Preserving Britain's Paper Trail

Mary Goodwin oversees National Trust's cache of paper objects - from globes to wallpaper

`YOU walk into an attic," says Mary Goodwin, paper conservator for Britain's National Trust, "and find it contains 1,000 letters, six boxes of photographs, and all sorts of dusty old prints nobody - except the dead and dying insect life - has seen before. You are leaving for home in two hours! What do you do?"

What she does is take photographs and make notes to prepare a report with recommendations for conservation and storage of the hitherto forgotten material. And then she waits to see if money can be found for this latest project among many.

Merryl Huxtable, a paper conservator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, describes Ms. Goodwin as "really knowledgeable - and diplomatic: dealing with people as well as objects. She has one of the toughest jobs in the profession."

Goodwin oversees the conservation of thousands of paper items: anything made of it, painted, drawn or printed on it, in more than 200 old houses owned by the Trust, "often in remote locations," as Huxtable points out. Wallpaper, globes, prints, archives, magazines, photographs, Victorian scrap-screens, even a shell grotto with inset watercolors, are all under her purview.

She could feel overwhelmed; but while she's very serious about her work, she takes things lightly and brightly.

It has been 11 years since she became overseer for the Trust's vast holding of paper artifacts. She trained as a paper conservator at the Victoria and Albert Museum in the early '70s - working there for a further five years - at a time when paper conservators were rare animals, their training virtually unknown.

`I WAS the first paper conservation student the V. and A. had," she says. Training was in its infancy. It wasn't really a recognized profession. Goodwin recalls, "just a few print dealers near the British Museum who occasionally cleaned up prints, but I've no idea what they did to them." She laughs with horror at the thought. Dealers' ethics can sometimes bend under the need to sell, and even today, when there has been a standard-setting Institute of Paper Conservation in the United Kingdom for 18 years , conservators may be asked to go too far in making a work look undamaged.

Things have changed. "There was a sudden explosion of paper conservators in about 1972 to '75," says Judith Chantry, restorer of works of art on paper at Oxford's Ashmolean Museum. Now Goodwin can call on conservators across the country to take on Trust work. Two courses are available in the UK, and Goodwin does her share of training others. Her own training was under a program set up by Margaret Thatcher when she was Education Minister. "Quite a heavy course," Goodwin remembers, "with a lot of science."

She had first wanted to be a sculptor. She went to art school and was told she was really a painter. A year of teacher training at a university followed. When she was chosen for the V. and A. course, her experience of paper was minimal and of science elementary. There she learned about light and acidity, damp and mold, paper chemistry, relative humidity, glues, pollution damage, etc.

"For paper conservation you have to have both sides," she says: art and science. This is even more true of her Trust work than it was in the museum. There, works on paper are conserved more for study than display. Concealing repairs is not expected; the aim is preserving for posterity.

For the Trust, posterity is no less important, but there is an additional factor. Goodwin describes this as "a bit of theater." To a museum conservator, it might look like cosmetics. But to the public and the National Trust, the objects "are not individual," she says: "They are part of a room, of a collection, and of someone's history."

Goodwin says she is "a practical person." The decoration of her delightful neo-Napoleonic studio apartment in Hammersmith, her own work, is witness to that. With such an imaginative eye for decor, and some stage designs under her belt, Goodwin clearly enjoys the requirement that the Trust's paper objects be returned to their context in some great old house "looking as if they've never been touched."

CHECKING deterioration is one thing; retouching and finishing is another. The scientific and aesthetic work must be completely reversible - and invisible. But it took her a while to change to the Trust's way of thinking on preservation. It involves, for example, avoiding the too-fresh appearance of newly conserved paper so that a print or watercolor doesn't stick out in a room frozen in the 1780s or 1850s. "But," she emphasizes, "the [Trust's] conservation standards are exactly the same as in a museum."

Yet some of the environmental challenges she encounters may be different: damp rising up 13-feet-thick stone castle walls, the effect of crowds of visitors, and high light levels. Compromises are needed. In a house like the great Elizabethan Hardwick Hall, once described as more glass than wall, the glorious windows have to be covered with blinds to protect textiles and works on paper. But over the last decade, as anyone visiting a museum show of works on paper knows, the conservationists have got their message across with a vengeance: You have to peer at the Leonardos in a medieval dimness.

"Perhaps we have gone too far," Goodwin concedes, "and we haven't yet reached a balance. But the one thing we are aware of is that light damage is cumulative. It can be calculated by the number of hours a work is on display in certain light levels.

The Trust requires "that objects have to be preserved `forever,' " Goodwin says. She accepts the ideal, but realizes its impossibility. "In the United States, they are far more generous about this," she observes. "They've decided that `forever' is really a few generations." But in the UK, she says, "forever" makes paper conservators "quite fierce about how often things are displayed" - another responsibility that this genial guardian accepts with grace and realism.

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