Friday, 1 May 2015

Tracing Paper

MoDA's Preventative Conservation Officer, Emma Shaw, shares her knowledge of tracing papers


Last week I attended a two day Conservation of Tracing Paper Workshop at Tate Britain lead by Hildegard Homburger, a paper conservator from Berlin with a great deal of experience in the conservation of architectural designs and art works on tracing paper.  The course was attended by conservators from a range of institutions including: Ireland’s National Libraries, the Munch Museum in Oslo, RIBA at the V&A, and the Tate, as well as student conservators and conservators in private practice.

Here at MoDA, we have a large quantity of designs - drawings paintings and sketches for interior furnishings and dress fabrics made on transparent or semi-transparent papers of all kinds. In fact they probably comprise around ¼ of the estimated 40,000 designs in the Silver Studio Collection

Photograph of the interior of the Silver Studio at 1 Haarlem Road, Brook Green, Hammersmith, taken in 1967. The image shows how large collections of working designs, including those on tracing paper, were stored. Reproduced in Home Decorating Sourcebook: Designs based on the Silver Studio Collection, Mark Turner & Lesley Hoskins, 1988.

Whilst great in-roads have been made into making these items accessible for research and display over the years, there remain a significant number yet to be considered for conservation and documentation in order to make them accessible for MoDA users. This course was very useful in bringing me up to date with potential treatments that could be used on our more fragile, small scale items as and when the need arises; and also for planning projects to make our larger scale designs on tracing paper (currently rolled or folded); and to make more seriously damaged items accessible for museum documentation, or even digitisation should that become a possibility. 

First, each attendee described the kinds of tracing papers we had come across in our experience of conservators and, where relevant, discussed tracing paper collections in our respective institutions. Hildegard then lead the course candidates through the developments of techniques for processing and manufacturing the different types of tracing papers which have been used by artists, designers, scientists, mapmakers and architects since the 15th Century up to the present day.

In all conservation, being able to identify the constituents of the materials you are treating (supports and media, in the case of paper items) informs what techniques will be useful to repair damage, and which ones may be harmful to an object. In the case of tracing paper, it is particularly useful to be informed about the historic processes of production of the material, as it falls into two main types: papers impregnated with oils or resins to make them transluscent, and papers made with other techniques - for example, the use of a brief acid treatment, or simply relying on a very finely beaten paper pulp, thinly dispersed and highly calendared with the use of heavy rollers. Papers made in these different ways respond in differently when used by artists and designers, and their aging properties are quite distinctive. 

SD1454, impregnated tracing paper
SD6861 Semi-transparent 'natural' paper with pencil drawing overlaid with tracing paper painted design (acid treated)

SD12739 Dyed natural/acid treated tracing paper

SD960 acid treated tracing paper with pencil and watercolour design 


Hildegarde discussed the particular handling and aging characteristics of tracing papers that result from the ways that the paper has been made – in particular, discolouration (particularly in the case of impregnated papers), brittleness, and dimensional instability. Also, we considered the possible effects of standard and specialist paper conservation techniques for the repair, stabilisation and housing or mounting of tracing paper objects. The use of solvents and various adhesives was also covered. Hildegarde has worked with a large number of collections of tracing papers, and so, has been able to refine a range of highly specialized approaches over her long career as a paper conservator, some of which she explained and demonstrated.

SD1283 impregnated tracing paper - very typical orange/brown discoloration

SD1519 impregnated tracing paper - very typical orange/brown discoloration

A practical session followed lunch in the staff canteen, where we experimented with tear repair techniques using isinglass (fish bladder) glue, and a range of heat activated adhesives. We also tested out adhesive tape removal techniques. Then, we discussed wetting, drying and flattening techniques that are appropriate for tracing papers, and were shown a video of a technique developed by Hildegarde and her team to unroll and flatten a collection of large scale architectural plans on tracing paper.

SD14116 and SD14115 creased tracing paper 

On the second day of the course, we looked at techniques to infill missing areas in tracing papers, and practiced Hidegarde’s own technique of lining tracing paper architectural plans (not much used these days). This was followed in the afternoon by a discussion of wide range of case studies derived from Hildegarde’s experience of conserving tracing paper, and further questions from the attendees.
We all left with the samples of our work, a very informative CD containing notes and articles, a substantial biobliography of relevant articles, and a lovely mug kindly donated by James Black, the director of International Academic Projects (the course organiser).

It is particularly useful to have attended the course, and to have held our recent ‘in-conversation’ afternoon on MoDA’s tracing papers, since both events have given me the opportunity to spend a little time considering this material in detail and brought me into contact with other conservators who have an interest in, and experience of dealing with transparent papers in a range of contexts, and students researching the material. 

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating! I am a retired conservator trained in objects and archaeological materials. Now I am researching a 20th century artist's career and collecting her work. Now I have her portfolio of 1940's designs, many made on "tracing paper" with adhesive stains, etc etc. Short of hiring a fellow conservator (it may come to that) I am curious to learn more about this conference. Where might I find some notes, cds, whatever arose. Your description is wonderful. Thank you. Vicki in Nova Scotia Canada.

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