My Royal Mile

This week, we have our final blog from Project Conservator, Helen Baguley, who has been working with us for the past 18 months on the Collections Rationalisation Project…

The Royal Mile is an iconic street which runs through the centre of Edinburgh. It is a ‘must see’ attraction for tourists, and one of the first places I visited when I moved up to Edinburgh for my new job which began 18 months ago. Running from the Castle to Holyrood, the Royal Mile is actually slightly longer than a mile, and measures 1.81 kilometres. Here at the Centre for Research Collections (CRC), I have been working within the conservation department on the Collections Rationalisation Project, caring for some of the rare books and archive collections which are housed at the University Collections Facility (UCF) and the Main Library. As my contract here has now come to an end, I have added up the linear meterage of the shelves which house the collection I have been working on, and it comes to an incredible 1801.25 metres. To put this into perspective, 1801.25 metres is just 8.75 metres short of the Royal Mile. But I think my Royal Mile is just as historic and exciting, as it is made up of beautiful rare books, interesting archives and fascinating objects from the collections!

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Conservation Work Placement at St Cecilia’s Hall

In this week’s blog, Alberto Bonza, an apprentice from Italy, describes his time working with conservators from the CRC…

I am writing this blog post at the end of my six weeks of volunteering at the CRC, which I think came far too soon!

I am an apprentice keyboard instruments maker and restorer, working with my father in our family business in Italy. Before my placement in Edinburgh, I worked on various early instruments, such as the 1788 Taskin harpsichord in Milan ‘Castello Sforzesco’, and the 1782 J. A. Stein fortepiano. My most recent work has been the reconstruction of the chromatic harpsichord owned by the Prince of Venosa, Carlo Gesualdo. A few months ago, I decided to contact Musical Instrument Conservator, Jonathan Santa Maria Bouquet, to see if I could volunteer at the CRC in order to improve my skills.

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New Conservation Internship at the CRC

This week’s blog is written by our new conservation Intern, Holly, who is working on a collections rationalisation project within the rare books department…

I am now beginning my third week as an Intern here at the conservation studio, and thought I would take the time to briefly introduce myself and the project.

I am a current student at the University, studying for an MSc in Book History and Material Culture. The opportunities provided through this degree since it’s commencement in September have allowed me to realise fully a long-held belief in the irreplaceable importance of cultural heritage, and I soon wanted to get involved and gain experience in the field of conservation. As such, I have been a volunteer in the conservation studio since January, and when the advert for this internship was brought to my attention, I jumped at the chance.

Holly working in the studio

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Volunteer Voice – Valentina de Riso

In this week’s blog we bring you another edition of our volunteer voice, this time from Valentina de Riso, who volunteers in the conservation studio every week….

Valentina in the conservation studio

What is your name?

I’m Valentina de Riso.

Where are you from?

I’m from Italy and I’ve come to Scotland to study for an MSc in Comparative Literature at the University of Edinburgh.

What do you do when you are not volunteering?

I am a book lover and I have a passion for literature. When I’m not volunteering I love reading, writing short-stories and exploring the city of Edinburgh. I am also keen on old and used books, so I often happen to be in some second-hand bookshop, sniffing between pages and looking for rare books!

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A Passage to India – Part 1

In this week’s blog, Special Collections Conservator Emily, describes the first stage of conserving a collection of Indian portraits…

I was recently asked to complete a condition report and treatment proposal for a collection of 32 portraits from India, known as a Tasawir, dating from the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century. The images have been pasted onto gold-sprinkled paper, and 7 have examples of calligraphy on the back. They are due to be used in a teaching seminar at the University in the new academic year and are scheduled for exhibition in 2017, but need to be conserved and rehoused before they can be safely handled and displayed. Prior to any conservation work carried out on treasures in the collection such as this, a full condition report is required to document any signs deterioration. This allows the conservator to study the object in detail to understand the materials used, the types of damage found and what may have caused it, ensuring that the treatment proposal put forward is carefully considered and suitable for the item. The brilliance of the pigments used, and the detailed nature of the paintings make these items visually stunning and I was delighted to be given the opportunity to examine them closely.

One of the paintings in the Tasawir

One of the paintings in the Tasawir

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Making the Invisible Visible – Repairs on Iron Gall Ink

Last Friday, I attended a one-day training workshop on iron gall ink repairs. The session was organised by the Collections Care Team at the National Library of Scotland and hosted by Eliza Jacobi and Claire Phan Tan Luu (Freelance Conservators from the Netherlands and experts in this field. Please see for further information).

Iron gall ink was the standard writing and drawing ink in Europe from the 5th century to the 19th century, and was still used in the 20th century. However, iron gall ink is unstable and can corrode over time, resulting in a weakening of the paper sheet and the formation of cracks and holes. This leads to a loss of legibility, material and physical integrity.

Document in the Laing collection showing early stages of iron gall ink corrosion.

