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Questions to a paper conservator

conservator examining photographs

Read more about the paper conservation department on this website.

What is the oldest thing you have worked on?

The oldest objects we have worked on are Egyptian papyrus, although papyrus is not technically paper. The oldest true papers are generally the Walkers Art Gallery's collection of Old Master drawings that date back to the early 16th century.

old document with Eqyptian writing on the left and a drawing of 2 figures on the right

An Egyptian papyrus

drawing of angels on old, faded paper

'Angels Playing the Mandarin and Flute' by Carralli (1555-1619) from the Walker Art Gallery collection

What is the biggest thing you have worked on?

This is usually limited by the largest size paper available. Often larger works are made with by combining several sheets together. We have worked on a drawing that was three metres high.

a conservator working on a large drawing, laid flat on a table

A work by George Romney made of six sheets of paper, its total dimensions measure 1015mm x 1260mm

a conservator working on the same large drawing, which is now in an upright position, supported by tabs attached to a wooden frame

A paper conservator working on the same piece by George Romney

Have you damaged anything?

Conservation is a little like chess, you need to know likely reactions to every move or intervention and be prepared to stop or change treatment to account for this. Objects are conserved after lengthy examination by experienced professionals who have knowledge of manufacturing and materials used in manufacture.

A paper conservator applying a consolidant to a flaking pigment on a 12th century manuscript

What are the brown spots on my print or book?

These spots are usually referred to as foxing. This description was given to the phenomenon in the 18th century, as the colour of the spots was said to resemble the colour of a fox's brush. They are a type of mould, often caused by metallic impurities in the sheet due to manufacturing. Foxing is an indication that the paper is acidy. It causes further acidity itself, which causes foxing to develop further.

watercolour landscape painting with lots of brown spots

Edward Lear's 'Plain of Tzeitine', which displays brown spots known as 'foxing'

Can I get rid of them?

Yes. Foxing can be substantially reduced on prints, drawings and watercolours as well as books. This needs to be undertaken by a professional paper conservator.

Has my watercolour faded?

Watercolours can fade. Often the loss of colours, especially mixes of colours, can change the appearance of the composition. Often this has changed so slowly you would not necessarily notice unless some of the original colour remained beneath the mount. Some colours are more susceptible to fading than others; indigo blue for example is notorious for fading. Often the brighter the hue the more prone to fading. Earth colours such as ochres are more stable.

faded landscape painting

'Woodland Fells' by DA Williamson. The trees appear blue due to the loss (fading) of yellow tones from the green.

How can I stop my watercolour from fading?

Keep the framed work out of direct light, preferably in an unlit hallway or if placed in a room, one with a north facing window. The most damaging part of the light is the high-energy blue end of the spectrum. This can be reduced with UV glass in the frame. Regularly changing your display may be a possibility, thereby reducing the overall light exposure on the object.

Where's the best place to hang a picture?

See above. Also avoid placing the work above a fire or radiator.

What should I do with my books?

Store vertically on a suitable study bookshelf. They should stand without leaning and not be packed so tight they are difficult to remove. Always pull the book out holding either side from the centre of the spine, and not from the top - that could split the spine. Regularly dust the tops of your books with a soft brush. Open your windows regularly to air the books.

hands wearing protective white gloves carefully opening an old book supported in a special stand

Paper conservators examining a Medieval manuscript from the Walker Art Gallery.

How should I store my precious family photographs?

Many general photographic dealers stock acid free albums. Your photographs should be held in place with photographic corners.

Is there an archival tape I can buy to repair my torn paper objects?

There is no self-adhesive tape currently available which is archival. Avoid all self-adhesive tapes as these will often fail or stain, and the adhesive becomes difficult to remove later. Old-fashioned brown-gummed paper is a more viable alternative as this remains reversible over a long period of time. If in doubt, or the work is of value to you, consult a paper conservator.

How should I store my family papers and archives?

All papers should be stored in acid free enclosures, either paper or card, or Melinex (a clear polyester film). Avoid any material that you do not know the origin of. Paper suffers from acid transfer, (one material in direct contact with another), and the poorer quality or acidic material will cause the object to become acidic discoloured or stained.

Where can I buy archival quality materials?

Most reputable art shops and framers will have archival boards and papers that can be purchased. There are specialist dealers who stock a wide range of archival and storage solutions, although they tend to supply only in bulk.