By Renée Wolcott, Intern, Lunder Conservation Center
When President James Monroe needed a bath, the National Portrait Gallery called on me to fill the tub. I’m a rising third-year graduate student in the Winterthur-University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation. This summer, I’m treating prints and drawings as an intern in the paper lab of the Lunder Conservation Center.
My supervisor, Rosemary Fallon, has been paper conservator at the National Portrait Gallery for twenty-two years. During my first week, she presented me with a major treatment challenge: a grimy, foxed, ink-stained engraving of James Monroe, our fifth president. The early nineteenth-century print also had moisture stains, and its top had been folded back and torn—probably the result of squeezing it into a too-tight frame. Before it could be displayed in the “New Arrivals” exhibition this November, the important engraving needed help.
According to Wendy Wick Reaves, the Portrait Gallery’s curator of prints and drawings, Thomas Gimbrede created the engraving in 1817, basing it upon a John Vanderlyn portrait painted during Monroe’s candidacy. The engraving became the public image of Monroe during his presidency, and now both the original portrait and a rare copy of the engraving are part of the Portrait Gallery’s collection.
Cleaning up the president has required me to use a range of treatment techniques. I began by removing the surface grime with grated vinyl eraser crumbs, which are gentle enough to lift dirt without disturbing the paper fibers. I then tested the solubility of the disfiguring blue ink stain, and used a suction disk to pull the dampened ink into a blotter rather than letting it spread into the surrounding paper fibers.
When the stain had been reduced, I bathed the print in several changes of water at a slightly alkaline pH. Yes, bathed. Art conservation is a field that requires advanced education in chemistry, studio art, and art history—as well as a certain amount of chutzpah. While most people quiver at the thought of submerging paper-based artwork, paper conservators wade right in. (Only, of course, after thorough testing of the inks and other media!) Washing helps to pull out the acidic degradation products that darken paper and speed its deterioration.
When the engraving was still foxed and discolored after washing, I bathed the darkened areas locally on the suction table and then turned to light bleaching. The immersed print was exposed to UV-filtered fluorescent light for fourteen hours: a purely cosmetic treatment that can work wonders in lightening darkened cellulose. The paper is now significantly brighter, more uniform, and ready for mending.
For more information about art conservation, visit the Lunder Conservation Center. Glass walls invite you to watch us work, and a staff conservator offers a public tour every Wednesday at 3:00 p.m. To see the improved James Monroe, visit the “New Arrivals” exhibition, which opens on November 19 at the National Portrait Gallery.