Digitising the Conway photographs has been really interesting and enjoyable, but lately, we volunteers have been let loose (figuratively, not at all literally) on the Courtauld Gallery’s collection of prints, which has opened up a whole new and exciting side of things. Viewing and handling these object is fascinating, especially as they vary so much in terms of dates, artists, styles and subject matters. Working on these prints while on the digitising software is proving to be a wonderful way to engage with and explore them- it allows one to, in the interest of checking the focus of course, zoom right in to otherwise easily overlooked details, and even to the individually incised lines of an engraving!
In order to help the volunteers understand more about the objects we are now dealing with, the gallery team is kindly hosting events to introduce us to the collection and explain some of the issues we might encounter; I attended one of these days and I have to say it was all incredibly interesting and informative.
After meeting up in the staff room and acquainting ourselves with each other and with the biscuit tin, we head up many flights of the gorgeous salmon-coloured stairwell to the Courtauld’s Prints and Drawings Study Room.
Here a wonderful selection of works had been laid out awaiting us, and we were free to have a thorough browse.
Using the displayed works as examples, Dr. Rachel Sloan (Assistant Curator of Works on Paper) explained some of the different techniques used in printmaking and showed us some of the tools and printing plates used. First, we saw an engraving — where fine straight lines are cut by hand into a metal plate using a tool called a burin, in what sounds like a slow, labour-intensive, quite precise and controlled technique. Apparently, in order to get a curved line, the plate, not the burin, is turned. Then there was an etching — where the metal plate is coated with a wax ground first and it is this that is drawn upon. Then acid, rather than brute force is used to bite into the metal to form the lines that hold the ink. This enables the artist/craftsman to exercise more freedom in drawing and mark-making. Next up was an aquatint — which is somewhat similar to etching in that acid is used, but the use of a powdered ground allows for the creation of areas of tones, rather than lines. This means that effects similar to those of a watercolour painting can be achieved. These differences were beautifully demonstrated and evidenced by the prints on show, but are proving very difficult to explain!
The last print technique explained to us was the lithograph, and the print used to demonstrate this was Toulouse-Lautrec’s 1895 print ‘Bust of Mademoiselle Marcelle Lender’. A lithograph is produced differently than the other images, in that the image is not cut in to a printing surface, but is instead drawn on to it. The method is based on the principle that that oil and water repulse each other. The artist, in this case Toulouse-Lautrec himself, draws directly onto a stone using a greasy ink or crayon. This allows for a much looser expressive printmaking technique and this is brilliantly obvious in this print: you can see the different marks made – some light and scratchy, some bolder and more substantial, all full of energy and dynamism; it looks as though the performer was caught on stage, perhaps even mid-song, clothes rustling and swirling as she leans forward, giving it her all.
After the prints, Ketty Gottardo (Martin Halusa Curator of Drawings), talked us through three other works, the first of which was an actual Leonardo da Vinci drawing! It was hard not to momentarily consider employing a ‘look, there’s a kestrel’ distraction technique and scurry off with this wonderful little drawing, which is a pen and ink sketch study of Mary Magdalene, thought to be late 15th C or early 16th C.
It was fabulous that instead of being asked to keep our distance or being eyed suspiciously (possibly warranted, see above), we were allowed, even encouraged, to get up close and really examine these works. There were even magnifying glasses supplied for this purpose. I loved the way that it was obvious in this very free and rapid little drawing that Leonardo was exploring different poses and head positions, presumably for a larger work; much though one might try to not get caught up in the whole cult of the artist notion, it did seem quite amazing to almost see Leonardo da Vinci’s thought process in action.
The next drawing we were shown was a 1717 sketch, I think in chalk, by Jean-Antoine Watteau: Satyr Pouring Wine. Again this would have been a preparatory sketch for a larger work, one no longer extant. The different colours and rapid sketchy lines are used beautifully to give some life and depth into the body; I love the darkly delineated slanted eyebrows and cheekbones that mark him out as a fawn and the heavily shaded muscular pouring arm and clenched fist that are done with the fantastic confidence of a prolific sketcher.
The last work we were shown was On Lake Lucerne, looking towards Fluelen (1841), one of many watercolour studies done of the Swiss Lake by J.M.W. Turner. Up close, it was possible to see a variety of highly diluted subtle blue, grey, green and russet coloured washes that Turner so cleverly used to produce this eerily atmospheric scene, where, lit by a full moon struggling to break through, a looming cliff makes a ghostly appearance from the depth of the mists. Astonishing is about all I can say!
I feel we were incredibly privileged to see and spend time with these works, especially as by their very nature, many of them are too unstable or delicate to be on general display.
And as if that wasn’t enough, we were then taken up even higher through the building, through a warren of narrow corridors where I seriously wondered if I should be leaving a breadcrumb trail, and on up to the attic rooms of the Paper Conservation Studio.
Here, Kate Edmondson (Conservator of Works on Paper) gave us a very comprehensive talk about the types of damage we might encounter, about handling the prints, and about how works on paper are cleaned and conserved. This was all tremendously interesting. I never knew, for example, that foxing, the little reddish-brown age dots on old paper can sometimes be caused by metal impurities present in the paper oxidising — Kate thought we might be able to zoom in and identify these metallic flecks while we were digitising! Also curious was the fact that many of the difficulties encountered by conservationists were not necessarily due to the prints themselves but to later additions and interference, such as owner’s stamps and identification numbers etc. These have to be checked for and dealt with before a print can be washed, as some inks in them can flood out and rather scarily seep into the print. We handled furry samples of something called Japanese paper, a fibrous looking tissue used for delicate repairs and were shown a water bath, in which Gore-Tex is used as part of a process of dampening the prints in order to soften them. We were also shown a lovely old leather-bound George Romney sketchbook (late 18th C portrait painter) so we could see the tiny careful repairs the conservation people had been working on – and it was explained how all repairs have to be reversible and removable.
The level of knowledge needed, as well as patience and care, was impressive; conservation doesn’t look like a job for the impatient among us.
Impossible though it may be to believe, I could easily ramble on more; we saw and learnt so much. I will finish up by saying how nicely we were treated; people were so helpful and so generous with their time and knowledge. I for one came away far more interested in and curious about prints and paper than I would have imagined was possible. Actually, it has just occurred to me — printmaking must have greatly enabled the wider distribution and dissemination of images, but now old prints cannot always be accessible. It is therefore rather pleasing that we have somehow come full circle, and our digitisation work will send them off out into the world again to be shared, seen, enjoyed and studied by many again.
By Evie Mc.