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The conservation of a pre-civil war lithographic print of a military encampment

I recently completed treatment of a severely stained, discolored and brittle color lithograph of a military encampment at Camp Robinson in Ashland, Virginia. This treatment was performed for the Ashland Museum. Treating this lithograph posed some challenges, as it was extremely discolored due to water damage, and the deterioration of the alum sized paper. The treatment involved a series of several baths on a bed of agarose gel imbued with chelators to reduce staining and degradation products. Once the staining and discoloration were removed, a much brighter and more detailed image was revealed. The transformation was very rewarding to witness. The following is an article written by Diann Benti of the American Historical Print Collectors Society:

Saving an Endangered Lithograph

Posted on  by Diann Benti

On May 15, 1858, Colonel Thomas Pearson August ordered the First Regiment of Virginia Volunteers to assemble on May 22nd for a four-day encampment in Ashland, Virginia. This 1858 meeting was notable as the last peaceful encampment of the militia before the start of the Civil War.

The event was memorialized in a hand-colored lithograph by Richmond printers Ritchie & Dunnavant: First Regt. Va. Volunteers: Col T P August – Camp Robinson. Hanover Co. May 22, 1858. 

Today only two copies of this print are known to exist.

One of these, owned by the Ashland Museum, was in such bad condition that, in 2016, it landed on a top-ten list of Virginia’s most endangered artifacts. The heavily stained, deteriorating print was so vulnerable that it could not be handled or exhibited.

First Regt. Va. Volunteers: Col T P August – Camp Robinson. Hanover Co. May 22, 1858 before conservation
First Regt. Va. Volunteers: Col T P August – Camp Robinson. Hanover Co. May 22, 1858 before conservation treatment. Photo courtesy of the Ashland Museum.

AHPCS’s Shadwell Conservation Grant was created for just such conservation emergencies. Thanks to the generosity of former AHPCS president Wendy Shadwell (1942-2007), institutional members without in-house print conservation facilities can apply for funding to preserve their important American historical prints.

In 2017, AHPCS awarded a Shadwell Grant to the Ashland Museum to save their lithograph. And this past year, the print underwent an amazing transformation thanks to Marianne Kelsey, a book and paper conservator in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Kelsey determined that the lithograph’s 1850s cotton paper had been treated with alum sizing, which breaks down over time and contributed to its extreme fragility.

On November 20th, the conserved 162-year-old print was unveiled at the museum. During the unveiling, Kelsey described her fascinating process.

To treat the print, Kelsey put it through eleven washing sessions—double what she would normally do, and she mended the paper with archival materials. Before-and-after photographs of the lithograph reveal the dramatic difference.

The Wendy Shadwell Conservation Grant program offers a great opportunity for AHPCS institutional members to help ensure the longevity of their significant historical prints. Learn more about how to apply!

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