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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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This is my first exposure to L of C conservation work, and I am impressed beyond words. I’m familiar with text conservation in other contexts, but that the L of C is working in other fields is news to me. Congratulations and thank. all of you.