Restoring life to Audubon prints

Conservation center uses art, science and a lot of care to clean the Maryland State Law Library's originals

October 23, 2006|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,Sun reporter

PHILADELPHIA -- Conservator Anna Krain sprinkles what looks like grated Parmesan cheese on a 19th-century print of winter wrens and rock wrens.

But these crumbs are pure white vinyl eraser. Under Krain's gentle massage, they pull the top layer of dirt from this historic artwork in the Maryland State Law Library's collection of original Birds of America prints by wildlife illustrator John James Audubon.

Over the past two years, the prints have been leaving Annapolis for the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts, a nonprofit workshop housed in a former ice cream factory. Here, they undergo a treatment that blends art, science and TLC.

In painstaking, if sometimes tedious, work, conservators lighten the stains, clean more than a century's worth of grime and fingerprints, uncrinkle the paper and mend rips on what are among the world's most readily recognized depictions of birds.

"The goal is not to make them look new. They have a long history," says senior conservator Joan A. Irving, the chief of paper conservation.

By the end of this year, the last of the prints will have gotten the spa treatment of massages, baths and touch-ups, and will roost again in the public law library. The price tag is $300,000 - part of the $854,000 the judiciary pumped into redoing its rare book room to accommodate this and other works, and get a custom-made case to display two Audubon prints at a time.

Why the state library chief chose to be among 200 subscribers of the prints Audubon was creating from 1827 to 1838 is not known. Neither is the price, estimated at $1,000 to $2,000. A full set of hand-colored etchings created from Audubon's paintings has 435 prints. Over the decades, five of Maryland's prints went missing.

So widely popularized are Audubon's birds that they are miniaturized in dime-store postcards, where they are hardly head-turners. But the real ones in full-size, vibrant colors and minute detail are mesmerizing: "If you look closely you can see the feather markings," says law library director Steven Anderson.

On any given day, the library's Audubon prints - each about 2 feet by 3 feet to show life-size birds - occupy tables, easels, racks and tubs in the sunlit building, consuming nearly all of the 5,000 square feet devoted to paper conservation.

"I'm a birder, so I am in heaven with these," says Ingrid E. Bogel, the conservation laboratory's executive director. "I am having a great time being surrounded by them."

Each print takes the equivalent of nearly a day or more for treatment. They've all been unbound from their books and had their "before" photos shot. Their paper and watercolor tints have been tested to ensure the care will not damage the historic artwork.

Conservators here have cobbled the tools of their specialized field from various disciplines - from bakers racks, chemists beakers, surgical spatulas and schoolhouse carts. Irving points to 2-pound scuba weights that are helping to flatten a print buried under protective white felt and boards.

On a recent day, Krain's white-gloved hands - to prevent adding finger oils to the print - rub circles of eraser morsels on an ivory background blotted with grimy smears and finger smudges. She delicately whisks a Japanese hake brush across the print's wrens and greenery, later enabling its soft sheep hairs to draw filthy eraser grounds into a pile.

The birds and the ferns start to come alive, the background brightens, as though Krain has peeled off a dulling film.

"It's a very light, subtle treatment," Krain says.

Rub too gently and the job's not done, the paper vulnerable to getting leftover dirt embedded in its fibers as the print continues through the spa treatment. Rub too hard and it could be bye-bye, birdie.

Less attention goes to the edges, worn and torn by thousands of fingers. Window mats will hide the discolored page corners.

Removing the fabric and animal hide glue falls to Heather Godlewski at the next table. She carefully rips off the backing as inch-wide strips crackle off the print of the evening and black-headed grosbeaks. Because the glue has dried out, "it's coming right off," she says. Later, she takes a surgical blade to the back of another print, gingerly prying up the edge of the backing, saying, "I don't want a mishap."

Today, conservators are not scraping glue off the prints. Sometimes, glue readily falls off; other times, conservators wait until the glue and paper have been water-softened.

The tub stands a few feet away, but this is no ordinary bath. It sprays a shallow layer of calcium-enriched de-ionized water, which is less acidic for the paper and better at reducing the brown foxing that could have resulted from fungus, minerals, paper flaws or any of a number of other things, Irving says.

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