Weekly Witter: The future of our heritage – under the microscope

Andrew Bush – Adviser on Paper Conservation for the National Trust finds that there is more than meets the eye down his microscope.

One of the favourite tools of my trade is a trusted digital microscope, not much bigger than a fat cigar but capable of up to 200 times magnification. It’s a very portable piece of kit, which is a good thing as I travel all over examining collections in any of the 200 or so historic properties on my patch. Although I have had it for a couple of years now, I am only just beginning to realise its wider potential use, of which more later.

A typical use for the microscope is to help me examine the condition of some of the Trust’s 1,400 portrait miniatures, many dating from the 18th century. The majority of these are painted in watercolours, with a very fine brush on wafer thin sheets of ivory. The ivory is so thin, and translucent, that it can be painted on the reverse to give subtle toning to the face as seen from the front. Sometimes a sheet of silver leaf was placed behind to give added luminosity.

As far as conservation and stability is concerned, the marriage of ivory and water based paints is not a happy one. It is the inability of the watercolour to keep a grip on the smooth surface of the ivory together with the shrinkage and expansion of this thin organic support that leads to flaking and splitting. This, along with keeping an eye out for mould growth, is the purpose of my visit…..At least I used to think that this was the purpose of my conservation assessments, things have changed.

Antoine Vestier (Avallon, Yonne 1740 – Paris 1824)  The Artist's Wife: Marie Ann Révérend, Madame Antoine Vestier.

Antoine Vestier (Avallon, Yonne 1740 – Paris 1824)
The Artist’s Wife: Marie Ann Révérend, Madame Antoine Vestier.

When I am carrying out a survey, I am usually with our collections in our showrooms and often the house will be open to visitors. If I am looking at something particularly delicate, or if distractions are to be avoided, I might be tucked away in a quiet corner, but increasingly I am working in front of the public, discussing what I am doing with anyone interested. It is this interaction with the visitors that I believe could potentially have just as much significance for the future well being of our collections, as any observations and recommendations for care or remedial treatment that I make in my reports. It is not only in raising awareness of the need for conservation, but showing that there are career opportunities in conservation. This is where my digital microscope has such a powerful role, it acts as a magnet to nearly every young visitor, and hopefully, who knows, for some of them it will be a way marker on a route to a career in conservation. Until I was at University I had absolutely no idea that a career as a conservator was possible, hopefully through the powers of microscopy others might cotton on faster than I did.

  • The Weekly Witter is a regular mouthpiece for our many specialists to talk about what’s on their minds at the moment.
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