Richard Wolbers’ ‘New Methods of Paper Bathing and Stain Removal’: Experimenting with silicone

Update, 10 March 2017: the original version of this article incorrectly reported the use of benzene during treatment, however the actual chemical compound used was benzyl alcohol.

Richard Wolbers was here in the UK again in October 2016 with some updates on his three-day course ‘New Methods of Paper Bathing and Stain Removal’. The course was hosted at Tate Britain, and I gratefully received a place to attend. For those of you lucky enough to have met Richard or attended one of his lectures/courses, you will agree he is one of those rare people who can explain complicated chemistry whilst also having a conservator’s sensibility towards artworks. As an enthusiastic chemist he has kept abreast of scientific developments, especially within the skincare industry, and their applications: how we, as conservators, can use new innovations such as gums and gels for paper treatments. He is also a fount of knowledge when it comes to alternatives to toxic chemicals and biodegradable/eco-friendly options. His new course outline covered his interest in these areas, and there was a great deal of group discussion on both practical and potential treatments using the materials that he brought with him, such as enzymes, chelators, gels and emulsions.

One treatment that we experimented with was the use of silicone as a hydrophobic liquid to protect sensitive media during solvent/wet cleaning. Below are two paper samples from the workshop.


They each had the same continuous strip of pressure-sensitive tape along the edge. For the purpose of the experiment, the media was meant to be considered water sensitive and therefore could not have any moisture introduced. The left sample was therefore immersed in silicone to prevent any moisture from solvents creating a tideline and disturbing the media. Benzyl alcohol was then worked over the top of the silicone, using a soft brush. You could observe the yellow residues from the tape binder being released and rinsed away in the silicone bath. The theory behind it was that the silicone allows the paper substrate to be cleaned, whilst protecting the media from being affected. I was very sceptical about the appearance of the paper sample having been immersed in silicone, but by the next morning the greasy appearance had completely disappeared. The possibility of temporarily fixing very large areas of sensitive media, which is not possible with cyclododecane, is very appealing.

Sophie Sarkodie studied conservation at Camberwell College between 1997 and 2000. Since then she has worked as a paper conservator at the National Museum of Ireland, Museum Conservation Services, The British Library and Tate. Whilst at the British Library she also completed an MA in Art Management and gained her accreditation. In her role at Tate she supports Tate Modern’s programme of exhibitions and displays.

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