Conserving Bawden's Pagoda print

By: Eleanor Hasler - 05/12/2013


Kew's paper conservators Emma Le Cornu and Eleanor Hasler had to think big when treating a linocut of the Pagoda by Edward Bawden. Here they explain how this damaged artwork was returned to its former glory in the conservation studio.

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The pagoda print

Accustomed to conserving and re-housing smaller items on paper, Emma and I were pleased to work on something large scale when Edward Bawden’s 'The Pagoda, Kew Gardens' was brought to the studio for treatment. The print is a large colour linocut and is one of a series of fifty that Bawden produced in 1963.

Photo of the print of the pagoda before treatment

The print of the Pagoda before treatment

Edward Bawden

Edward Bawden (1903-1989) created numerous striking illustrations, designs and paintings throughout his career, many of which were reproduced in posters, prints and book covers. He had a strong interest in both gardening and architecture and, consequently, an affiliation with Kew developed, with Bawden often using the Gardens for subject matter. In 1936 he was commissioned to design a London Underground poster for Kew Gardens. He used the relief printing technique of linocut to create the image.

London Transport poster by Edward Bawden

'Kew Gardens' by Edward Bawden 1936 (Credit: the Estate of Edward Bawden)

Why the print had deteriorated

It is his large scale linocuts that Bawden is most famous for, especially his later prints, including 'The Pagoda, Kew Gardens'. By applying very thick layers of printing ink, he could create bold, opaque blocks of colour to create striking and inventive images.

It was these thick areas of printing ink, however, that caused problems for the Pagoda print here in the Library, Art and Archives. Previously housed in a lightweight wooden frame, the unmounted print was attached to the top edge of the backing board. When the inappropriate hinging tape finally gave way, the print sagged and was pressed up against the Perspex. Due to the very slow-drying nature of the oils in printing inks, the media on the print was still tacky and so adhered to the Perspex, causing ink and paper loss in the image area.

Conserving the print

Prior to the print being brought into the studio, some of the ink had been removed from the Perspex using liquid nitrogen. This chilled the ink enough to remove it from the Perspex and then it was re-adhered to the print. When Emma and I received the print, large losses in the media were still evident and the paper was still distorted and damaged from being crumpled in the frame. The paper was also discoloured, mainly at the edges, which indicated the support was acidic and would benefit from having the overall pH raised.

As we are usually able to wash artworks in the sink in the conservation studio, we had to adapt our techniques for this large print. In order to remove the soluble acidity in the paper we humidified and then washed the print, using blotting paper to draw the water through the paper. By adding an alkali to the wash water we raised the pH of the paper and also removed a surprising amount of discolouration. The print immediately looked brighter, with a greater degree of contrast between the ink and paper.

The distorted thick ink layers meant that the print would not lie flat so we decided to line the back of it with a thinner Japanese paper which would serve two purposes:

  • the damaged paper would benefit from the added support of an overall lining
  • the print would be gently pulled flat as the lining dried

Photo of the print drying and flattening on the board

The print dried slowly in a chamber so that tensions remained even

Using a karibari board

The humidified print, with lining paper adhered onto the back, was smoothed out onto a board and then the edges of the lining paper were pasted down at the edges so that as the print dried, tensions were kept even and the artwork was remained flat.

This method of flattening and drying artworks is traditionally used for the lining of Japanese scrolls, the drying board itself is called a karibari board. Where there were losses in the media, we decided to in-paint so that the image would be continuous. We tested a number of different options for in-painting as we not only had to match the colour of the missing ink but also characteristics such as opacity and sheen as well.

Detail of inpainting the ink losses

Colour matching and in-painting the areas of loss.

The Inspiring Kew exhibition

The print is now mounted onto conservation grade board and is ready to be framed and displayed in the upcoming exhibition ‘Inspiring Kew’ at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art in 2014. It will be displayed along with another of Bawden’s prints, ‘Kew Palace’, also in the Illustrations Collection, to show how Bawden was enthused by his much loved visits to the Gardens.

Make your own lino print

Transport for London have created a microsite where you can find out more about Edward Bawden, about the technique of linoprinting, and design your own Kew Gardens Poster!

- Emma and Eleanor -


 

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