Before and After
Updated: May 21, 2020
In the summer of 2019 this artwork, below, needed to be ready to show in an exhibition in September, 2019. This is an image of the work before conservation treatment.
How would I get it to look like this image, below? This is an image of the work after conservation treatment.
Before any art conservation treatment could begin, this artwork, Fall in the Foothills, was examined thoroughly to find out as much information as possible about the materials and techniques used. This is a block print done by Barbara Leighton. She used the name Barleigh for her woodcut prints, done from paintings by her husband, Alfred.
When exhibitions are being curated from the University of Lethbridge collection, often the works are in museum quality condition and are ready to be installed. This recently acquired artwork, however, was in need of some care before it would be ready to be shown.
The image below shows a detail of the above work, Fall in the Foothills. After a thorough examination, testing is done to learn more about the properties of the materials used in the artwork. A number of tests are done; the test illustrated below is called an "Ink Stability Test". After a tiny water droplet was placed on a blue section of the ink, an absorbent blotting paper was pressed against the water droplet to see if any pigment was released. The photo shows the blotting paper with the wet spot and a little bit of blue ink that had transferred. This told me that any kind of treatment I would want to do on this work using water would cause a problem with the ink. The term used for ink that is affected in this way is "fugitive" because the ink has "escaped" from the confines of its image "prison".
The test spot is chosen carefully, in a spot where it will not be noticed. In this case I used a visually busy spot in the background area where there were lots of trees, and away from the focal point of the composition. In the photo below, I circled the spot in red. The tiny spot test is done in such a way that the least possible is done to yield the most possible information. The tiny amount of ink that is shown on the blotter square did not take away enough ink for the eye to notice a change, just enough to let me know that the ink is water-soluble. Each colour is tested in this way for stability, and the paper as well is also spot tested with a water droplet to see how it is affected.
The knowledge gained from examination and testing allows me to predict that the next step that can be taken. The image below is the artwork in a humidification chamber which allows water vapour to affect the work and soften the harsh creases seen in the "before" picture, at the beginning of this article. Two sessions of humidification, each time for 16 hours, were necessary to relax the effects of the creasing on this artwork. The very small amount of moisture in the chamber is carefully monitored and controlled since the ink is affected by water.
After a carefully controlled drying period of 24 hours, the creasing has been reduced and the artwork can now be matted and framed for the exhibition.
The September 2019 exhibition focused on Alberta artists, Alfred and Barbara Leighton, and their friendship with Marmie Hess, who in 2017 left a bequest of over 1000 artworks to the University of Lethbridge art collection, 26 of them by Alfred and Barbara Leighton. Read more about A.C and Barbara Leighton here http://www.leightoncentre.org/
Although the artworks from Dr. Hess had been well cared for during her lifetime, and many were in pristine condition, she did live to be 100 years old and some of her artworks had been in frames for a long time and needed some work to bring their framing up to museum quality standards.
Another block print on paper, titled Cool Water by Barbara Leighton was on the exhibition shortlist.
Even though this artwork has many similarities with the first example, I couldn't assume that it would have the same properties. Each artwork has to be examined and tested to determine how it was made and in what state it is. The image below shows an ink stability test and a blotting paper square with a dot of coloured ink. This print had an ink mark outside of the image area, from a mistake made during the printing. It was a great place to do an ink stability test, as once the work would be matted and framed this ink spot would be covered.
The testing showed that although the ink was fugitive, the artwork would be able to withstand humidification and flattening. The image below was taken after conservation treatment was finished.
(That image of adorable fawns reminds me that during the summer of 2019 the art collection staff found a marmot who was living near the art vault building where we were working. We affectionately named her Marmie the Marmot.)
Back to the exhibition preparation: this work Mount Assiniboine by Barbara Leighton was another on the exhibition list. It had some wrinkling and cockling as well as some heavy adhesive corners applied from its previous framing. Examination and testing was done on this work as well.
Another examination tool conservators use to understand more about artworks is transmitted light, which shines a light through the work and shows properties of artworks not seen with the naked eye. The image below is Mount Assiniboine, but using transmitted light to view it makes it look quite different. A pattern of vertical lines is evident, they are evidence of how the paper was formed on a screen during the fabrication of the sheet of paper. This type of paper is called "modern laid" paper. Knowing the type of paper helps me understand the quality and age of the paper. Learn more about old paper here: https://collation.folger.edu/2012/06/learning-to-read-old-paper/
Lighting was used in different ways during the examination: a raking light shows that Mount Assiniboine was cockled and did not lie flat.
Once the examination and testing were completed, the brown adhesive at the four corners was removed using a gel poultice. The image below is a detail of the top right corner with the gel poultice in place.
The heavy adhesive was removed, as much as possible, and the work was humidified and flattened. In this image below it is ready to be matted and framed.
In the cropped image below is another work for the exhibition, a watercolour by A. C. Leighton called, the Hog Hill Mill, Icklesham, Sussex. It shows the matting from a previous frame that was on the work when it arrived at the U of L Art Gallery. The watercolour on paper was glued down to a board, which was then glued with a very strong adhesive to the white window mat on the front of the work, shown in this photo at the left and bottom edges. We decided to keep it the way it was for the exhibition, even though there were some problems with the matting and adhesive used. Sometimes the best long-term care decision for an artwork is actually to do nothing, as some works require too much intervention to fix their problems.
A.C. Leighton painted this watercolour in England in the 1920s, the windmill in the painting was built in the 18th century and was a working mill until the 1920s. It is now owned by Paul McCartney and was renovated to be his recording studio.
Marmie did a double take when she heard that about Sir Paul:
The September exhibition looked wonderful after all the work put into it. If you missed it or if you want to read David's fascinating curatorial panel again, here is a link: https://www.uleth.ca/artgallery/?p=17901
Fall in the Foothills, Cool Water, and Mount Assiniboine are all block prints by Barleigh (Barbara Leighton). The Hog Hill Mill Icklesham, Sussex is a watercolour by A. C. Leighton. All are from the University of Lethbridge art collection; gift of Dr Margaret (Marmie) Perkins Hess, 2017.