Find out how a paper conservator at Kew, Emma Le Cornu, conserved a collection of extremely fragile Chinese watercolours
I have recently completed conservation of a large collection of botanical watercolours that were on a variety of supports including paper, vellum and a very fragile Chinese paper.
Ann Lee Collection
The Ann Lee collection contains 165 botanical illustrations. The collection is attributed to the 18th century botanical artist Ann Lee, with about two thirds of the items painted by her. The remaining approximately 60 items are Chinese in origin, painted on Chinese paper and most likely painted by Chinese artists.
Watercolour on vellum by Ann Lee, 1775, before treatment
There is little information available on the provenance of the collection. It is likely that it belonged to Ann Lee’s father, James Lee, nurseryman of Hammersmith, who supplied exotic plants to Kew. The Chinese watercolours may have been collected by James Lee as examples of exotic plants. The collection was presented to Kew in 1969.
Chinese watercolour by an unknown artist, showing insects in various stages of development: Before treatment
All 165 items were stored in one slim box in paper folders. The majority of the collection was in a fair condition but with tears and creases around the edges as a result of poor storage and handling in the past. These required minor repairs, removal of tape, cleaning of dirt on the surface and re-housing in new mounts and boxes. However, about 10% of the collection was in an extremely poor condition with the supports in fragments and extremely brittle paper that would break into pieces if touched or moved.
Chinese watercolour by an unknown artist, before treatment. The paper is very discoloured and brittle and has broken into fragments
Due to the nature of the Chinese paper, which is very thin and weak, I contacted experts in Chinese paper conservation at the Hirayama studio in the British Museum for advice on treatment.This resulted in collaboration between Kew and the British Museum. I took two of the most damaged watercolours to the Hirayama studio where I was given training by the Chinese paper conservator, then carried out the treatments under her supervision and with her assistance.
The watercolours were so damaged that the only treatment possible was to apply a lining to the back of the paper to hold it all in place. This was very challenging as the paper was so difficult to handle. The Chinese method was the best solution as it is very quick and does not use much moisture, which may cause the colours to run.
In the Hirayama studio at the British Museum, lowering the lining paper onto the back of the watercolour and brushing the back to ensure the paper is fully attached
However, it requires skill to place the lining onto the back of the watercolour in one go and there are no second chances. Two layers of Chinese paper are coated with glue, lowered onto the back of the watercolour then brushed over to make sure the papers are firmly attached. With many practice runs and with the assistance of the Chinese paper conservator, I was able to line the two watercolours successfully.
Smaller fragments needed to be fitted into place after lining. This was carried out piece by piece and fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle. See how this was done on the video below (the process has been speeded up).
Now that the watercolours are lined they can be handled safely without any risk to the paper or the image.
Chinese watercolour by an unknown artist: After treatment in a window mount
The whole collection has now been re-housed in window mounts and in archival storage boxes and is available to researchers and to go on display.
- Emma -
- Find out more about the The Hirayama Studio at the British Museum
- Discover Kew's Illustrations collections
- Read another blog post about conservation work which took place on Chinese tree portraits
About the Tropical Nursery
The main functions of the Nursery are to:
- Form a back-up collection of tender tropical plants used to support science, display and education within the gardens. We supply plants for use in displays in the Main Kew conservatries, for festivals and events organised by the Foundation and the Directorate.
- Supply plants for education purposes to the Schools & Families department.
- Act as main propagation facility for the Princess of Wales Conservatory, Palm House and Temperate House as well as supporting the exchange of plants between Kew and other institutions and collections.
- Provide direct education in nursery techniques and the cultivation of tropical plants for the Kew Diploma course, Apprentice and Trainee programme, Internship and work experience programmes and visiting staff from other UK and overseas institutions.
- Support conservation by working with the UKOTs team undertaking propagation and cultivation protocols on targeted endangered species.
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