Retouching of Art on Paper by Tina Grette Poulsson

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  • Journal of the Institute of ConservationVol. 33, No. 1, March 2010, 111113

    ISSN 1945-5224 print/ISSN 1945-5232 onlineDOI: 10.1080/19455220903558215


    Celia Withycombe reviews

    Retouching of Art on Paper by Tina Grette Poulsson,Archetype Publications, 2008, 112 pp., 22.50/$45.00.ISBN: 9781904982135

    In this publication Tina Grette Poulsson has under-taken a challenge that has remained relatively under-researched and under-published in the world ofconservation. The book grew from her student thesisand is the result of a re-working of that manuscript.The retouching of art on paper is a vast subject andyet the book is not a massive tome that overwhelmsbefore even opening; it is just over 100 pages inlength and as such, very manageable. The author haswisely confined her remit and clearly states at theoutset that she is not including the retouching of artpost 1900 (although in the chapter on ethics sheincludes a paragraph on the problems associatedwith modern art, p79), nor Oriental art, three-dimen-sional art, mixed media or photographs.

    The book is neatly presented with a very clear andwell divided table of contents. The absence of anindex maybe forgivable given the way the sectionsare so clearly defined in the table of contents but Iwould have found it helpful for quick referencing, forexample when searching for the use of a particularmedium or pigment.

    The author begins by succinctly defining what sheunderstands by the terminology of retouching andthe confusion that has often arisen from differentinterpretations. She moves on to give a briefsummary of its development and history beginningwith the whole premise that the idea of restoration isinextricably linked with the history of collecting anddealing and ultimately the purpose for which anartwork was created and then treasured. Poulssongives an overview of the major historical publicationsthat comment on the retouching of art on paper withquotations from Cumberland, Maberly, Meder,Hayden and Slater before focusing on the morespecific texts that cover retouching from Lucanus toSchweidler and Bonnardot to Gunn amongst others.The chapter concludes with a section devoted tonewer trends and includes references to some of themore recent discussions about retouching and reiter-ates the call made by Brown and Bacon in their articlepublished in The Paper Conservator in 2002 for a widerdebate on the subject.

    Chapter three discusses the nature and perceptionof retouching (and indeed the artworks themselves)and how, over time, this has changed; which has inturn influenced the attitudes and approach of therestorer/conservator. I thought that this chapter was

    to some extent at least, an extension of the ideascovered in Chapter two and may have benefited frombeing integrated with that section. The discussionthen flows neatly into a chapter on the ethics ofretouching focusing on the principle of reversibility,which has often been used to justify a non-interventive approach, and points out that there maybe a tendency to hide behind this argument due to alack of manual expertiseexperience and intuitionnot being amongst the tangible or quantifiable skillsacquired through the now more academic approachof current conservation training programmes.

    Chapter five is dedicated to current practice in theart of retouching and reconstruction. It begins withthe decisions involved before starting (which areinevitably highly subjective) and briefly touches onthe physics of colour and light before discussing indetail a number of techniques and materials used inthe art of retouching today. I found this chapter themost problematic as the author was (understandably)evasive on a number of points which then made onequestion the whole direction of her thinking or therigour of her practical research. The approach tendedtowards the empirical. For example, a short para-graph on experiments with isolating layers lists anumber of different adhesives (no solution strengthsor solvents mentioned) that might be tried, concludesthat none are very satisfactory and the shiny surfaceleft by gelatine, May perhaps be prevented bylowering the concentration of the solution (p.86). Asa practising conservator, I would assume that inmost situations, lowering the concentration of asolution of gelatine would indeed reduce theshininess it produces but every case will be different,depending on the type of paper, the temperature ofthe solution and the ambient humidity. In the samechapter a section on the subject of paper overlays leftme feeling somewhat bewildered. The author statesclearly, The paper of an overlay should match that ofthe support (p.93) and then continues to give anexample where she (as I understood it) experimentedwith different overlays including two of Japanesepaper to be placed on a Western watercolour paperwhere is the match if the paper is made from adifferent plant? She writes that an overlay made ofJapanese paper, Was toned prior to water-tearing, asthe exposed fibres will generally be more absorbentthan the sized surface of the paper and will easilyabsorb too much colour (p.93) but follows immedi-ately with the sentence, The exposed fibres must betoned after tearing, as they will otherwise appear toolight (p.93/94). I can fully appreciate the dilemmahereboth may be true in theory but as it stands, thetext unfortunately seems to contradict itself. The

  • 112 Celia Withycombe

    Journal of the Institute of Conservation Vol. 33 No. 1 March 2010

    paragraph on the removal of retouching (p.87) waspeppered with the subjunctive and as such could notbe refuted but also clearly reiterated the point thatretouching is a most difficult subject to tackle ingeneral terms and is dependent on very distinct andvarying factors in every individual case.

    The final chapter concludes with a plea for furtherresearch and more collaboration and sharing of ideasand techniques.

    In general it seems highly commendable to publishmaterial that hails from student research which inmany cases never sees the light of day and thereforefrom which the profession as a whole cannot benefit.This book has many merits but I feel that it wouldhave benefited from further rigour particularly in the

    chapter on the practice of retouching; sadly, there istoo much that is subjective and yet at the same timetoo much that fails to be specific or offer a thoroughoverview of all the options available.

    I would recommend this book as a spring boardinto the subject and the theory and ideas behindretouching. I was impressed with the comprehensivebibliography which included much material inlanguages often sadly absent in the predominantlyAnglophone world of conservation publications.

    CELIA WITHYCOMBESenior Paper Conservator

    Oxford Conservation Consortium, UKCelia Withycombe 2010