Friday, 29 May 2015

Musings of a Wallpaper Rookie

Middlesex University students studying the Creative Non-Fiction module on the BA Creative Writing with Journalism programme recently visited the Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture, led by Dr Josie Barnard, Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing and Journalism.

This guest blog post is by Catherine Rose Scott, a student who visited the museum as part of this session and was inspired to write about a very special object from our collection, it was written as part of her work for the Creative Non-Fiction module. 

I can't claim to understand wallpaper very well. Even though I know that it is durable and has an impressive variety of patterns, the idea of essentially glueing paper to a wall is alien to me. Maybe this comes from growing up in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, where wallpaper had fallen completely out of fashion by the time I was born. To my friends and me, it was just a word in the dictionary, at which we might have glanced while looking for more interesting terms like “Walpurgis night” and “walrus moustache”.

With this in mind, I stand in the Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture, holding a wallpaper 'sandwich', as its label tells me. 'Sandwich' is a fitting word for the twelve-layered chunk of wallpaper, ripped from a dormitory wall of Peterhouse Cambridge, the oldest college of the university. After accumulating layers for over two hundred years, the piece was removed during renovation in 2001 and donated to the museum two years later. Today, it smells sharply of decayed starch, like a great-grandmother's old house. It is brittle, and I must take care when handling its jagged edges.

All layers of the wallpaper sandwich from a dormitory in the university college, Peterhouse, Cambridge, salvaged ca.1999, Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture, (Badda4869)

For more specific information, I must look at a box of separated layers. Each sheet has been covered with a plastic sleeve and labelled, with approximate dates, styles and production quality. The oldest layer is described as handmade paper from the late eighteenth century, while some can be given even more specific information, particularly 'Mallow', a blue and cream floral pattern designed by Kate Faulkener in 1879. For many years, a series of college students over the years had moved into a room and decorated it to their tastes. Looking at the sandwich, I know that these twelve people came from different backgrounds and eras. Some chose cheap, low quality paper while others could afford the finer, more exclusive varieties. I find the layer with a lattice of ivy leaves dating from 1905 to 1920 particularly attractive. Even after a century, the pattern's detail still evokes the feeling of touching smooth, cool ivy leaves.

The final layer is unlike the others: plain white wood-chip paper supposedly popular in the late twentieth century. I find it coarse and uninviting, like a hastily primed canvas. Even if it was fashionable for its time, it feels more like a mask covering the rich history beneath it.

Fortunately, the mask didn't work, and the many layers once again get to see the light of day. They could have been discarded without a second thought, but somebody recognised them as pieces of mankind's history.

Not all of the wallpaper layers are equally visible. Some can just barely be seen, and looking at them is much like peering through tiny windows into the lives of their owners. This comparison to windows occurs to me specifically because I am also looking through a window into a fashion that I had missed completely. I might not be familiar the purpose of wallpaper, but what I can see is a physical record of the evolution of our culture. This fragile chunk of processed plant matter in my hand is a microcosm of society.

Perhaps my new understanding of wallpaper jumps to too many abstract conclusions, and maybe it is just a quick fix to hide cracks in your wall. But even if I won't be plastering it over my walls in the near future, I am happy to be holding this wallpaper sandwich. I can do this because we humans, with our libraries and museums, are creatures with an urge to chronicle our time on earth. It has outlived many fashions and even some of its owners, and it is satisfying to know that it is getting the respect that it deserves.

A big thank you to Catherine Rose Scott for writing this evocative blog post. Catherine has just finished the final year of her BA Creative Writing and Journalism and we wish her all the success for the future. 

Friday, 15 May 2015

Greetings from MoDA

Claire Isherwood, MoDA Business Manager, highlights the products of one of our Licensees.

The Almanac Gallery, a greetings card company, has worked with MoDA for many years to produce an attractive range of greetings cards for all occasions drawing from designs in our collection. A small range of these cards are now on sale through our online shop.

A selection of the MoDA cards from The Almanac Gallery 

Nicole Mendlesohn, Art Editor, at The Almanac Gallery visits the MoDA Collections Centre and chooses a shortlist of designs for new ranges. Nicole has visited on many occasions but there is always something different to see or a design is seen in a new light. Some licensees have a particular theme or style in mind considering current trends and consumer tastes but occasionally something they are not looking for fits the bill.

Although in a digital age it is possible to license images without seeing the original design, it is useful to see the scale of the design. Of course there is also something appealing about sifting through hundreds of designs to find the perfect one. Many of our Licensees do not use the images as they are and will crop the image to use a detail, sharpen the designs or change the background colour. See below the original Silver Studio design with the Almanac Gallery greeting card where they have amended the design to bring it more up to date with current tastes and a broader audience.

The original MoDA design and the card with a pale blue background

Another example of original design and this time with a bright yellow background 

MoDA's online shop also includes a range of publications drawn from the collections. Good news is that all products now have free postage. We are considering adding more items to our online shop so please do share with your friends and family or let us know what you think.

If you are interested in using designs from MoDA's collections for commercial purposes please contact MoDA's Business Manager, Claire Isherwood (

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.