Preserving perfection: Restoring Kate Greenaway’s watercolors

Kate Greenaway watercolor
Original watercolor painting by Kate Greenaway

What do you do when your precious artwork is covered in glue? This is the challenge the Libraries’ preservation department faced when they were given five of Kate Greenaway’s watercolors, held in the Children’s Literature Research Collections (CLRC).

Interior illustration from "Marigold Garden"
Page from “Marigold Garden” by Kate Greenaway

Kate Greenaway was a prominent 19th century English artist, best known for her charming children’s book illustrations featuring regency-era dressed children and floral designs. She was born in 1846 in London and studied art at several schools.

Following her studies, Greenaway began receiving commissions for illustrations in children’s books, and she also designed greeting cards. She created illustrations for more than 150 books — including fairy tales, almanacs, verse, and bestselling titles like Under the Window.

Greenaway died in 1901, but her reputation lived on. In 1955 the Kate Greenaway Medal was established by the Library Association (now the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals), to annually honor an illustrator in the United Kingdom, and is the British equivalent of the Randolph Caldecott Medal in the United States.

The Kate Greenaway pieces held by the CLRC were donated by Dr. Irvin Kerlan, the children’s book collector whose donations first established a children’s book and manuscript collection at the University of Minnesota. At some point prior to Kerlan’s acquisition of the items, the pieces had been glued into acidic mats and frames, which by 2018 were yellowing and liable to damage the paintings’ paper. Due to the glue, archives staff handed the items over the the Libraries’ preservation department for care.

Kate Greenaway watercolors with old mats
Yellowing acidic mats glued to original paintings
Old backing of Kate Greenaway watercolor
Damaged and deteriorating backing

When given the items, Collections Care Specialist Anna Shepard immediately went to work. First, she carefully removed any acidic mat board that would come off easily, using a micro-spatula.

Once all of the larger pieces were removed, she began removing the backing. Using a thick batch (4 percent +) of methyl cellulose, she applied a poultice to any areas that had old adhesive residue or backing material (pieces of board, etc.) until they softened (around 10-20 minutes, depending on the material). Shepard carefully removed the softened material with a micro-spatula and cleaned the area as necessary. If the methyl cellulose ever began slightly warping the painting, she would humidify and flatten it under weight. It was a slow but satisfying process! 

Kate Greenaway watercolor
Finished artwork with mats and glue removed
Kate Greenaway watercolor
Finished artwork with mats and glue removed

You can still see the evidence of the damage the old mats did to the artwork, with the dark outlines and yellowing along the edges, but by removing the mats and glue, they will be able to maintain their current state far into the future, rather than further deteriorating. The watercolors are now back home at the CLRC and ready for any researchers who would like to come view them.

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