Ukiyo-e under the microscope: Conserving nine Japanese woodblocks from the Baillieu Library Print Collection

Over the past three months conservators at the Grimwade Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation (GCCMC) have been treating nine Japanese woodblock prints from the Baillieu Library Print Collection. This selection of colourful prints from the Edo period are to be used for teaching at the University of Melbourne in semester two, 2018. Conservation treatment therefore focused on improving the stability and visual appearance of the works for safe handling and display.

Utagawa Kunisada, [Kabuki actors], woodcut
Utagawa Kunisada III, [Kabuki actors], (1891), woodcut, Gift of Dr J. Orde Poynton 1959.
Japanese woodblock prints, both the commercially produced ukiyo-e and privately published surimono [1.], often prove difficult during conservation treatment. Ukiyo-e and surimono are usually printed on remarkably thin papers, comprised of long kozo, (Japanese mulberry paper tree) fibres which intermesh during the paper-making process to form a strong sheet. Despite the strength of such papers, their long fibres [2.] make them particularly sensitive to abrasion. This limits the mechanical removal of surface dirt. For some of the Baillieu Library prints, treatment was further complicated by the presence of water-soluble pigments and dyes, and areas of subtle embossing produced through blind printing. The print ‘Kabuki actors’ (1891) by Utagawa Kunisada (1848-1920), was particularly water-sensitive. In order to control the introduction of moisture, it was treated entirely under magnification.

Removing discoloured adhesive from Utagawa Kunisada’s ‘Kabuki actors’ under the Leica® M651 microscope

To reduce staining and discolouration on prints with more stable media, Grimwade conservators were able to undertake washing on the suction table. Before proceeding, comprehensive solubility testing was completed under the microscope with the selected washing solution, to ensure the safety of media and inscriptions on each work of art.

Lining removal
Lois Waters and Libby Melzer carefully removing a lining from ‘Figure kneeling in a garden’ by Kunisada Utagawa I

For Kunisada Utagawa’s (1786-1864) Figure kneeling in a garden (18th century) and Kitagawa Utamaro’s (c.1753-1806) Umegawa and Chûbei (c. 1803), washing also hastened the removal of degraded lining papers and failing repairs. During washing, moisture softened the adhesive sufficiently to permit the gentle removal of linings and repairs with a septum elevator.

Umegawa and Chûbei
Kitagawa Utamaro, Umegawa and Chûbei, (c.1803), woodcut, gift of Marion and David Adams, 2015.

Japanese Print Lining Removal Video-1tf25pi

[Video: Adele Barbara gently removing the lining of a print with a septum elevator.]

After washing, small losses and tears were repaired using Japanese conservation papers of varying weights and colours. Like the printing papers used in Japanese woodblock printing, these repair papers are made from kozo fibre [3.], and are thus very strong despite their light weight. Repairs were secured with wheat starch paste, and toned with pencils or watercolour paints to match the surrounding areas of the original print.

Figure kneeling in a garden
‘Figure kneeling in a garden’ by Kunisada Utagawa I, before treatment (left) and after (right) filling and inpainting

For exhibition purposes, each print was hinged along all edges to an inlay paper for support, which was then secured along the upper edge into a window mount. To balance the demands of display with those of research, hinges along the left, right and lower edges of each print were fed through slits in the inlay paper but not adhered. This mounting method ensures that the Japanese woodblock prints remain secure for display, and fully accessible for research.

These works will be utilised by students studying Japanese prints in the second semester subject, The Print Room.

Lois Waters and Adele Barbara
Assistant Paper Conservators, Grimwade Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation


[1.] Poirier, J., 2017, Seductive marvels of Japanese art: Materials and techniques of surimono prints, Chester Beatty Conservation, Dublin, published 17 October 2017
[2.] A particularly strong fibre made from Japanese mulberry, see Turner, S., 1998, The book of fine paper: A worldwide guide to contemporary papers for art, design and decorating, Thames and Hudson, London, p. 83.
[3.] Mizumura, M., Kubo, T. and Noriki, T. 2015 ‘Japanese paper: History, development and use in Western paper conservation’, Adapt and evolve 2015: East Asian materials and techniques in Western conservation, proceedings from the International Conference of the Icon Book and Paper Group, London, 8-10 April 2015, pp. 43-59.

