This month we're chatting to Pat McBride from The Paper Conservation Studio.
What is paper conservation?
It is the preservation of works of art on paper, water colours prints, drawings, old documents, everything on paper; from expensive works of art to sentimental pieces. People bring us their damaged original works and we would treat them to reverse the damage, preserve them, and return them to there original owners. It’s a great job which lets us work with beautiful objects, a great way of earning a living. I have been doing this now for nearly thirty years and in a wider context the arts sector has been very good to me.
Dry cleaning of support using smoke sponge
You get started in conservation in two ways; you choose it or it chooses you. It was the latter in my case. After leaving school, I got an opportunity to train in the National Gallery of Ireland, it wasn’t planned, it just sorta happened, but I loved it then and I still love it now.
Over the years what different training have you done?
I trained for three years, as an apprentice, when I was in the National Gallery. Following on from that, I’ve done many different courses to develop and update my skills. Within the conservation profession, there is an ethos of continuous training, continuous professional development. You never really stop learning. The profession is constantly evolving and changing, so you need to evolve and change with it. I also have done a degree in business studies, and I’m currently studying towards a PhD in change management exploring how conservation has changed over the past forty years.
Consolidation of losses
At the time there was no opportunities, there was no job’s in galleries. There was a choice to travel or set up my own space. In hindsight, I probably feel I should have travelled more, but I did choose to set up my own business. It’s not very lucrative, I’ll never be rich from it, but it suits me. I like it, having my own place.
When did you come to be in The Design Tower? I set up the studio in December 1985, so this is my 26th year here.
What is the best thing about having your own space?
I suppose it’s the freedom to come and go. In other places you can have very long hours. But here we can work without extreme pressure and at our own pace. And I like the comfort of it here. It’s a very easy environment to work in. The wider community in the Tower have been wonderful to work with. There is great camaraderie within the building and always someone to help or give advice if you have a problem. Its very supportive place to work.
What’s the worst thing about being so responsible for these objects?
All the time you want to do right by the object. It’s what we’re trained for. We have a passion for it, but you also want to guide the expectations of the customer. It’s the one business where the customer is not always right. They have a damaged object and they know that they need something done with it. Sometimes, they don’t fully realise what goes into this type of work. People’s expectations about what is ‘clean’, or ‘fixed’ is very different to what it actually is. But you do want to do what they want done to the object, but that is not always possible.
What materials do you use?
We rely heavily on Japanese paper; it’s a repair paper that is very strong and long fibered. We draw from a set of tools that have been collected over the years, from all different areas. I even have a set of dental tools I use! customized pieces are important, but there are no set tools. We collect them like magpies over the years and change them for what we might need them for. Conservation also relies heavily on science; advances in scientific research have had a direct affect on the processes and tools we use.
Naturally, there are potential risks to the objects and there are few processes that can be dangerous to a conserver. Some of the chemical processes we use can be harmful to the conserver. Some techniques need precautions but this is well known in conservation and there is a strong ethos in heath and safety. The danger to the objects can be two fold. The wrong process may damage the object in the short term and the long term. It’s important to understand completely the ageing process of object, the processes being used, and the materials that will be affected.
Pat mounting Harry Clarke watercolours
Never! And I hope never too. In fairness we are trained to not let things go wrong.
How many objects do you work on a year?
Oh god… well when you think about it, one client could bring in one object, where the next could bring in 10. Last year we had one client that had 60 pieces in the one collection. That collection was turned around and returned within 3 months. An archival collection alone could have more than 200 documents. So, maybe about 30 clients and 150 objects, roughly
How is it working with clients?
Some clients are brilliant. They understand the processes of the work and they trust you with the object. In a lot of cases that trust has been built up over many years. But most of the time it’s an ongoing first meeting situation, and you have to explain your approach, how you intend to treat the object, and your reasons behind that.
Consolidation of flaking material
It’s mainly galley commissions. I’ve worked for almost all the public galleries and museums in the country over the years, depending on what they needed, and I enjoyed working for them all. It would be a lot of mixed media work on paper. But we do get private collectors or individuals with works of sentimental value calling in with their damaged.
In all your time working, what has been your favourite piece to work on?
One of the most memorable was the last letter from Robert Emmett. He wrote to the Viceroy thanking him for his consideration. It was written just before he was lead to the gallows. It was a moment in history, a beautiful object that has come down the centuries to our time. It was a privilege to work on it. As was most of the materials in the Last works room of Kilmainham Jail. Many of these were the last writings and memorabilia of the 1916 patriots and are unique and very special objects.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
On an island in the Bahamas, sipping my pina colada, after making my millions in conservation. (Laughs) no, no, probably still doing what I’m doing, Trying to maintain the business in this current climate. Still conserving paper. Hopefully.
Is there any thing funny that has ever happened to you in your line of work?
Well, not so much funny but just people with strange ideas of us. I have been accused of having an agenda for cleaning dirty pictures! My colleague has been asked on multiple occasions if she’s “one of those people who hug trees all day?” so we tend to laugh at peoples assumptions, not situations as such.
If you could change one thing about your work what would you change?
(Pauses) I don’t know….If I was to change any thing it would be the way we work with the institutions. I’ve been working with some for many years, but I’m still on contract. Its strange being an outsider when you’ve been in for so long. Sometimes it could be twenty or twenty five years. It’s an unusual relationship. You’re not a member of staff so you don’t get the privilege of that. You can be let go any day, and be replaced within a moments notice. So I guess id change that.
Check out the other designer interviews in the series too!