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Conservation at Camberwell

Mark Nesbitt
24 July 2012
Blog team: 
Once again, students at Camberwell College of Arts have breathed life into historical objects - this year, rice paper drawings, an Amazonian shield and a Canadian cradle.

The Economic Botany Collection at Kew has long-standing collaborations with several object conservation programmes – at UCL’s Institute of Archaeology, the Textile Conservation Centre in Glasgow, and Camberwell College of Arts, London. Over the last few years Camberwell undergraduates have tackled some very challenging projects for Kew, such as Emily Brennan’s work on a Jamaican lacebark bonnet in 2010. In 2012 we were lucky enough to have three students working on Kew objects, so I went with my camera to their annual degree show, to see what they had achieved.

Rice paper

Xiao Yi Gu undertook the daunting task of conserving 12 Chinese paintings on ‘rice paper’. This isn’t true paper, as it is not made from pulp. Instead, thin sheets are cut from the cylindrical pith of the rice paper plant, Tetrapanax papyrifer. I’ve written elsewhere (opens as PDF) about the extraordinary skill required to cut such thin sheets, using a heavy but razor-sharp iron blade. Pith sheets were originally used for making artificial flowers, but in the early 19th century a thriving trade in souvenir paintings developed.

Xiao Yi Gu holds a model mount for the pith paintings.

This set shows the cultivation, harvest and manufacture of rice paper, and was given to Kew by a Hong Kong merchant in 1850. At the time Kew’s Director, Sir William Hooker, was trying to establish the identity of the rice paper plant. In fact the paintings are almost wholly misleading – the artist had obviously never seen the plant – but they remain a fascinating and beautiful artwork. However, the corners of the paintings had broken off, and there were splits in the main body of the paintings. Xiao Yi treated them by gently humidifying the pith, to make it more flexible, then mending the splits with Japanese paper and starch.

Left: split in pith, before repair. Right: after repair, the split is almost invisible

To ensure that the paintings are accessible to visitors, but protected from future damage, sturdy card mounts have been made, with a conservation-grade acrylic window to allow viewing of the paintings.

Shield from the Amazon

Cristina Rico Liria did her placement at Kew and spotted her object then. This shield was collected by Richard Spruce in about 1850, from the Rio Uaupes region of the Amazonian rain forest. It’s been on my conservation hotlist for some time as it did not have a proper box, its purpose – truly defensive or ceremonial? – was unclear, and the faded decoration on the surface was hard to read.

Cristina shows the shield, now safely housed in a special base.

Cristina was able to find out more about the cultural context of the shield. It was probably made by the Desana people, in the Tukano linguistic family. This type of shield is not made any more, but was used in the past during Tukano ceremonies. Examination under UV light revealed complex painted decorations that are otherwise invisible. Although the shield is in good condition, it was poorly packed. The specially-padded mount visible in the photo ensures that the weight of the shield is evenly distributed. Close examination did find some loose strands, which were reinforced to ensure they do not unravel any further. This is an excellent example of a project involving a great deal of research that has really enhanced our understanding of the object.

Canadian cradle

In contrast, Kayleigh Saunders (another placement student at Kew) took on a project involving an object in poor condition that needed a great deal of treatment. This small cradle – a model or toy – was sent from Canada to the Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1886. It was probably made by the Mi’kmaq people of eastern Canada and has the name “Ellen Peters” – perhaps the maker – penciled on the bottom.

Kayliegh Saunders and the restored Canadian cradle

Its construction is complex: a substructure of birch bark, covered in fabric on the interior with porcupine quills on the exterior, and glass beads threaded around the edge. Changes in humidity had caused the bark to return to its original curvature, breaking apart the joints of the cradle, and the quills and beads were very fragile.

Kayleigh humidifies the cradle inside a sealed container

Kayleigh used methanol vapour in a sealed container to soften and reshape the bark. The quills and inner lining were repaired with Japanese tissue, while the glass beads were resewn back onto the edges. This very painstaking work was completed by cleaning the surface, removing some heavy deposits from the old Brentford Gasworks that sat across the river from Kew until the 1950s. Now, as well as being structurally sound, this precious piece of Canadian First Nations heritage also looks as beautiful as it did when first exhibited.

Looking to the future

My visit to the private view of this year’s degree show at Camberwell was a bittersweet occasion, as the undergraduate conservation programme will close in 2013. I look forward to future collaborations with Camberwell’s thriving paper and book conservation MA programme, but will miss the enthusiasm and ability of the undergraduates there who have done such great work on Kew’s collections.


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