British Museum blog

Conserving Dürer’s Triumphal Arch: photography and imaging

Ivor Kerslake, Photography and Imaging Manager, British Museum and Joanna Russell, Scientist, British Museum

Before any conservation treatment could commence, and with the Arch now out from behind its screen of glass for the first time in a generation, we were granted the opportunity to create a series of high-resolution images. The British Museum’s newly commissioned photographic studio was cleared for two days and Dürer’s masterpiece was expertly transported down the six flights of stairs and carefully unrolled in the main studio. Because of the fragility of the print we were unable to position the work vertically, which would have made our work considerably easier, so it was delicately unrolled on the floor. The challenge was then how to get high enough over the print to get it all within one shot. This was the first real test of the new facility. We decided to use a mobile extendable work platform (MEWP). Since the studio had been designed to enable access to and photography of large objects, we had sufficient space to manoeuvre.

Carefully unrolling the print ready for photography, with the mobile extendable work platform in place.

Carefully unrolling the print ready for photography, with the mobile extendable work platform in place.

Senior photographers, Kevin Lovelock and Saul Peckham used their skills to light the print to give an even and colour-balanced appearance, and also employed a raking light technique to highlight areas of special interest to both conservators and curators.

The print recto (front) in direct light.

The print recto (front) in direct light.

The print verso (back) in raking light

The print verso (back) in raking light.

Detail of cotton backing with embossed reversed '1515', the date in which the printing of the Arch commenced.

Detail of cotton backing with embossed reversed ‘1515’, the date in which the printing of the Arch commenced.

While the print was in the photographic studio, scientists Joanna Russell, Joanne Dyer and Antony Simpson took the opportunity to capture some detail shots using infrared and ultraviolet imaging.

Joanna Russell setting up the ultraviolet and infrared photography apparatus.

Joanna Russell setting up the ultraviolet and infrared photography apparatus.

Visible light is only a tiny part of the electromagnetic spectrum – beyond the red end of the visible spectrum is infrared radiation, and beyond the violet end is ultraviolet light. This non-visible radiation can also be recorded in images, by using special lights, cameras and filters. These imaging techniques may tell us more about the materials or construction of an object or artwork, depending on the ways the materials interact with the different wavelengths of light.

The ink used for the print absorbs infrared radiation, so appears clearly in these images, and is likely to be a carbon-based ink. However, an ink inscription becomes invisible in the infrared image, showing it is made using a different type of ink, probably iron gall ink.

TA_Pic_ed2

Left: A visible image of a detail from the Arch. Right: An infrared reflectogram of the same detail. The words ‘The Gate of the Nobility’ do not appear in the infrared image.

Ultraviolet light causes some materials to luminesce, that is to give off visible light. The ultraviolet-induced luminescence from the paper has a yellower appearance in one area of the detail shown below. This reveals that the scene in the bottom left of this detail is printed on a separate piece of paper to the surrounding areas.

Image showing an ultraviolet-induced luminescence detail. The scene in the lower left is printed on a paper with a more yellow luminescence than the surrounding areas.

Image showing an ultraviolet-induced luminescence detail. The scene in the lower left is printed on a paper with a more yellow luminescence than the surrounding areas.

The information revealed from these images can tell us more about how the Triumphal Arch was made, and can help to further inform the process of conserving the print.

The conservation of the British Museum Albrecht Dürer’s Triumphal Arch is generously sponsored by Howard and Roberta Ahmanson. To find out more, see the earlier blog post here.

You can see an interactive zoomable image of the print here.

Filed under: Conservation, Dürer’s Triumphal Arch, , , , , ,

Conserving Dürer’s Triumphal Arch: a moving experience

Joanna Kosek, conservator, British Museum

Dürer's paper triumph: the arch of the Emperor Maximillian

The display of Albrecht Dürer’s (1471–1528) monumental Triumphal Arch in the Asahi Shimbun Display in Room 3 in autumn 2014 was a great success. The enormous print, produced at the height of Dürer’s career to glorify the reign of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I (r. 1486–1519), appeared appropriately majestic in the softly lit room and attracted over 70,000 visitors in three months. Originally designed to be pasted on the walls of princely castles, the impression at the British Museum was never used as originally intended, and is one of only a handful to have survived. In the Museum the print, which measures four metres by three metres, had been lined onto a textile backing and had long been displayed in a massive frame by the Gallery Café. After the Room 3 show it was time to take the print down to inspect, conserve and store it in darkness to help preserve it.

Dismantling the exhibition started with detaching the glazing which consisted of three four-metre-high pieces of laminated glass that had been painstakingly installed back in September by expert glass handlers.

Now we watched the delicate operation of lifting the heavy glass in the reverse order of installation and, yet again, held our breath when giant suckers manoeuvred the heavy green-tinted glass panes, one by one, to expose the beautiful cream-coloured early 16th-century paper.

Detaching the glazing from the print.

Detaching the glazing from the print.

In the meantime, in preparation for taking the print down, we had constructed a huge half-metre-diameter tube in the Museum’s state-of-the-art Paper Conservation Studio. This ‘quicker-by-tube’ production needed to be sturdy but light. As nothing like this was commercially available, the team of conservation mounters made their own using transparent plastic sheeting filled in with foam padding and cardboard rings to prevent collapse, which could damage the print. There was a lot of laughter as two of the team plunged inside the roll to fix the padding! No effort was spared to make the roll perfect for the job.

The specially made tube being carried to Room 3 via the Great Court.

The specially made tube being carried to Room 3 via the Great Court.

The day of the great descent arrived on 17 November. Equipped with two scaffolding towers and supported by heavy object handlers and curators, and filmed by the Museum’s Broadcast team, we first attached the top edge of the vast print to a four-metre-long rod using heavy linen tape.

Attaching top edge of the print to a rod and taking the print down.

Attaching top edge of the print to a rod and taking the print down.

We could then slowly lower the rod plus print down through three successive platforms from person to person and from hand to hand. The print itself was also supported on a huge sheet of plastic with its sides and bottom held taught. Soon Dürer’s masterpiece was safely supported on the floor, and the moving of this flat paper giant did not seem such a difficult challenge now…

Inspecting and rolling the print up for transport.

Inspecting and rolling the print up for transport.

With so many helpful hands to roll it safely, in no time the print was taken onto its grand ascent to our Paper Conservation Studio in the World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre. As we had already rehearsed the route carrying the empty roll, we had no surprises, although that did not apply to crowds of bewildered visitors.

The print being taken through the Great Court to the World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre.

The print being taken through the Great Court to the World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre.

At last the arch was unrolled on the large tables in the Studio and while admiring it and planning what should come next we posed for picture as a memento.

The print laid out in the WCEC Paper Conservation Studio.

The print laid out in the WCEC Paper Conservation Studio.

The conservation of Dürer’s Triumphal Arch has been made possible by the generous support of Howard and Roberta Ahmanson.

You can see an interactive zoomable image of the print here.

Filed under: Conservation, Dürer’s Triumphal Arch, , , , , , , ,

Conserving a Qing dynasty calligraphy scroll

Valentina Marabini, British Museum

Zhu Pin Fang, Head of the conservation studio (centre), Valentina (right) and her colleague Shaozen assess the scroll before treatment

Zhu Pin Fang, Head of the conservation studio (centre), Valentina (right) and her colleague Shaozen assess the scroll before treatment

In a previous post I described a hanging scroll that I was working on – a work of Qing Dynasty calligraphy. It is now finished. I wrote then that I would explain the process used to conserve it, so here goes.

The first thing I had to do was to assess the scroll condition. The scroll is executed on paper – zhi ben hua long-fibered, which looks almost like silk. It was carefully analysed, photographed and the treatment procedure set. We next established the proportions and design for a new scroll mount.

A close-up of the scroll showing horizontal cracks

Unfortunately, the scroll was very creased with extensive horizontal cracks and signs of many previous repairs. However, the paint itself was stable and therefore suitable to be cleaned using a ‘wet’ treatment.

Using a broad paibi brush we carefully sprinkled water over the surface and drained it off.

Applying a wet treatment

When the painting was clean we could remove the old linings. A layer of dry xuan paper was placed over the face of the scroll, and the scroll and its support were loosely rolled up. The scroll was unrolled and flattened over wang wang juen (an open silk) face down and left overnight. During this time the paste and layers of backing papers became softer, making them easier to work with.

Removing the backing layers

To be able to remove the backing papers we had to remove many of the scroll layers. The scroll had three layers of backing papers – (i) a layer of white xuan paper repairs, (ii) a second lining of very long fibred paper and (iii) a first lining of thin xuan paper in direct contact with the calligraphy.

We cleaned the edges of the missing areas, removing old paste residues and lightly evened their thickness with a very thin spatula. Some of the previous repairs were in good condition and were left in situ, but some had deteriorated and so were removed. The calligraphy was now ready for relining.

Pasting the back of the scroll

Layers of paper were selected and dyed with natural pigments mixed with animal glue and water to match the tone. The back of the calligraphy was pasted with thin flour paste using a paibi brush. The first lining paper (a long fibered paper) was moistened and positioned over the calligraphy and adhered with a wuzhou brush. On top of this a second lining of mian lian (thin xuan paper) was pasted; this is called jia tou meaning additional lining.

False paper margins were adhered to the edge of the calligraphy to facilitate joining to its new silk mount later on.

Work continues on the scroll

When the lining was complete we could check the calligraphy itself. Missing areas were repaired with new paper made of mian lian and were evened with a thin spatula. The calligraphy was then turned face up and left to dry naturally.

Retouching the calligraphy

After sizing and drying, the calligraphy was again lightly moistened and adhered to a white xuan paper, face up on the table. We could now start retouching. This is done in natural light, and aims to match the repaired areas to the colours of the original. Ink and pigments are carefully diluted and then applied.

Preparing the scroll for mounting

This process was followed by tou liao, the selection and dying of the appropriate silk to form the new mount. The silk mount was to be in two colours, a plain and a grey-blue pattern silk.

Preparing the scroll for mounting

With retouching completed, the calligraphy was detached and the edges of the mount were squared. The mounting silk was cut to size and attached to the calligraphy using a technique called wa hua: a window is cut precisely in the silk and the calligraphy is inserted into it.

The scroll after treatment

A final double-layered backing paper completed the lining stage and, after a period of drying, wooden fittings were attached to the top and bottom of the scroll so it was ready for hanging. I will write about that in my next post…

Filed under: Conservation, Studying in Shanghai, , , ,

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