Unsafe handling can exacerbate this problem. Bending and flexing a paper with iron gall ink can cause mechanical stress and result in cracking of the ink and tearing of the sheet. If this has happened, the area needs to be stabilised with a repair to ensure that further tearing doesn’t occur and additional material isn’t lost.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Books with corroded iron gall ink causing the paper sheet to break.

Paper conservators usually carry out tear repairs with water-based adhesives such as wheat starch paste and Japanese paper. However, this can be harmful for paper with iron gall ink inscriptions. Iron gall ink contains highly water-soluble iron (II) ions. These are invisible, but in contact with water they catalyse the chemical reactions that cause paper to decay. If these ions are not removed before treatment, any introduction of water can cause significant damage to the item. If a tear over an iron gall ink inscription is repaired using an aqueous adhesive, these invisible components will migrate out of the ink into the paper in the surrounding area, and speed up degradation in this location. Since this is not immediately visible, it can take approximately 25 years before the damage is noticeable.

Conservators have only recently become aware of this problem, and have had to develop a method of creating a very dry repair, and a way to test it before application. This is what we were shown during the workshop. First, we created remoistenable tissues for a repair paper using gelatine, rather than the traditional wheat starch paste. Gelatine is used because it has been found to have a positive effect on iron gall ink. It has been suggested that gelatine may inhibit iron gall ink corrosion, however, this has not been proved by empirical research.

To make the remoistenable tissue, we applied a 3% liquid gelatine solution to a sheet of polyester through a mesh. The mesh ensures that an even layer of gelatine is applied to the sheet. Japanese paper is then laid onto this sheet and left to dry. We created three sheets using different weights of Japanese paper, for use on different types of objects.

Eliza creating a remoistenable tissue.

When this was dry we had to remoisten the tissue so that it could be used to fix tears over iron gall ink. We were given a personalised mock-up item to practise this on. To remoisten the tissue, we used a sponge covered with filter paper to ensure that only a minimal amount of water is absorbed. You need just enough to make the gelatine tacky, but not so much that the water will spread away from the repair. Two sheets of filter paper are placed over a thin sponge and just enough water is added to saturate it. A small piece of remoistenable tissue is cut from the pre-prepared sheet, and placed, adhesive side down, on to the paper for a few seconds. This is then lifted using a pair of tweezers and applied to a test piece of paper that has been impregnated with bathophenanthroline and stamped with iron gall ink.

Workstation with four sheets of remoistenable tissue, sponge, filter paper and indicator paper.

Bathophenanthroline has no colour, but in the presence of iron (II) ions, it turns an intense magenta colour. As such, this sheet can be used as an indicator for the soluble iron (II) ions that can cause paper to degrade. If little or no magenta colour shows after application of the remoistenable tissue, this suggests that the repair paper has the correct moisture level and this method can be used on the real object. We used this indicator paper to try out a range of adhesives, to see what effect they had on the iron gall ink.

Bathophenanthroline Indicator Paper.

As you can see from the above image, the gelatine remoistenable tissue resulted in limited movement of iron (II) ions, whereas the wheat starch paste (WSP), methylcellulose (MC) and water applied directly to the paper has caused further movement. I thought that this was an excellent method of testing the repair technique, as it rendered the invisible movement of iron (II) ions visible. This means that a Conservator can be sure that the tear repair isn’t causing additional damage to the document.

Overall, the workshop was very informative and useful. A large number of documents at the CRC contain iron gall ink, so I’m sure I will put this new learning into practice very soon!

Check out this website for more information on iron gall ink:

Emily Hick

Project Conservator

L.H.S.A. is A-OK!

Throughout 2015, I have been involved in many different projects within the CRC. However, I have mostly been working with collections from the Lothian Health Services Archive (LHSA). Overall I have spent 4 months carrying out conservation work on their main collection, and spent 1 month working on a public engagement project.

The majority of the work I have carried out has been on bound volumes. I have spent 25 days working on these items and have conserved 321 volumes. The conservation work aimed to stabilise the objects and prevent them from deteriorating further. Techniques carried out included surface cleaning, consolidation of red rot using Klucel G in IMS, inner joint repair to reattach loose or detached boards, and reattaching damaged spines to volumes using a hollow.

Bound volume before conservation. Spine has become detached

Bound volume before conservation. Spine has become detached

During this time, I have also worked on a few photo albums and scrapbooks. Often, the photographs had fallen out of the albums as the adhesive failed, so I reattached the photographs using hinges made from Japanese paper and wheat starch paste. Although the paper the album is made from is not ideal for the storage of photographs, I wanted to conserve the album as a whole, and keep the way it was originally intended to be viewed. I particularly enjoyed working with a scrapbook that belonged to Yvonne Fitzroy. The pages of the book had become cockled over time, which allowed for the ingress of surface dirt. I cleaned each page using a smoke sponge and was delighted to come across a note and doodle from H.G. Wells on one page of the book.

Note from Orson Wells from Yvonne Fitzroy's scrapbook

Note from H.G. Wells in Yvonne Fitzroy’s scrapbook

I have also rehoused 16 boxes of case notes, which had previously been stored in their original folders, loose on the shelf. I removed all the metal fasteners (paper clips, staples), realigned any creases and carried out tear repairs if necessary. I then rehoused the case notes in acid free single crease folders and placed them in an acid free box.

