Craigen W. Bowen
Anne F.Clapp, Curatorial Care of Works of Art on Paper, Nick Lyons Book, N.Y., 1987, 191 pp.
This review discusses the recent, commercially published edition of Anne Clapp's classic work, which originally appeared nearly 15 years ago. Hers was one of the first comprehensive handbooks to appear on the care of works of art on paper; it has become a necessary reference in any such collection. The new edition remains the same as the original in organization, with three major parts: Factors Potentially Harmful to Paper, Procedures, and Requirements for the Care of Paper. The subheadings in each part also remain substantially the same. The material covered by the book is of a basic nature and its substance also remains largely unchanged from earlier editions. The primary differences reflect changes in attitudes in the conservator's use of toxic materials and in increased knowledge of the modern materials at the conservator's disposal.
Part I provides clear and concise information on a number of environmental factors that affect works of art on paper. It includes information about how to monitor the presence of harmful materials and, to a lesser extent, how to minimize the exposure of art. What is does not do is give enough description of the effects of the polluting materials or environmental conditions upon the works of art. This is unfortunate because the introduction to this section stresses that the conservation technician, to whom the book is addressed, should be able to monitor and evaluate the conditions in which the collection exists. Yet readers are immediately cautioned about conditions with no description of how problems will manifest themselves in the objects themselves. For instance, what harmful effects might be observed in the pictures from elevated levels of ozone in the atmosphere?
Part I contains increased discussion of toxicity of materials and some mention of “safe levels” for certain materials. Occasionally, it is unclear whether this phrase refers to the safety of the materials of art or of the humans inhabiting the space, but since the amounts of many materials safe for either are not clearly known, this ambiguity is almost unavoidable. An omission of greater consequence is the lack of discussion or emphasis on the materials used in proximity of the art during exhibition and storage. There is much discussion in various places in the book to proximity to acidic materials and also of limiting exchange of air to thereby minimize rapid environmental changes. However, formaldehyde levels present in exhibition or storage case construction, damaging outgassing from adhesives, and even chemical emanations from fabric liners are not discussed at all. By extension, many conservators have suggested that where these problems may exist it is imperative to avoid creating closed environments which will prolong the exposure of art to the corrosive materials. Although conservators and scientists have yet to produce lists of “safe” materials for these purposes, the conservation technician should be aware that these factors exist and that he will sometimes have to balance the need for control of one set of conditions with conflicting needs in the control of another.
The second part of the book, Procedures, begins with a brief section on examination. While it is accurate and complete, greater detail would be of benefit, especially considering how much attention is devoted to documentation by professional conservators. Examination techniques using raking light, transmitted light and even UV and IR might be described in this section. Most of the care provided to paper depends on accurate knowledge of the physical structure of an object and that knowledge can be difficult for a technician to acquire. Also of use here would be a glossary of terms applied to the condition of works of art on paper. While this is a very basic subject, it is one that can easily be overlooked by the over-burdened technician.
The middle sections of the book, devoted to procedures necessary for the preservation of paper, provides detailed instructions for hands-on work with the paper artifacts themselves. It is logically divided into sections roughly sequential in the treatment of paper objects: removal from old mats and mounts, treatment preparatory to rehousing, and proper matting, storage, and framing procedures. The descriptions are wonderful, especially given the fact that there is no way to illustrate most of the techniques without seeing the objects being treated. This need is the reason training programs for conservators try to allow enough time for actual benchwork. While the techniques described in the procedures section often reflect the personal preference of the author, Clapp does a remarkably good job giving alternative methods.
Part II illuminates the major dilemma of the book: how to provide enough information for the technician without encouraging dangerous practices. In the introduction, Clapp states very clearly for whom the book is intended: the technician who is responsible and conscientious and who knows his own limits and who has a good working relationship with a conservator. Yet the title is “Curatorial Care,” implying even less conservation training or manual talent. In addition, most technicians or preparators function far from the conservators with whom they interact. Certainly the telephone is always available, but the basic reliance must be on the skills of the individual and his ability to know his limits. A further problem is that many technicians work in a collection for several years, train a replacement and then leave so that the new person is quickly on his own.
This situation is described in some depth here for two reasons. First, most conservators work to some extent with technicians who fall into the category addressed by the book and also with some not so sensitive to the problems of physically caring for paper art. Also, we are often asked by amateurs for a reference or text book to help them care for their own pictures. Secondly, some of the procedures described could very easily be classified as major treatment, depending on the work of art itself. Even matting and hinging can be problematic, not to mention washing and flattening. The ease with which rings form during aqueous and nonaqueous treatment make those procedures delicate to perform even by a trained conservator in a well-equipped laboratory. Certainly the author states these concerns and issues numerous cautions to the reader, but one can still question the appropriateness of including them at all.
The final part of the book, in combination with the appendices and bibliography, forms an extremely useful section. Formulas are given for adhesives, fungicides, and alkaline solutions along with the names and addresses of suppliers. The material is straightforwardly presented, as usual, and is quite extensive. Undoubtedly, these pages will be the most thumbed through by working technicians.
Overall, Curatorial Care of Works of Art on Paper remains a major reference for those entrusted with the care of our cultural heritage on paper. Although it is directed at the technician or preparator or paraconservator, the curator and conservator with benefit from a reading to remind them of the many considerations besides conservation treatment involved in the care of paper. The book's flaws and omissions are few and tend to be in matters of emphasis rather than basic substance. My major concern regarding the suitability of some of the treatment procedures for the less trained technician is one which is addressed continuously by the conservator in advising those who care for the majority of collections in this country. The need for care far exceeds that which the comparatively few trained conservators can provide, and we all must delegate some of the treatment to those who live with the collections. In no way does that concern diminish the book's usefulness. Rather, it highlights general concerns within the profession. While Clapp's book might be “edited” by a conservator when it is recommended to a particular technician, it still remains a necessary reference. In addition to its practical value, the book is clearly written with beautifully phrased and sensitive introductory material. The presentation of works of art on paper will be well-served by its increased availability.Craigen W.BowenCenter for Conservation and Technical Studies, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. 02138