photograph conservation

Bringing the Past to Life: Conservation & Preservation of Historical Family Documents

Tape removal is executed using solvents during the conservation treatment of a client’s family tree.

Tape removal is executed using solvents during the conservation treatment of a client’s family tree.

The most common paper artifacts that ordinary people save and collect are documents related to their personal family history. Photographs, love letters, marriage and birth certificates that have been passed on from grandparents and great-grandparents are carefully - or not so carefully - saved in albums and drawers of personal mementos. Our ancestors may not have been able to protect them as well as we might wish, and whether through disaster, neglect or simply inherent vice, paper remnants of a family’s history often end up damaged and deteriorated.

Maybe you’re engaged in researching your family’s genealogy. Maybe you want to pass on some treasured items to your children or grandchildren. Maybe you’re simply curious or sentimental about an item that belonged to your great-grandparents. Either way, a conservator can help you restore and preserve these important personal items.

Our studio regularly treats family documents needing repair and restoration. We clean, flatten, repair tears, remove stains, deacidify, and fill and inpaint losses. We offer advice on proper storage conditions to preserve artifacts going forward, and can provide archival housings such as acid-free folders, mylar encapsulation and clamshell boxes for books and bibles.

A Polish birth certificate c.1905, folded, broken, and inaccessible.

A Polish birth certificate c.1905, folded, broken, and inaccessible.

Previous repairs with tape and bandaids have stained the paper fibres.

Previous repairs with tape and bandaids have stained the paper fibres.

This birth certificate, from a family of Polish ancestry, was recently brought in for conservation treatment. The document, over 100 years old, had been stored folded and the brittle paper had broken along the fold lines. It had been repaired in the past with materials close to hand, specifically sellotape and the unusual solution of band-aids! The owner was hesitant even to open the folded document, and consequently couldn’t access the information written inside, the birth and christening dates of her grandmother.

Removing various tapes from the document with scalpel and solvent.

Removing various tapes from the document with scalpel and solvent.

Treatment included humidifying and unfolding the tightly folded package, removing the pressure sensitive adhesive tape and the remaining adhesive residue, and lining the fragments onto a new backing paper in order to create a new full sheet to stabilize the document. Some panels of the document were missing, but luckily the areas with handwritten text were all intact and the client could finally read the information.

Reassembling fragments of the birth certificate before repair by lining.

Reassembling fragments of the birth certificate before repair by lining.

The certificate is lined onto a new sheet, making it safely accessible.

The certificate is lined onto a new sheet, making it safely accessible.

Ancestor photographs often come in for conservation treatment as well. Restoring treasured heirlooms is one of the most satisfying tasks of our daily work, and the feeling of returning a revived photograph to the descendent of it’s owner is wonderful validation for our hard work. The photograph below was the only image one client had of her great-grandmother, but biological damage had affected the emulsion layer of the photograph. Careful stabilization and inpainting restored the image, and the client was pleased to frame it with museum quality materials for display in her home.

Inpainting losses to the emulsion layer of a 19th century photograph.

Inpainting losses to the emulsion layer of a 19th century photograph.

This small notebook belonged to another client’s Polish father, and was brought with him when he immigrated to Canada after serving in the second world war. Her family now happily considers themselves Canadian, but memories of their father’s war experiences are treasured and revered, and this diary serves as a powerful reminder of the struggles he went though to reach safety. Conservation treatment stabilized it and a collection of other documents related to her parent’s immigration, now preserved for the family’s future.

Repairs with Japanese tissue and wheat starch paste to a Polish immigrant’s notebook.

Repairs with Japanese tissue and wheat starch paste to a Polish immigrant’s notebook.

A charming item came into the studio just before Christmas this year - a client’s childhood letter to Santa. We’re guessing it was c.1970s, by the request for bellbottoms, and the thoughtful request for a mink coat for her mother is very heartwarming. The letter had great sentimental value for the client, and we were pleased to return it carefully restored as a “christmas miracle” in time for the holidays.

Letter to Santa, before conservation.

Letter to Santa, before conservation.

Letter to Santa, after conservation.

Letter to Santa, after conservation.

Family history documents are one of our specialities at Book and Paper Conservation Services, and we don’t consider any items too small to be deserving of careful conservation and restoration. The stories that come with these artifacts make the work worthwhile, and although the documents may not be of much monetary value, the sentimental worth is incalculable.

Custom archival storage folders made to house family history documents once they have been conserved at our studio.

Custom archival storage folders made to house family history documents once they have been conserved at our studio.

Art Conservator and Book and Paper Conservation Services owner Jennifer Robertson recently spoke to the Ontario Genealogical Society about preservation and conservation of family history documents. The talk was recorded and is available for viewing here. If you are interested in learning more about genealogy and connecting with other passionate family researchers in the London area, the OGS’s Middlesex branch website provides information on their monthly meetings and talks.

This small bible (before conservation treatment), travelled with a client’s father while he was on active duty in WWI. The restoration filled losses and stabilized the book, which was then passed on to her son as a family heirloom.