X-rays are another collection I have been working with. I have sorted through 15 boxes of X-rays in preparation for frozen storage. You can read more about the deterioration and storage of X-rays in the LHSA blog.

X-ray from LHSA's collection

X-ray from LHSA’s collection

During this time, I have also been supervising conservation volunteer, Colette Bush, who has been working on a collection of architectural plans. She has surface cleaned each plan, repaired any tears and removed any paper accretions using a poultice. When this was complete, I humidified and flattened the plans and rehoused them in a polyester sleeve. Together we have conserved 16 plans in this way.

Architectural plan, before conservation

Architectural plan, before conservation

Architectural plan, after conservation

Architectural plan, after conservation

I’ve really enjoyed working with such a diverse collection and have learnt a lot on the way. I’m looking forward to seeing what new conservation challenges arise over the next year as I start working with new collections.

You’ve Been Unframed!

At the start of April, I started conservation work on the Edinburgh University Art Collections. I had previously been working at the Lothian Health Services Archive on a 12-month project to conserve their HIV/AIDS collections. When this came to an end, I was delighted to be offered the chance to work on a new collection at the University.

I started off by unframing a selection of works of art on paper. These items has been previously framed using low quality mountboard. This can be damaging to the artwork as this board can become acidic over time, which can migrate to the artwork and cause staining.

Acidic migration from mount causing brown staining on artwork

Acidic migration from mount causing brown staining on artwork

Unframing artworks is great fun as you never know what you will find underneath. Sometimes, you can find interesting inscriptions or hidden sketches, however, often you find more conservation problems! In this collection, I found that many artworks had been adhered into frames using pressure sensitive tapes, such as masking tape and sticky tape. Tapes such as this can become stuck on to the paper and be very difficult to remove. To remove these tapes, I used the gentle application of heat which softens the adhesive and makes it easier to peel off using tweezers and a spatula.

Removal of masking tape using heat

Removal of masking tape using heat

As these tapes age, it becomes even harder to get them off and the adhesive can soak into the paper causing staining. To remove these aged tapes, solvents can be applied using a poultice. However this can be time consuming, and has health and safety issues due to the exposure to solvents.

Staining of verso of artwork due to aged pressure sensitive tape

Staining of verso of artwork due to aged pressure sensitive tape

Another problem I encountered was that some artworks were adhered overall to a piece of mountboard. This can be problematic if the mountboard is acidic as this acid can migrate to the paper and cause weakening and discolouration of the sheet. Also, if the artwork is stored in high or low humidity, the mountboard and paper will react differently to moisture, and potentially cause cockling (paper conservation term for rippling of the sheet) and tearing. Boards such as this can be removed in small pieces by using a scalpel with a number 22 blade. The layers closest to the artwork can then be removed using a poultice such as the one described in Samantha Cawson’s blog.

When an artwork is unframed, it can give you clues to it’s original condition. For example, when I unframed this artwork by Anne Redpath, I found that there was a clear difference between the areas that could be seen and the areas underneath the window mount. The paint that was white in the exposed area, is pink in the hidden areas; the blue in the visible area is red underneath the mount! The difference in colours could be caused by the effect of light on the exposed areas of the artwork, which has caused the pigment to fade. Equally, the pigments may have changed colour due to contact with an acidic window mount. More research is needed to find out the exact cause. As you can see this discolouration has completely changed the look of this painting and it is hard to imagine how it could of looked originally.

Painting by Anne Redpath, before (left) and after (right) unframing. Note the difference in colour between the areas hidden and exposed to light

Painting by Anne Redpath, before (left) and after (right) unframing. Note the difference in colour between the areas hidden and exposed to light

Sometimes during unframing you can also discover things that are completely new. For example, after I had unframed this watercolour by Alan Davie, I found another watercolour painted on the other side! This watercolour has been protected from the light, and so the colours have remained very bright and vibrant.

Alan Davie Watercolour before (left) and after (right) unframing. New watercolour found on verso

Alan Davie Watercolour before (left) and after (right) unframing. New watercolour found on verso

Here is another sketch I found underneath a mount. The card mount had been adhered to the back of the artwork with multiple dots of glue. I removed the card mount using a scalpel which revealed another sketch of a similar model on the recto, and then removed the adhesive residue using a CMC poultice. This reuse of the sheet is common among artists as a way of making the most of expensive art materials!

Houston, before removing mount

Recto of Houston, before removing mount 


Verso of Houston, after removing mount. Another sketch found beneath


Good framing is essential to the longevity of an artwork. When framing works of art on paper, always use good quality inert materials, such as 100% cotton rag mountboard, and use reversible adhesives such as wheat starch paste. Never adhere artworks directly to a secondary support, instead use hinges made from Japanese paper. And please do us paper conservators a favour, never use pressure sensitive tapes on paper artworks!

If you would like any advice on framing artworks, please do get in contact or check out this website:


Emily Hick

Paper Conservator