Image of stippling wheat starch paste through the Japanese paper repair on CBL J 2499.

A Journey Through Chester Beatty’s Japanese Prints

14 August, 2019

As the Conservation Intern at the Chester Beatty, I have been fortunate to work on a wide variety of objects throughout the first six months of my Heritage Council internship. My main on-going project thus far is the assessment, treatment and rehousing of over 400 Japanese prints.

Chester Beatty collected a wide range of Japanese prints. They date from the 18th century through to the 19th century and include works by some of the greatest Japanese print artists, including Utamaro, Utagawa, Hiroshige and Hokusai. The collection was previously mounted in the 1980s thanks to sponsorship from the Ireland-Japan Economic Association and Friendly Society of Japanese Companies in Ireland and the expert guidance of conservator Takao Endo from the Endo Tokusuiken Studio in Tokyo, but the collection now requires rehousing to facilitate both storage and display in preparation for an upcoming exhibition in 2020.

CBL J 2401 before treatment in old window mount with covering sheet.

CBL J 2415 before conservation with creasing along the upper edge.

The scale of this project has called for a high degree of organisation and the ability to systematically assess, handle and treat the objects. As with all rehousing projects, the first task I carried out was to measure each of the prints. This required taking more than just one measurement as the prints were not always perfectly square. The largest measurement of each dimension was recorded, in order to help me to determine the best size for the aperture and the new mount. Measuring each print also provided me with the first opportunity to assess the condition of each print and note any issues that would require treatment.

My next task was to remove the prints from their old mounts. Due to the excellent previous mounting system, it was possible to reuse the majority of existing hinges. It was relatively easy to remove the old hinge tabs from the back board of the mount. I used a damp, but not wet, brush to re-activate the wheat starch paste applied to the tabs. The tabs could then be gently pulled away from the mount. I kept the tabs in situ where possible so that they could be re-used to secure the prints in their new mounts. Each print had two or three hinge tabs along the upper edge, depending on the overall size.

Once the prints were removed from their mounts, I attached further Japanese paper tabs along the lower edge of the prints which would be used to hold the prints in a new float mount. At this stage, the prints were placed in an acid-free tissue folder for temporary storage whilst I began to treat their conservation concerns.

Working with Kristine Rose-Beers, Senior Conservator, I put together a systematic treatment plan for each print. Examples of the issues I found include: insect damage, tears, delaminating layers, losses and skinning of the substrate. I used thin Japanese paper (Tengujo) and wheat starch paste to strengthen and support each print as necessary. Japanese paper is an excellent repair paper as it can be incredibly thin whilst having long and strong fibres that bind well with the damaged substrate. A piece of Japanese paper was shaped to cover the damaged area with two millimeters either side of the tear or loss. A water cut edge was employed and trimmed to make sure that there was a uniform fibrous edge to improve the adhesion of the Japanese paper to the substrate. The wheat starch paste was stippled through the Japanese paper in situ. This was then covered with a slip of Bondina and gently rubbed down with a teflon folder to remove any excess moisture. After this the repair was placed under weights and left to completely dry. The aim of the treatment was not to repair every flaw, but to stabilise the existing damage and ensure no further damage would be incurred.

CBL J 2499 verso before treatment showing the unevenly cut edges.

CBL J 2499 verso a detail of the fragmentary left edge before treatment, viewed with transmitted light.

Several of the prints had self-adhesive tape on the verso. Some of the tape was still very strongly attached to the print substrate, but as it was not causing damage to the prints it was left in situ. In cases where the tape could be easily removed, it was lifted mechanically with either tweezers or a spatula.

Another issue encountered in the treatment of these prints was creasing along the edges. This previous damage may have been caused by an impact to the edge or inappropriate previous storage. I treated this distortion of the paper with gentle humidification, using a spatula to ease the crease and ensure that the edge was returned to its natural flat state.

CBL J 2404 before conservation in it's 1980's over-mounted in old window mount with covering sheet.

CBL J 2404 after conservation treatment and float-mounted in a bespoke 100% cotton window mount.

Of the 400 prints I examined, 81 required conservation treatment. Once all treatment is completed, I will move to the next stage for the prints when I will rehouse them in new standard-sized window mounts. The prints will be float-mounted so that all edges of the print can be displayed. I am looking forward to continuing my work on this collection, and hope you will enjoy reading about this on-going project in a future post!

Adam Macklin

To learn more about the project do join us for Adam’s free lunch-time lecture A Journey Through Japanese Print Conservation on Thursday 22 August at 1.10pm as part of our Heritage Week celebrations.

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