This small bible (before conservation treatment), travelled with a client’s father while he was on active duty in WWI. The restoration filled losses and stabilized the book, which was then passed on to her son as a family heirloom.

If you are interested in having restoration work done on your family documents or simply have questions on repair or preservation options, don’t hesitate to get in touch. Or, view our portfolio of conservation treatments of Archival Materials for more examples of this type of work.

May your artifacts live safely for many years to come!

Book Conservation: A 19th Century Carte de Visite Photograph Album

19th century carte de visite photograph album - conservation treatment

At Book and Paper Conservation Services the variety of objects we treat is broad, but they all have one thing in common - the owners or stewards of the objects have deemed them important enough to be preserved. We often receive objects of fascinating historical significance, and learning about the provenance of the item is one of the thrills of the job for an art conservator. 

An intriguing item came through our studio recently - a 19th century carte de visit photo album with an interesting theme and provenance. The album is from the collection of The Bishop Farrell Library & Archives at the Diocese of Hamilton, in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.

The Bishop Crinnon carte de visite photograph album, during conservation treatment.

The Bishop Crinnon carte de visite photograph album, during conservation treatment.

History & Context

Although it was most recently part of the library of Bishop Ryan, the album originally belonged to Bishop Crinnon, who was the 2nd Bishop of the Diocese of Hamilton from 1874 - 1882. An inscription on the front free end paper indicates it was a gift presented to Crinnon in London, Ontario, in September 1864, when he was a dean of the Diocese of London. It was gifted by Fr. Joseph A. Kelly, a Dominican Friar serving at the time as the prior of St. Peter’s Church in London. Crinnon obviously brought the album with him when he transferred to Hamilton, where it eventually joined the collection of the Diocese.

The Bishop Crinnon carte de visite album before conservation treatment.

The Bishop Crinnon carte de visite album before conservation treatment.

The album contains 89 cartes de visite displayed in specially made pages, inserted through slots in the bottom of two stiff sheets of cardboard and visible through die cut portrait openings. A large number of the photographs depict ecclesiastical figures, some identifiable and some not. Several of the cards have the sitter's name included, either printed on the card or inscribed by hand. It is an intriguing portrait collection of clergy from the early 19th century.

Bishop Crinnon carte de visite album, showing a spread of pages featuring portraits of clergy.

Bishop Crinnon carte de visite album, showing a spread of pages featuring portraits of clergy.

Cartes des Visite

The album is an example of a popular collecting trend of the second half of the 19th century, but with an important twist of theme and local significance. The carte des visite, a photograph mounted on a piece of card the size of a formal visiting card, was a common way to immortalize both celebrities and ordinary people, and they were produced by photographic studios around the world. Sitters would have cards produced for friends and family, and purchase or trade images of important personalities including royalty, politicians and men of arts and letters. 

Carte de visite from the Bishop Crinnon Album of Rev. Edward Gordon, first Vicar General for the Diocese of Hamilton

Carte de visite from the Bishop Crinnon Album of Rev. Edward Gordon, first Vicar General for the Diocese of Hamilton

Verso of carte de visite, with inscription in graphite and logo of the Notman Studio, Montreal, Canada.

Verso of carte de visite, with inscription in graphite and logo of the Notman Studio, Montreal, Canada.

In the case of this album, the collector has compiled a group of photographs featuring ecclesiastical figures, along with some other notable heros of the day. The portraits may have been commercially distributed - much the way postcards are bought in souvenir shops today - or may have been gifts from personal acquaintances of the collector, especially if he was involved in the Roman Catholic community. Many have logos of photography studios in Canada printed on the verso, including ones from London, Hamilton and Toronto. There is at least one from the well-known Notman Studio in Montreal. The album is rich with historical context and provides an interesting opportunity for a study of Roman Catholic clergy in Canada in the late 19th century; the Archives of the Diocese of Hamilton are currently exploring the album's history. 

Carte de visite - Canadian photography studio logo on verso
Carte de visite - Canadian photography studio logo on verso
Carte de visite - Canadian photography studio logo on verso
Page 6 - Photo 2 - Verso.JPG

Conservation Treatment

The album arrived in our studio in rough condition. The main issue was damage to the binding, caused by years of handling of the inherently delicate materials; there was also a fine layer of grime on all of the materials, dulling the vibrancy of the pages and photographs.

Facing paper lifting from a page with the weight of the album.

Facing paper lifting from a page with the weight of the album.

Delicate cloth lining has broken at joint of the final page. 

Delicate cloth lining has broken at joint of the final page. 

Photograph albums were manufactured in a variety formats in the 19th century, and a careful study was made of the mechanics of this particular album in order to understand the structure and to design an appropriate repair solution. The fabric lining attaching the thick card pages together had torn at the joint of the final page, a location which received a lot of strain whenever the album was accessed. As well, the weight and motion of the pages had caused delamination of the facing paper at several locations throughout the album. Repairs needed to be sympathetic to the original binding, while providing strength and stability, and still maintaining the mechanical action originally intended. 

