Louise Walsworth Bell, Conservator
Written in 1963, Malaga is an evocative 23 line poem written by Pearse Hutchinson during his time in Spain. It was published in his first solo book Tongue without hands and this particular copy is written in blue ink, in Hutchinson’s own hand, on a page from a copy book. It was found in his mother’s sewing box… literally in tatters.
It has been speculated that its state was the result of Pearse’s mother tearing it up in anger but being unable to part with it, keeping all the pieces together. This becomes a particularly poignant telling due to the presence of a notation in the top right corner, in Irish, that reads: ‘Le mo grá- Pearse‘ [with my love – Pearse] and the intense and enduring relationship that they were known to have had.
One of the joys of conservation is the uncovering of histories by the evidence presented, not the stories that often surround an item: in the case of Malaga it was evident that the sheet had never been torn but instead, lovingly folded and unfolded so often that the fibres of the sheet had failed along those storage folds. When paper is torn the edges often ‘skin’, resulting in jagged sides that overlap along the tear: this damage was not present anywhere. Conversely, when paper is repeatedly folded the fibres fail along these lines of mechanical wear and shear, resulting in a fibrous but even split… such damage was present throughout the paper support on which Malaga was written. This type of damage is often found on devotional items that are kept for ritual use and handled often.
Working with a sympathetic archivist and institution, the luxury of conserving an item such as this is that there is no pressure to conceal past damage. The aim is to render an item stable for future access while retaining as much historical evidence as possible, including a degree of surface dirt that denotes handling and maintains the original ‘feel’ of an item.
Torn and crumpled, the poem will potentially sustain ongoing damage simply in the handling required to put the parts together, unfolding dog-eared edges and corners in order to read it. It was this ongoing wear that we sought to mitigate against.
To this end my work was to reattach the parts and infill the missing areas with neutral repairs so the page was accessible for researchers.
Among the difficulties of repairing torn pages of text is maintaining accurate re-alignment of the separate parts. Repairs are carried out from the verso from which the words cannot be seen and so after surface cleaning and pressing I aligned the sheet, face up, and splinted it together using heatset tissue. These splints act like a temporary plaster and are made from an extremely light [lens] tissue that has been coated with heat activated adhesive on one side. Small strips are cut and once the parts are aligned these strips are applied across the tear using a heat spatula, holding the parts firmly in place. The sheet can then be laid face down on the light box and repaired.
For repair, strips of lens tissue are water cut, creating lengths of tissue just wider than the split with fibrous edges that allow the repair to bond without creating a rigid ‘line’ or edge. Lens tissue [10gsm] is chosen as it is extremely light but strong so it can be applied across tears without bulking up the area. Pasted through, these repairs are rendered almost transparent which reduces any visual disturbance when looking at the repaired page. These strips are placed in position and pasted through using starch paste that we make ourselves to ensure that there are no unwanted chemical additives present. At this point, the sheet is repaired but still has missing areas. The splints can be removed as they are now redundant. As they are heat activated, they can be detached without risk of reactivating the paste used for repair. The sheet was pressed to consolidate the repairs before moving on to infilling.
All lacunae were initially infilled using cream wove, an 80gsm, western paper made in Griffen Mill, Ballyhaunis, Co. Mayo, one of the few paper mills in Europe producing conservation grade papers. Although cream wove is a similar thickness to the original sheet it was found to be too ‘strong’ for the largest missing area. Paper is an organic material and as well as its flexibility it expands and contracts in response to environmental changes. If a paper repair is too strong it will introduce tension within the ‘whole’ by moving differently to the surrounding paper and this tension can lead to further damage in the object as well as feeling awkward to handle. Therefore the large, missing portion was removed and replaced using two layers of Kawanaka, a 23gsm Japanese tissue with great flexibility and strength. Smaller repairs were left in place as they were less intrusive and sat well within the original.
All that was left was to trim the repairs and press the work. Initially the work was humidified and pressed in our nipping press. A nipping press applies an enormous amount of pressure on an item and is very useful in consolidating repairs and flattening out undulations in the sheet. However, pressing for too long can remove the characteristically soft’, almost fabric like feel of a well-handled paper surface and long term over-pressing results in characterless pancakes. Therefore, soon after initial pressing the sheet was removed and sandwiched between bondina, blotters and boards in a typical bench sandwich using only light weights. This maintains a good degree of flatness while allowing the sheet to gently relax into its new, repaired format.