Friday, March 11, 2011

Chemistry of print bathing: A Harlot's Progress

“It’s scary to put a valuable work of art into a bath of water,” says Eveleigh Wagner, an Emory senior majoring in art history, who recently completed a restoration internship at the Michael C. Carlos Museum.

Wagner worked with Courtney Von Stein, a senior majoring in art history and chemistry, to remove stains and discolorations from a series of 18th-century prints called “A Harlot’s Progress.” Their work in the art conservation lab was part of a Carlos Museum program to give students hands-on experience at the junction of science and art.

“I couldn’t believe we were allowed to handle these old documents, while being surrounded by Egyptian sculpture,” says Wagner, who plans to go to medical school.

Renee Stein, conservator at the Carlos, provided technical guidance for the students, along with Elizabeth Schulte, a contract paper conservator for the museum. Chemistry lecturer Tracy Morkin asked the students to develop an acid-based chemistry lesson around their restoration project, and create a multi-media demonstration that Morkin can use in her classroom (see above).
In this detail from one of the engravings, innocent country girl Molly arrives in London where she is immediately procured by a madame. The madame shows signs of syphilis in the lesions on her face, a fate that will befall Molly in the final scenes of the series of prints. (Source: Wikipedia Commons.)

“A Harlot’s Progress” began as a series of six paintings by British artist William Hogarth, featuring “Molly,” a young woman who comes to London from the country to better her lot in life, but falls into prostitution. The morality tale of the paintings proved popular, and Hogarth turned them into limited edition prints. (The original paintings were destroyed in a fire in 1755.)

The set of prints owned by the Carlos had once been bound in a book, and had small rips and acid-based stains. Wagner and Von Stein researched the properties of the paper and ink, before working up a solution to clean the discolorations. “Every step of the process had a chemical component to it,” Wagner says.

They used the print bathing procedure to illustrate fundamental chemistry concepts such as pH, diffusion and Le Chatelier’s Principle.

The restored prints will soon be on display at the museum.

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