This 1887 watercolor by E.C. Lewis offers a vivid look at the great American actor Edwin Booth in his role as the villainous Iago in Othello. The paper on which it’s painted has become so brittle, however, that pieces have broken off along the edges, posing a serious conservation challenge.
It’s common to see this kind of damage in machine-made paper produced after the 1840s, when wood pulp replaced rag. The individual fibers of machine-made paper are also shorter and aligned in the same way, unlike the long, randomly oriented fibers of hand-made paper, which tends to be much stronger.
Here, a Folger conservator uses an illuminated light table to precisely shape pieces of Japanese paper with a scalpel to fit the missing areas. Once shaped, the pieces can be attached to the original with wheat starch paste, repairing the holes and tears.