Author: Emily O'Reilly

Looking after and conserving family documents

The stories told by a first world war soldiers de-mob paper

This interesting piece of paper arrived in the studio in the Autumn of 2020. A soldiers demobilization account belonging to the father of the current owner. A father who said very little of his wartime life.

The document as it arrived into the studio

My brief was to repair the document and preserve it for the next generation. It is made from very fragile paper, very soft and torn along the folds. The weak paper shedding fibres along the tears. Repairing would hold the paper together consolidating the paper and the fibres preventing more from detaching and being lost.

The paper was weakened and in places torn along the folds, note the fluffy paper fibres

After a little surface cleaning I was able to press the document flat and repair the tears using toned tissue paper and wheatstarch paste.

Toned, thin conservation tissue paper used to repair the weak folds of the document

The result is the paper is held together and more of the writing is now visible.

Before treatment
After treatment

Documents like these are a tangible link to family members, their lives and stories. I was amazed to see the term furlough used in 1918, something, like for everyone, I had not come across until the events of 2020. It was also pointed out to me about the section concerning a charge of £1.00 for his greatcoat; soldiers were expected to return the coat to the nearest railway station after their return home when their £1.00 would be reimbursed – quite a lot of money at that time.

I love my job and the practical side of conservation treatments – but even more, I love the stories behind the objects I treat. The fascinating history and tales are there to be discovered and shared.

This document inspired the owner to write a short story based on the life of this soldier. With kind permission I can share it with you here (Copyright Gwen Goodhew 2020)….

The End of Great Grandad’s War 1920

by Gwen Goodhew

He’s at the back of the wave, washing the unwashed soldiers into the carriages. Private Fred Fletcher slams the compartment door behind him and clambers over the hillocks of backpacks and tin helmets, seeking a crevice. He’s assailed at once by the pungent stink of closely confined soldiers.  Sliding past Higgins, the squad bully boy, and into the corridor, he makes for a carriage door, and backs his frail frame against it, ignoring the mumbled protests of those he shoves aside.  There’s nowhere for his kitbag except between his feet so he wedges it there.  Once stable and warmed by the bodies around him, he re-lights a stub of Woodbine, that he has been holding cupped in his hand. He stretches his neck and blows smoke through pursed lips at the ceiling.  His taut shoulders relax as the nicotine wafts through him. He allows himself to drift off in the fug until there is a warning heat in his fingers.  Turning, he tugs at the leather window strap and flings the stub out into the blackness.

            “Close that bloody window, mate!”

            He grunts an acknowledgement as he pulls up the window and secures the strap on its stud, then resumes his position with his back against the door, hands thrust deep in his greatcoat pockets.  His fingers find and draw out a thin piece of paper, which he unfolds and reads.  A derisive snort escapes him – his Soldier’s Demobilization Account – five years of his miserable life reduced to two columns of figures! 

“Stoppages and Payments,” he sneers. “Greatcoat – one pound.  What are they going to do with these rags? Save’em for the next bloody war? Miserable buggers!”

“T..t…to ri.ri.ri.right, mate.”

Fred turns, surprised, to the big sapper, whose body is pressed against his. For the first time, he sees the tremor in his hands and the twitch in his jaw– another one damaged forever by this madness.  He looks down at himself, at the coat that hangs on him like a threadbare elephant skin.  He will have to hand this in at a railway station if he wants to get his money back, but right now he is surprised by how reluctant he is to do this.  There must still be lice in the seams – the familiar itch is coming back even though the coat and everything else was fumigated in Aldershot. But he feels safe inside it and he needs its warmth.  He was always thin but since being injured, he’s just a walking skeleton.

            He gulps over and over again, trying to fight off memories and a panic attack. Every day for three years, whatever the weather, he wore this coat. When the gas got him, his greatcoat had clung to him as he sank down the side of a foxhole, coughing and gasping, eyes sore and oozing, waiting to die.  He might have died, too, if it hadn’t been for the little warmth provided by the coat. It kept him alive until he was dragged out under cover of darkness.  Then there was the time he snagged his leg on barbed wire and it went nasty.  Fever ravaged him for days and he lay, shivering, against the trench wall wrapped in his coat.  He shakes his head, trying to dislodge the images there. They shipped him back to the hospital in Blighty, but they didn’t let him stay long. At least, he landed a job as batman to the colonel when he returned to the front.  It was worth a bit of bowing and scraping to keep out of the fighting.

            His coat’s pockets hold other treasures.  He runs a finger along the smooth casing of his penknife, finding a ridge that opens the longer blade.  A glimmer of a smile twitches his lips as he imagines his ma’s reaction if she had seen him using that same blade to cut up his dinner and to dig out a bullet from a mate’s leg.  His other hand finds a coil of thin string. Civilians have no idea how valuable string can be when you have nothing else.

There is another piece of paper too, greasy and torn from constant re-reading – a short stiff letter from Dolly, the girl he hopes to marry.  His mate, Dick, had brought his sister to see him when he was in hospital.  Fred flinches as he remembers the disappointment in her eyes when she looked down at him – a feeble wreck of a man, who found it difficult to speak and almost impossible to smile.  She had promised to write but he had to wait nearly three months before the letter arrived.  Perhaps he is just being a dreamer, but he needs a dream after what he has seen – and done.  And she probably needs a husband.  Men are in short supply.

“All out!  Getta move on.  It’s Brummagem-on-Sea for you lucky boys.”

A half -hearted cheer goes up. The train lurches backwards and forwards as it draws into New Street Station.  Men fall over each other, eager to leave.  Fred stumbles onto the platform, a stabbing pain from his wounded leg taking him by surprise.  Then tossing his kitbag over his shoulder, he starts the slow walk back home.  There is little to look forward to.  His mother and younger brother died from Spanish Flu a few months ago. His brother, Jack, is so maimed that he will never be able to carry on in the music hall. The heart has gone out of the family.  He stops, lights another Woodbine, draws his coat tight around him and sets off again.

Private Fred Fletcher on his wedding day

Creases, folds, dents and seagulls

Can you remove creases from contemporary prints?

Something that comes into the studio regularly is modern and contemporary prints that have suffered from creases, bashed corners, dents and handling creases – or what I was taught to call them – seagulls! That annoying, ‘v’ shaped light crease on the paper or in the inked area. These occur due to poor handling, particularly when a print is lifted with one hand and not supported. The print droops under its own weight kinking the paper right where your fingers are holding on to it.

Seagull in the inked area of a print before and after conservation treatment:

Due to the flat smooth finish they really show up, casting a shadow and spoiling the look. Even more annoying is when they are on the edges and you really want to float mount them within a frame and show the whole sheet.

Verso of a print showing a crease before and after conservation treatment:

But, fear not!

Something can be done. With gentle humidification and a press they can disappear almost completely. If they are a little persistent local humidification and pressing with a heated spatula can also help. But if there is any relief on the print or a blind stamp care needs to be taken not to over humidify and press – these really need to be kept.

Crease near the title of a print before and after conservation treatment:

But why do you humidify Emily? Surely that flies in the face of keeping my collection dry?

Well, paper has a memory. If you have something rolled or you have a crease, putting a heavy weight on it will not solve the problem. A little moisture or humidification helps to relax the paper fibres, so they are more willing to stay where you want them to go.

Dent in the paper of this print before and after conservation treatment:

As with any conservation treatment, things can go wrong if you don’t know what you are doing. You need to know what type of print process and paper it is. You need to know how long to humidify and how wet to get the paper.

Annoying crease on the edge of this print before and after conservation treatment:

Sometimes they can’t be removed completely, but most of the time I can reduce them enough that they become unnoticeable – and most importantly – not annoying!

Crease at the corner of this print before and after conservation treatment:

Ta-dah! The finishing touch is getting them framed – showing them in all their glory. And, I can help you with that….

But that can wait for the next post!

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


For any other conservation emergency use Conservation Register

I’m on BBC radio Wales!

I was interviewed back in the summer for BBC Radio Wales Science Café programme and it was first aired Tuesday 24 September 2019. You can listen again here:

Rachel Howells and I were interviewed at the BBC studios in Cardiff by Adam Walton. Phil Parkes from University of Cardiff was also interviewed. Its a fascinating programme (if I do say so myself) and a good introduction to the world of colour and what it means in conservation.

If you have a questions please let me know!


Skiing and Chinese Scrolls

After excellent skiing in France 2018 has started very busy! I am now listed on the Conservation Register and starting to get some interesting work through the register.
In March I completed framing a modern Chinese scroll nearly 2m long and even helped hanging it in the clients dining room – a real treat to see the result of my labours up and enjoyed.
I had a simple, brown stained deep wooden frame made by my framer and then the decisions began – how to secure the scroll within the frame safely and securely….

My answer came with the help of Vivak ©. Close up of scroll on shelfI made small shelves for the scrolls to sit on, slotting the ‘L’ shaped Vivak © through the mount card backing. I also then made ‘clips’ to curl around the scroll to hold it in place and stop it rolling back up. But how did it not sag in the middle I hear you say – small, discreet Japanese hinges were adhered to the back of the scroll top and bottom edge and secured to the backboard. The tissue was thin yet strong enough to hold the scroll in position and not distort it. I had the scroll in the frame sitting on my spare sofa for a week to make sure that nothing moved, warped or generally did something I didn’t want it to – and it didn’t!

Final Result:

I was worried about transporting the framed scroll, so was very happy when it arrived at the clients – un-moved! It looks very handsome in their beautiful Chinese themed dining room – a lovely addition and a reminder of happy travels.
I’m now ready and waiting for my next conservation challenge! Have you got a valued treasure you want to enjoy but not destroy? Conservation framing may be the answer – ask me how.

Paper, Paper all around: Finding the perfect paper for the job.

It was a busy week last week with work.

On Thursday I travelled up to London to do 3 things:  view a potential job, visit the British Museum exhibition The Business of prints and most importantly to choose my Japanese repair papers. I visited the showroom at John Purcell Paper in south London and spent a happy hour choosing my papers. For a paper conservator this is heaven!

Paper conservation Japanese paperSo why, you may ask, did I have to go to London and why couldn’t I get samples sent to me? The thing about Japanese papers is they often change and get discontinued. The last time I bought paper was 10 years ago! So, it is important for me to see what they have, have a feel, look at the quality even smell it! – there are just too many to choose from.

I came away with 6 types of paper, of varying weights/gsm (grams per square meter), one of which I bought just because I liked it – not sure I will even use it for conservation!

So, what do I use the paper for and why Japanese paper?

The samples

Japanese papers are made from many different plant fibres, most of which have very long fibres, the long fibres make the paper very strong for the weight of the paper and ideal for paper conservation. They are also good quality and usually acid neutral.

I use the paper for lining a fragile document or art work, repairing tears, strengthening weak areas and hinging art works into mounts. Depending on the weight of the art work and what you want it to do will depend on which paper you use, so having a variety is very important. Sometimes you want your repair to be invisible, sometimes it needs to be strong enough to work for a purpose (such as in a book). It needs to be strong enough to hold a tear together, but not so strong the repair becomes the strongest part and causes tears to appear where there is no repair. The Holy Grail is finding the perfect repair paper for the job at hand.


As it’s nearly Halloween I include a photo of the Skull and cross bones woodcut I saw on display at the BM. It is believed that it was used during the 1750’s pasted to a house as a warning that the occupants had the plague or some other infectious disease! Enjoy!

Conservation by Design 25th Anniversary Conference – and a sink.

I had a brilliant time last week at the Conservation by Design 25th Anniversary Conference celebrations. There was a good mix of talks and the opportunity to visit the factory and see how the products are made and put together. I found the polyester pocket machine quite mesmerising!

The day started off with Paull Messier discussing his collaborative photographic survey at the Hermitage. Paul gave an insightful talk on the Hermitage and the way the curators protected their collections from being sold off by hiding them within the catalogue systems. Gives a whole new meaning to the role of curators. He also described the way different departments protected their treasures from each other – something I think people can relate to even now!

Conservation conference, Emily O'Reilly Setting up my studio I was looking at what to use instead of Gore-Tex during humidification, something I have been using for many years, and thanks to Mark Allen from Flintshire Records Office I found it! Hydra Air PTFE…. Mark was demonstrating its use during the day on some parchment. I’ll let you know how I get on when it has arrived – just ordered some!

The day was topped off with an excellent cake – tasted as good as it looks. Although I did laugh at the fondant icing white gloves, what with the current debate about gloves in the conservation community. Should you use them v never use them! But maybe that’s a topic for another blog post??

Many thanks to all the Conservation by Design staff for a well organised day, Paper Conservation, paper conservator, sink, conferencetheir hospitality was much appreciated and the mug will now be my official ‘work day’ coffee cup!

Lovely opportunity to catch up with friends and colleagues. Thanks also to the excellent Richard Hawkes for kindly passing on a large conservation sink – I really did come home with the kitchen sink!!

Antiques Roadshow, the experts and selfies….

Wednesday 6th September I spent most of the day at Cardiff Castle queuing up to meet an expert! I took some of my collection along, even took my ‘A’ level project (shockingly discovering it was 27 years old!)…. which reminded me that I really need to have a look at some of my own stuff: acidic mounts and thunder flies all need to be sorted out, but I don’t know when I’ll have the time! I met Dendy Easton – the pictures man….

I didn’t make the cut for filming – but had a good time anyway. Met a couple of other ‘mums’ from school and we had a look at what we had brought along and gave each other appraisals.

We all enjoyed spotting the experts, Christopher Payne (antiques man) came and gave an impromptu appraisal on a hall chair, 2 people down in the queue from us.

Emily O'Reilly Paper ConservationShamelessly took this selfie of me with Fiona the Bruce! Zoom in and you can see her.

Antiques Roadshow celebrating 40 years this year – I remember watching it in the ’70’s – always cut short the Sunday bonfire fun as I recall!!