During the Print Room Open House ‘Storylines’, from 25-29 January, postgraduate Print Room Assistants are presenting artworks that explore the variety of methods artists use to tell a story. When preparing my own presentation for William Hogarth’s engravings Before and After, I additionally wanted to consider the ‘story’ of the physical object itself. Kate Edmondson, Conservator of Works on Paper for the Courtauld Gallery, guided my exploration of the objects’ histories from the fabrication of the paper to the application of the ink, through the hands of collectors and conservators to storage and display at The Courtauld.
Before and After are generally in very good condition, yet small irregularities or imperfections provide clues to the making of the prints. ‘Raking light’ is one of the conservator’s simplest and most useful tools. Simply shining light across the paper at a low angle reveals the texture of the paper and medium, details that are generally imperceptible to the naked eye. Examining Before in raking light reveals a raised vertical line extending from the top edge of the paper towards the center of the image. My first instinct was to assume that this was a tear or accidental fold. But Kate determined that because the ink is neither interrupted nor distorted, as it would be by a tear or fold, this mark is actually a natural crease resulting from the paper making process.
A more noticeable blemish on Before is located just above the dog’s head, on the skirt of the female figure. This small, round, bare patch at first appears to be the result of damage. However, examining the mark under the stereomicroscope, Kate deduced that this imperfection occurred during the printing process. The outline of ink that delineates the bare spot tells the story of how the raised surface of an accretion, or an unknown foreign body, disrupted the application of the inked design and caused the ink to pool. (Imagine rainwater pooling around the bottom of a hill, creating a ring of water around the base.) It was likely that the accretion was sitting on the surface of the paper as it was pressed to the printing plate. Today the accretion is no longer there, leaving the small, un-inked circular patch.
Furthermore, raking light reveals that After was previously folded in half across the middle. Kate explained that such a strong fold such as this is difficult to completely remove because paper retains an irrevocable ‘memory’ of such deformations. But one way to try and reduce its visual distraction is to apply a repair on the verso along the fold to “ease” out the noticeable ridge. In this case a Japanese paper (a strong, lightweight, translucent paper) was applied with conservation grade adhesive across the whole of the verso. The Japanese paper lining tells the most recent story of the prints, when they became part of The Courtauld’s collection and were prepared for display. The conservation efforts minimize the visibility of the imperfections of the print for the viewer, but are also completely reversible, allowing for the story of the object to continue evolving in the future.
To discover these stories and more of Hogarth’s Before and After, all are welcome to stop by the Print Room Open House on Wednesday 27 January from 1:30-5pm.