Long before any work of art appears on the walls of the National Portrait Gallery, its condition is chronicled by a team of experts. Some works need the attention of the NPG’s conservation team, a small group of professionals whose training combines art history, studio art, chemistry, and practices of materials preservation.
Recently, when works by cartoonist Adalbert Volck were chosen to be installed as part of the five-year commemorative anniversary tributes for the Civil War, it was noted that several of the works were in need of conservation. These works can be seen in the exhibition "The Confederate Sketches of Adalbert Volck" on view through January 21, 2013.
“Many of them had foxing to some degree,” noted NPG paper conservator Rosemary Fallon, “but some were more severe than others. Foxing is a reddish-brown discoloration caused by fungus in paper and activated by moisture; when it occurs, the discoloration can be reduced without harming the work of art. The answer to the foxing problem with the Volck works was to give them a bath.
“Those works needing conservation,” Fallon said, “were treated by being washed in a tray of a special solution of water and other chemicals. The images were never in danger of being washed away because the black carbon-based ink is very stable.”
Several of the works were immersed more than once to achieve the desired results, that is, a brightening of the paper. “Further measures were taken to neutralize the acidic components, and lighten the foxing in the paper by placing a bank of artificial lights with ultraviolet filters over the washing tray,” added Fallon. The treated art was then air-dried and later humidified and pressed to eliminate wrinkles, or buckles.
Fallon also noted that this particular technique of caring for works on paper “really suits certain types of works. A lot of the nineteenth-century prints such as lithographs, engravings, etchings, and woodcuts with stable media fit into this sort of treatment protocol.”
NPG historian and Volck exhibition curator James Barber commented, “An ancillary benefit of selecting objects from the NPG collections for special exhibitions is that it allows pieces in need of conservation to be given a higher priority than pieces lying in storage, waiting their turn at rejuvenation. I always look forward to seeing the magic our talented conservators have performed on an old treasure, newly restored. This was the case with several of the works by Adalbert Volck.”
Smuggling Medicines into the South / Adalbert Volck / Transfer lithograph on paper, 1864 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution