About 170 years ago, a prominent Hobart doctor made a series of anatomical drawings for local medical students. Dr Edward Swarbreck Hall’s stunning illustrations later ended up in the hands of his fellow medical practitioner, Sir William Crowther, who donated them (with the rest of his considerable collection) to the State Library of Tasmania. But the drawings were in poor condition, neglected for well over a century, and they needed urgent conservation treatment before they could be displayed. What follows is the story of how our conservator, Stephanie McDonald, brought one of the drawings back to life for Lauren Black’s new exhibition, A Complex Beauty at the Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts. The exhibition will soon be available online as a ‘walk-through’ digital experience (in the meantime, you can check it out on Flickr). Read on to discover more!
A Complex Beauty and a Complex Treatment
In A Complex Beauty, Hobart artist Lauren Black has worked directly with human remains held in anatomy and pathology museums around the world. Inspired by what lies beneath the skin and the history of anatomical drawing and dissection, one particular suite of her works explores the intestines and the missing identities of the removed specimens. Discovering the Hall anatomical drawing that depicts the face of a man, then the journey from his mouth to the stomach and beyond, perfectly complimented these works. It is also is likely one of the oldest anatomical drawings made in Australia, so it is very exciting to be able to exhibit it alongside her contemporary installation works in the gallery.
When I first examined the 170-year old Hall drawing, I found that it was rolled, dirty, covered in fly spots and torn at the edges. There were numerous handling creases, but the image itself was bright and in good condition.
The treatment plan would need to involve cleaning, repair and flattening. It would be time-consuming to treat the fly spots, but in the end, the image on display would be closer to what Dr Hall had originally drawn.
Step 1: Document Condition Before Treatment
The first step was to photograph both the front and the back of the drawing, including details of specific areas of damage. We always record the details and condition of an item before treatment to give an accurate description of the appearance, materials, methods of manufacture and sometimes provenance.
Step Two: Dry Cleaning and Removal of Fly Spots
The drawing needed dry cleaning with a soft brush and removal of the fly spots. This was done under a stereomicroscope using a scalpel with a #15 blade held perpendicular to the fly spot, then breaking through the crust of the spot and scraping it away. Every fly spot was treated this way. I wish I’d kept a count of them!!! The fly spots on both the front and back of the drawing were removed.
Fly spots are a combination of regurgitant and defecation! Both will dry and harden into highly acidic accretions which adhere to the paper and sometimes penetrate through to the top layer of paper fibres. They are unsightly and contribute to the deterioration of the paper support.
Step 3: Testing the Drawing
As in medicine, the cardinal rule of conservation is, “first do no harm.” I had to be sure that the treatment I was proposing would not harm the original drawing. That meant testing each proposed solution very carefully, to make sure that none of them provoked a reaction. Areas of blank paper, damaged paper, each different coloured paint as well as the removed fly spot areas were tested with de-ionised water; 50:50 ethanol/de-ionised water and de-ionised water with a small amount of non-ionic detergent. The testing is also done under the stereomicroscope.
Step 4: Give the Drawing a Bath! Humidification and Washing
Effectively, what I needed to do was to give the drawing a bath – albeit under carefully controlled conditions! First, the drawing was humidified, using a “sandwich” pack of damp blotter under a Gore-tex© membrane and covered with a Mylar sheet of plastic. This allows the paper fibres in the sheet to gently expand and relax with a controlled amount of water vapour, rather than the shock of a sudden immersion in water.
Then the washing bath is prepared with an acrylic sheet and a polyester web sheet on either side to support the drawing. A small amount of non-ionic detergent is added to the bath.
The drawing is immersed for at least 20 minutes under careful watch to ensure there are no unexpected signs of reaction to the wash bath. Once it is clear that the discolouration products are being removed, the drawing is carefully drawn out of the bath and it is taken through rinse baths.
Step 5: Repair
While the drawing is still damp from the bath, tears and losses are repaired with a carefully matched, high-quality repair paper and starch paste. Mounting hinges are also attached after a light pressing.
Step 6: Dry and Press
After the repairs have been made, the drawing is then pressed between blotters to absorb the excessive moisture and while still damp, the hanging hinges are attached with starch paste. The blotters are changed and weight added over at least a week until the drawing is dry and ready to frame.
While the Allport Gallery is temporarily closed, the exhibition can be viewed here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/tasmanianarchiveandheritageoffice/albums/72157663604285824
For more information about fly stains, please check out this informative website from the National Institute of Justice (United States)
To learn more about the doctor and artist Dr Edward Swarbreck Hall, check out his biography at the Australian Dictionary of National Biography:
To learn more about the artist Lauren Black (and some of the amazing historical research she conducts as a part of her artistic practice) check out her website at: