Conservation of a Japanese Lacquered Photograph Album

Tuesday 2 July 2024

In this blog, Furniture & Wooden Artefacts Conservator Sarah Gerrish reports on conservation work carried out on a Japanese photo album from University Collections (ALB-116).

As a freelance furniture and wooden artefacts conservator working in Scotland, one of the more unusual artefacts I was delighted to have the opportunity to conserve recently was a Japanese lacquered photograph album from the University Collections at the University of St Andrews Libraries & Museums. The wooden element was the cover of the album, covered in black lacquer and decorated with gold and red lacquer, depicting a scene with a body of water and sail boats, a mountain in the background, five flying storks and a male figure carrying a bundle on his back in the foreground. The back cover depicts two flying birds and grasses alongside a body of water.

Front cover
Back cover

The damage to the album consisted of a broken corner, a fragment of which had become detached with some loss to the wooden substrate and lacquer. The lacquer along the edge of the break was lifting. There was wear at each corner of the back and front covers and, in places, along the edges of the cover consistent with age, use and wear and tear. The top corner along the bound edge had sustained an area of loss to the lacquer surface exposing the substrate beneath. The book boards were lifting around the edges becoming detached from the wooden covers. On the back cover there were a couple of cracks in the lacquer across the width of the cover. The front cover had sustained a small dent adjacent to the binding and there was a crack in the lacquer where the substrate had moved where it meets the binding. Lastly there were horizontal striations along both the back and front covers believed to be caused by the wood grain of the covers showing through the lacquer.

Small areas of loss and cracks in lacquer       
Loss of lacquer           
Broken fragment at corner   

Treatment proposals were discussed and agreed with Erica Kotze, Conservator, University Collections to prepare the album for display. The treatment involved the re-attachment of the fragment using Paraloid HMG, 2% Paraloid B72 was used to stabilise the areas of lifting lacquer by injecting it into the cracks. The book boards were stabilised using cold set fish glue to tack them to the covers. The lacquer was cleaned using white spirit and a soft cloth, using the pad of a finger to apply the solvent with a very gentle circular motion. The areas of loss, once consolidated, were tinted using acrylic water colour paints to match the existing finish, to draw the eye away from the damage.

The recommendations for the ongoing care of the album, once it has been on display are to retain it in the box that has been made for it as this acts as a buffer against any environmental fluctuations whilst in storage and protects it from any potential light damage. Further cushioning provided by lining the box with tyvek will help prevent the grain of the wooden cover imprinting on the lacquer. The environmental conditions are required to be kept as stable as possible to ensure that fluctuations in Relative Humidity do not result in movement of the wooden substrate which can cause further damage to the lacquer surface. To ensure finger marks are not left on the cleaned lacquer it is necessary to handle the album using gloves.

After treatment

Sarah Gerrish
ACR Furniture & Wooden Artefacts Conservator

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