Have you ever wanted to know more about what goes on behind the scenes at the Saint Louis Art Museum, like how works of art are conserved and prepared for exhibition? In preparation for new updates to the Museum’s decorative arts galleries, conservators, curators, and exhibition designers recently prepared sections of the 18th century Kempshott wallpaper for reinstallation. If you missed it, read a brief history about the collection in our previous blog post: Beasts, Mistresses, and Interior Decorating: A Story about the Kempshott Wallpaper.
During the summer of 2018, two pilaster-shaped panels were treated in the Museum’s paintings-conservation lab. But this was not the wallpaper’s first time in the labs.
In 1999, several of the 25 Kempshott panels were brought out of storage for conservation treatment to address creases and tears that had developed over time. The works were in need of these repairs after having previously been on view for about 50 years in one of the Museum’s period rooms. The wallpaper was then stored for 20 years while time and funds were allocated for treatment.
The main goal in 1999 was to make the wallpaper easier to handle, store, and display. Conservators carefully cleaned a large wall panel (9 feet by 4 feet) and all 12 pilasters (9 feet by 1 feet). Conservators then re-adhered and flattened paper and removed backings to create a better bond when mounting the wallpaper to new rigid supports. Before Panel with Temple was placed on view in 2005, conservators inpainted missing elements of the large pink-orange design.
The 12 dark-green pilasters remained untouched until two conservation interns began work on them in summer 2017. Two new interns continued that work during the following summer.
The treatment of wallpaper requires a combination of paper and paintings conservation techniques, so the Museum’s interns collaborated with staff from both disciplines. As is often done in paper conservation, reversible glues and pastes were used to mend tears in the paper and re-adhere detached borders. Various materials were added to fill holes in the paper, including powdered paper fibers layered with glue and custom-shaped paper fills attached with paste.
For the paintings-conservation side of the wallpaper’s treatment, professional-grade watercolor and gouache paints were applied to the fills and media losses. This is done with as little overlap of original media as possible, which is why the technique is called “inpainting” rather than “overpainting.” Dry pigments and a clear paint medium were sometimes added to adjust the gloss. All of these materials were chosen because they have good aging qualities and they are reversible, which means that a future conservator can remove the 2018 additions without disturbing the 18th-century block-printing ink. It is crucial for conservators to use reversible materials so their work will not be mistaken as original, and the original wallpaper can still be appreciated in the future.
Once a selection of panels have been completed, they will be installed on a rotating basis. The display will likely include a large central panel with matching pilasters on either side to imitate the original hanging at Kempshott Park.
Now that you know more about the work that goes into preparing artwork for public display, we hope you enjoy viewing the collection even more the next time you visit the Museum’s decorative arts galleries!
Elizabeth Robson was a conservation intern at the Saint Louis Art Museum during the summer of 2018. She is currently pursuing her Master’s Degree in Art Conservation at the State University of New York College at Buffalo.
Keara Teeter was a conservation intern at the Saint Louis Art Museum during the summer of 2018. She is currently pursuing her Master’s Degree in Art Conservation at the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation.