At some point, water seepage caused damage to this 1799 engraving by Benjamin Smith. Water may have dripped on the work, or perhaps moisture slowly wicked in. Later on, as the paper dried, the previously moist area left behind at its edges a thin, dirty brown stain, known to conservators as a “tideline.”
Tidelines are notoriously difficult to remove. Consisting essentially of deposited dirt, they are embedded well below the paper’s surface. There’s also a risk of spreading the tideline further when it is first dissolved. To avoid that danger, Folger conservators employed a suction table, a piece of equipment that is a mainstay of conservation work.
This photograph shows Smith’s engraving in place over an absorbent material that covers the suction table. As the conservator applies a mild solvent with a fine brush, steady suction from below pulls the solvent—and the stain—straight down through the paper. The steady suction from below prevents the stain from spreading.
Smith’s engraving was commissioned by John Boydell for his Shakespeare Gallery, a public exhibition of Shakespeare paintings at which visitors could buy engravings of the pictures on display. This one is after the George Romney painting The Infant Shakespeare, Attended by Nature and the Passions. The Romney painting, dating from 1791–92, is also now held at the Folger.