New endbands were applied, in a style that matched the fragments of the originals.

New endbands were applied, in a style that matched the fragments of the originals.

Japanese tissue adhered with wheat starch paste was used to line the spine and repair the joint, the spine was strengthened with a new card stiffener, and new endbands were applied, in a style matching the remnants of the original materials. The binding and pages were surface cleaned to remove the grime, and each photograph was carefully removed from its slot, cleaned, documented on both recto and verso, and replaced. 

Each photograph was carefully cleaned, on both recto and verso, before being documented and replaced in the album.

Each photograph was carefully cleaned, on both recto and verso, before being documented and replaced in the album.

The binding was cleaned to remove surface grime. 

The binding was cleaned to remove surface grime. 

Before and after surface cleaning of the pages and gilding around the edge of the album.

Before and after surface cleaning of the pages and gilding around the edge of the album.

The end result allows the album to be opened, carefully and with proper support, so that the cartes des visite can be viewed by researchers at the archives. The repairs have restored the original function of the album, and the cleaning has rejuvenated the portraits. Preservation of the photograph album will allow it to remain in the best possible condition for future study and appreciation, and we are very pleased to have worked with the Bishop Farrell Library & Archives at the Diocese of Hamilton to preserve this interesting artifact. 

After conservation treatment, the Bishop Crinnon carte de visite photograph album is clean and stable. 

After conservation treatment, the Bishop Crinnon carte de visite photograph album is clean and stable. 

If you are interested in conservation for archival materials in your own collection, don't hesitate to get in touch with us. We provide conservation and restoration for documents, photographs and rare books, and we'll work with you to devise a preservation strategy to meet the needs of your object. Check out our portfolio of treatments and contact information below.

Choosing a Conservator: The Canadian Association of Professional Conservators Can Help

Conserving a 19th century photograph album.

Conserving a 19th century photograph album.

If you are considering having an artwork or document restored, whether it is a valuable collection piece or a sentimental memento, it's important to choose a properly trained professional to undertake the work. 

Art conservation is a highly skilled and specialized profession which aims to preserve and restore cultural objects. Conservators examine, research, clean and repair artworks, while also taking action to prevent future deterioration. A trained and experienced conservator will also adhere to a set of ethical work standards designed to protect artworks and owners from damage or misrepresentation. 

But how can you find an art conservator with the right training and skills ? The Canadian Association of Professional Conservators (CAPC) can help. 

Watercolour painting before and after conservation treatment; brown stains have been removed with washing and bleaching.

Watercolour painting before and after conservation treatment; brown stains have been removed with washing and bleaching.

The Canadian Association of Professional Conservators (CAPC) is a non-profit corporation established in 1971 with the aim of raising the standards of competence, integrity, and ethics in conservation in Canada. CAPC has established criteria and a peer-review process for the accreditation of conservators and conservation scientists and maintains a list of practitioners accredited through the organization. Membership in CAPC is voluntary and it does not represent all qualified conservators working in Canada, however if you want to engage the services of a professional art conservator, the CAPC directory is a good place to start.

CAPC accredited conservators have:

The directory lists art conservators accredited by the organization, and is searchable by name, province, and speciality (such as works on paper, objects, or paintings). A short biography and credentials are included for each conservator, as well as contact information.

Jennifer Robertson of Book and Paper Conservation Services, repairing a rare book. 

Jennifer Robertson of Book and Paper Conservation Services, repairing a rare book. 

Jennifer Robertson, BFA, MAC, the owner and principal conservator at Book and Paper Conservation Services is accredited by the CAPC in the fields of book conservation and conservation of works on paper, including both fine art and archival documents. She has over 10 years experience in art conservation. She obtained her Masters degree in Art Conservation from Queens University in 2011 and spent years furthering her training at institutions including Library and Archives Canada, The Smithsonian Institution, and The British Library, among others. She opened Book and Paper Conservation Services in 2016 to specialize in her area of expertise, the conservation of fine art on paper, archival materials and rare books. 

Conservation grade materials for paper repair. 

Conservation grade materials for paper repair. 

Book and Paper Conservation Services works with private collectors and public institutions to conserve and preserve important cultural heritage objects. Adhering to the CAPC Code of Ethics in all our treatments, we provide full written and photographic documentation, use only conservation quality materials and reversible treatment procedures, and include recommendations for future preservation strategies for all work conserved at our studio. We are passionate about art conservation and we strive to offer the best quality services for our clients and their objects.

Surface cleaning a newspaper.

Surface cleaning a newspaper.

Inpainting losses in a gelatin photograph.

Inpainting losses in a gelatin photograph.

We invite you to read more about the process of having an artwork conserved by us, view our treatment portfolios for fine art on paper, archival materials and rare books, and contact us directly with any questions. If we can't help you with your object and it's needs, we will direct you to another experienced conservator who can.

We look forward to hearing from you!