Emergency recovery after a disaster

What to do in an emergency if you spill something on a work of art on paper

Last week I had a phone call from a distressed client who had an emergency and had managed to spill a glass of water over a beloved framed map. Water had got into the frame and was creeping up the map. Fortunately, I was free and encouraged her not to attempt to remove the map from the frame and to bring it to my studio that very evening. Speed was of the essence!

Water stains on paper

The map was framed unusually between two sheets of old glass and the glass pinned into the frame – so needed to be carefully taken apart before the map could be extracted. Another problem that I may have encountered was the map being stuck to the glass – this often happens, so I was very careful to check that this was not the case. Thankfully it was not stuck!

Dirty paper and water

Dirty paper and water do not bode well. The water had crept up the map and with it drawn the soluble dirt and discolouration that was in the paper, there was an obvious tideline of dirt around the water stain. If this had been allowed to dry there was a danger it might never be removed, so I had to act quickly while the paper was still damp.

Hand colouring on old maps

The main concern for me was the watercolour hand colouring on the map. It was obviously old, but also very thickly applied. If the water stain had got near, it may have solubilised and caused the paint to run. It also meant that the best treatment I could use might cause it to run and even wash it away. I tested the watercolour and indeed found it to be quite sensitive to water.

A different map float washing in a bath of water
Washing a similar map on the surface of water

Washing away the stains

So how did I remove the water stains from the paper and not the watercolour? I carefully floated the map on the surface of a bath of water – but please don’t try this at home! It took some time and kept me busy on a Friday night (and away from my usual glass of wine). The bath water became very yellow as the dirt and discolouration of the paper was sucked out of the paper with capillary action. The next morning after it had dried the stains had gone and the whole sheet of paper was looking less yellow – and more importantly the watercolour remained intact.

Photo of a map with water stains along the lower edge
Before treatment
Photograph of the map after treatment and with the stains gone
After treatment

So, what should you do if you spill something on a work of art on paper?

In the words of Captain Mainwaring – don’t panic! Call a paper conservator.

After treatment

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