged, causing the paper to tear; second, this strain was exacerbated by the inherent nature of the weak, short-fibered, acidic paper. In some areas the papers were also detached and lifting from the canvas linings. Other damage such as losses in the paper due to previous handling were concentrated around the edges of the drawings.

Detail of Romance drawing before conservation treatment in raking light, showing numerous tears and bubbled areas where the paper had detached from the canvas lining.

Detail of Romance drawing before conservation treatment in raking light, showing numerous tears and bubbled areas where the paper had detached from the canvas lining.

The papers had discolored yellow-brown overall due to degradation of the paper and the yellowed fixative coating. In some areas there was brown tideline staining, evidence of previous water damage. They also showed evidence of insect damage, where insects had eaten through layers and created holes in the paper.

Preservation needs

The most pressing preservation concern was to release the drawings from their mounts that were shattering the weak papers. Once the drawings were detached from their mounts, Conservation Division staff could take steps to improve the chemical and physical condition of the papers. This procedure was planned and designed by Conservation Division paper conservators Sylvia Albro and Gwenanne Edwards with the agreement of Prints and Photographs curator Katherine Blood. Conservation treatment was conducted by Albro and Edwards, as well as advanced paper conservation interns Mari Kitamura (2018-2019), Tamia Anaya and Grace Walters (2019-2020), with assistance from summer preservation intern Stephon Boykin (2019).

Conservation treatment

The conservation treatment process was lengthy and complicated, and often required the help of many hands. Removing the mounts was a multistep process. With each drawing face-up, we first split the paperboard mount using spatulas to detach the bulk of the mount from the drawing.

Detaching Tragedy from the bulk of its paperboard mount (the gray core of the paperboard can be seen under the drawing).

Detaching Tragedy from the bulk of its paperboard mount (the gray core of the paperboard can be seen under the drawing).

Because the drawing papers were so brittle, the weakest areas needed to be temporarily reinforced from the front to prevent the existing tears from expanding while handling the drawings during further treatment. We attached support papers, called “facings,” to fragile areas around the edges and along major tears on the front of each drawing with an easily reversible adhesive. The facings temporarily stabilized the drawings from the front, while the final mount layers were removed, until the drawings could be repaired and fully treated from the back.

Detail of Romance during conservation treatment, with facing papers temporarily attached to fragile areas to provide additional support during treatment.

Detail of Romance during conservation treatment, with facing papers temporarily attached to fragile areas to provide additional support during treatment.

To remove the final mount layers, we placed each drawing face-down and split the weakly adhered canvas from the back of the drawing. We then reduced dried, hardened adhesive on the back of the drawing paper with a scalpel.

Removing the remainder of the paperboard mount and the canvas lining from the back of Romance, revealing the back of the drawing paper covered in a brown adhesive. Weights hold down the drawing during this process.

Removing the remainder of the paperboard mount and the canvas lining from the back of Romance, revealing the back of the drawing paper covered in a brown adhesive. Weights hold down the drawing during this process.

After the mount layers had been removed, we washed the drawing papers. Washing is a common treatment in paper conservation that reduces acidic degradation and discoloration products and is always proceeded by careful testing to ensure the materials will remain stable throughout the process. There are several conservation techniques for washing that are designed for the diverse needs of works on paper to meet a variety of treatment goals. We treated the Barse drawings using a technique known as capillary washing. During this process, we placed each drawing face-up on a wetted-out absorbent material that pulled out discoloration, degradation, and dissolved adhesive through the back of the paper and prevented movement of the drawing materials on the front. This is a safer washing technique than full submersion in water for works that contain colored and friable media. Towards the end of washing, we reduced any residual lining adhesive on the back of the drawing paper with wetted cotton.

Capillary washing. Left: Placing Fancy, held between two support sheets, onto a wetted absorbent material. Right: Lifting a corner of Romance, between two support sheets, to show the yellow-brown discoloration, degradation, and dissolved adhesive pulled out of the drawing paper and onto the wetted absorbent material.

Capillary washing. Left: Placing Fancy, held between two support sheets, onto a wetted absorbent material. Right: Lifting a corner of Romance, between two support sheets, to show the yellow-brown discoloration, degradation, and dissolved adhesive pulled out of the drawing paper and onto the wetted absorbent material.

After washing, we removed the temporary facing papers from the front of the drawing. We then precisely aligned tears in each drawing paper and mended them from the back. To provide additional structural support, we adhered a paper lining overall to the back of each drawing. Unlike the previous canvas linings and dry mounts, the paper lining is compatible with the drawing papers and has good aging characteristics.

Top left: reducing lining adhesive from the back of Romance; top right: removing temporary facing papers from the front of Tragedy; bottom left: mending tears over a light table on the back of Romance; bottom right: applying a paper lining to the back of Tragedy.

Top left: reducing lining adhesive from the back of Romance; top right: removing temporary facing papers from the front of Tragedy; bottom left: mending tears over a light table on the back of Romance; bottom right: applying a paper lining to the back of Tragedy.

Finally, to visually compensate for missing areas and holes in the drawing papers, we attached toned papers that matched the surrounding paper color to the front of the lining paper in areas of loss.

Detail of Fancy before (left) and after (right) treatment, showing toned paper filling in areas of paper loss.

Detail of Fancy before (left) and after (right) treatment, showing toned paper filling in areas of paper loss.

After treatment, we hinged each drawing into a window mat to protect and minimize handling of the drawings themselves, preventing further physical damage. Thanks to the donation by the artist’s descendants, the stewardship of the Prints and Photographs Division, and the care by the Conservation Division, the beautifully drawn trio Fancy, Romance, and Tragedy, and their history in the creation of the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress, will live on to grace future generations.

Left to right: Fancy, Romance, and Tragedy drawings before (left) and after (right) conservation treatment.

Left to right: Fancy, Romance, and Tragedy drawings before (left) and after (right) conservation treatment.

Want to see more preservation news from the Library of Congress? Receive notifications for future blog posts by subscribing via this link.

The Cool Collective Success Continues: The Opening of the Newest Collection Storage Module!

Our previous blog A Cool Collective Success! Preserving Collections Offsite presented the general details about the Library of Congress offsite storage facility at Fort Meade, MD. Check it out! In this blog, I share our excitement about the opening of our newest storage location at Fort Meade, Module #6, and the many actions taken in […]