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6 Jul 2023

Preparing frames and prints for Raeburn’s Edinburgh

Written by Lesley Scott ACR, Regional Conservator Edinburgh & East
Collections Care Assistant Molly Lewis and volunteers at the Georgian House clean a gilt slip frame
Raeburn’s Edinburgh features nine engravings whose frames required conservation to prepare them for display. As a learning organisation, this presented opportunities for sharing skills and engaging with Trust staff, volunteers, and the public.

The Trust cares for its many historic properties’ collections and interiors through preventive conservation measures. The property collection care teams ensure each property is kept well-presented and collections are safe from fluctuating environments, light damage and pests.

Putting on an exhibition and preparing objects for display is not the norm for the teams or volunteers but the Raeburn’s Edinburgh exhibition offered a wonderful opportunity to involve staff and volunteers in some practical aspects of the work myself and Regional Curator Dr Antonia Laurence Allen were undertaking. As some of the training was to take place in the Georgian House, in front of the public, we were also able to demonstrate what we were doing and promote the exhibitions opening, giving those visitors and Trust members a sneak peak of some of the exhibits.

I planned a mix of some practical as well as focused conservation learning that offered the Edinburgh region collection care teams and Georgian House volunteers the chance to interact with Trust collections, and give them insights into the specific fundamentals of the conservation of frames, paper conservation and exhibition conservation mounting.

Regional Curator Antonia had selected, through her research of our collections, nine framed mezzotint engravings for the exhibition that were to be mounted in a series on one of the display room walls. Some frames were lacquered, some waxed wood and others had gilded gesso slip frames. Checking their condition – to determine what would be required in terms of cleaning and for any problems that would need to be rectified for display – the mixed styles of frames all had several things in common: they had years of engrained dust, their wooden backboards had over time become acidic or were becoming detached, and all of them required cleaning and reframing to best appreciate the 200-year-old stipple engraved prints they housed.

I first needed the acidic backboards removed so the prints could be further assessed by a paper conservator. Freelance Art Handler Philip Pestell, who worked alongside and upskilled Georgian House’s Collections Care Assistant Molly Lewis, opened the backs of the frames and we removed the prints, carefully packing them into acid free tissue paper.

Understanding and appreciating historic objects can be enhanced through knowledge of the process and skill required to create that item. The staff and volunteers that were to be working on cleaning the frames first needed to learn what materials would had been used in their manufacture.

I set up sessions of frame cleaning, consolidation and minor repair with the Edinburgh collections care staff and Georgian House volunteers, tasking them to closely examine their frames to identify any areas that were damaged, loose or missing before we could begin the next steps.

Although we wanted the frames to look complete and show off the prints inside them on display, we were careful not to over restore any of the frames. Instead we concentrated on surface cleaning, to enhance their visual presentation and stabilise them, rather than making them look as new. However, as I also wanted to let the trainees have a go at casting up missing mouldings, gilding, waxing and toning techniques, I used some prop lengths of moulding that we could practice on. This allowed each participant to understand the processes and skills involved, as well as them being able to practice making, sealing and colour matching the new moulding and toning them to match the original frames. All of the frame conservation was carried out in front of the public, who enjoyed seeing remedial conservation normally undertaken at a conservators’ workshop.

“I was so nervous at first about working on real, old objects, but after attending the sessions I found I really enjoyed myself. It was such a privilege to be able to help clean the frames.”

Once the frames were completed, Paper Conservator Helen Creasy of The Scottish Conservation Studio came in to undertake a day’s training in paper and photographic conservation. Helen explained to the Edinburgh and East regional collection care teams the requirements of works on paper and photographs, in terms of the preservation and management of their care. We were able to look at the paper engravings in more detail, well as other types of paper and photographic material that Helen had brought in.

It was an ideal opportunity for focused collection care training for the staff that interact daily with collections, and to improve our conservation practices: Helen discussed how she would treat a paper or photographic item and offered solutions to how the teams might mitigate for the most common issues and damage she sees in her practice.

‘The opportunity to ask questions and seek object-specific advice was appreciated, as well as gain a better understanding and knowledge of the different paper and photographic materials and terminology, which will be useful to implement in my property,’ commented a collections care staff member.

Paper Conservator Helen Creasy discussing one of the engravings during the paper conservation training session

The next stage was to transport the cleaned, conserved frames and the engravings to our Conservation Technician Stewart Colquhoun’s studio. Under supervision, Bute Intern Alice Law was then able to carefully clean any dust and engrained dirt from the paper. As the prints were in good to fair condition, we determined that surface cleaning and reframing would be the least invasive course of action. Some of the prints were on acidic paper mounts that had caused some discolouring to the paper of the prints, but had not obscured the image. Where possible these acidic mounts and backings were removed.

Once completed, Art Handler Philip reframed all nine prints to Stewart’s specification using acid-free materials and backboards, then installed them at the Georgian House with fellow Art Handler Duncan Marquiss. An induction to the exhibition (including how we put the exhibition together, the remedial work undertaken and the ongoing care for display items during the exhibition run) was organised for the Georgian House volunteers by Visitor Services Manager Sheonagh Martin, so all the volunteers were informed and could meet the curator and myself and ask questions about the exhibits.

The Collections Conservation and Management department at the Trust focuses on ensuring training and knowledge of current conservation practices is delivered to property staff. This series of training was facilitated by Edinburgh Operations Manager Claire Grant, to provide her collections care team and that of the wider Edinburgh regions the opportunity to have continuance in their personal development so they can better understand and learn about the objects they are caring for.

Being able to impart knowledge, in this case specifically how conservators and art handlers plan for and undertake the treatment of objects for display, meant the run up to the exhibition opening was truly an immersive learning process and allowed for understanding of the time it takes ‘behind the scenes’ to curate and mount an exhibition. On reflection we have determined that the training has benefitted staff and volunteers through giving them confidence in undertaking public engagement and knowledge of historic material and conservation practices.

If you would like to find out more about the work of the collections care teams and how the wider Collection Services team supports the conservation of Trust collections and interiors, you can read more here. You can also visit our properties to see conservation in action events, attend talks and go on specialist tours. For information about special events, see the Events tab on the property pages.

Raeburn’s Edinburgh opened on 2 June at the Georgian House, in Edinburgh’s Charlotte Square, and runs until 26 November 2023. The exhibition is included in admission to the Georgian House, which is free for National Trust for Scotland members.

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