A Ride to Heaven or to Hell? A new Dutch broadsheet in the Baillieu Library’s collection

The Roman Ride to Heaven (Romsche hemel vaert) published by Anthoni van Salingen
The Roman Ride to Heaven (Romsche hemel vaert) published by Anthoni van Salingen, 1621, engraving with letterpress

A bizarre wagon surmounted by a seven-headed beast makes its way across the centre of a tumultuous image. The grotesque central motif of this 1621 broadsheet must have lured the reader to look at its bizarre details and to personally read the text below, or to listen to someone else read it aloud. Viewers of the time would immediately have associated this scene with the seven-headed beast of the Apocalypse in the New Testament Book of Revelation, and have understood that this was a work of political and religious propaganda.

As the title tells us in a sly piece of satire, this is a Roman (ie. Catholic) version of a “ride to Heaven”. It is a satirical title because the passengers will all, in fact, find themselves delivered into the doorway to Hell overseen by the monstrous figure of Lucifer. The text below purports to record a three-way discussion outside a print shop, offering a commentary on many of the figures in the scene. A key with letters at the end of text offers further help in decoding each satirical allusion. The broadsheet was produced in the context of bitter battles between Protestants and Catholics in Europe, and in particular Protestant Dutch animosity to Spanish Catholics during the intermittent Dutch Revolt, which took on new vigour in 1621. It appeared with a publisher named as Antoni van Salinghen in Amsterdam; the heart of the de facto independent northern Netherlands and also a major printing centre.

This work of religious and political propaganda plays upon the classical tradition of the triumphal wagon. Rather than a glorious scene of military victory, here the Pope, the Holy Roman Emperor and the Spanish king – as a key at the bottom of the text confirms – are foolishly riding a diabolical wagon. Jesuits and other religious figures are presented in negative guise, amplifying the anti-Catholic message of the image. The ghost of the Duke of Alba, here named also “Tyranny”, is singled out for special mention (letter L). He is depicted cannibalistically devouring a child and recalling for viewers his role at the head of Spanish forces in the 16th century.

The Roman Ride to Heaven (detail)
The Roman Ride to Heaven (detail)

Broadsheets like this were designed to grab the public imagination, and they appeared in great numbers in the 16th and 17th centuries. Since the mid fifteenth-century, with the development of moveable type and easier access to paper, there had been an explosion in the number of printed books, pamphlets and broadsheets that circulated across Europe. Johannes Gutenberg’s ground-breaking Bible printed in Mainz in the 1450s set this in motion, and the Baillieu library holds one precious leaf of his masterpiece of early printing.

Broadsheets, by comparison, were designed to be cheaply printed on single pieces of paper, and were much less elevated examples of early modern print culture. This makes them fascinating windows on the concerns, anxieties, fashions and latest events in early modern Europe. By 1621, when this publication was produced, access to print was a regular part of life for many Europeans: whether personally owned or accessed in a tavern or market place. Broadsheet texts often rhymed and were frequently read or sung out loud in public settings. Many were also illustrated with eye-catching images, often rapidly made by printmakers who knew how to attract the eye of a passer-by and complement the lively text.

The popularity and relative inexpensiveness of broadsheets at the time of their production makes them paradoxically rare today, as they were rarely saved. In Australia, we have relatively few early modern broadsheets. The collectors who put together the wonderful print and rare book collections that we have in Australia often acquired finely-crafted prints by well-known master artists like Albrecht Dürer or Marcantonio Raimondi, as well as high-quality books long valued by bibliophiles. Students and researchers are more likely to see an Albrecht Dürer print up close than a more crudely-made broadsheet like this. Its presence will therefore enrich the collections-driven and object-based learning activities that are a feature of teaching in History at the University of Melbourne.

We are fortunate that objects like this broadsheet are also now being acquired for Australian collections. They broaden our understanding of how politicised print culture was in the early modern world, and provide a window onto outrageous political propaganda, in which an emperor or pope could be mocked, and print culture formed a vital tool for attacking enemies.

By Dr Jenny Spinks.


Jenny Spinks is Hansen Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Melbourne. She teaches the history of early modern Europe, with a particular interest in print culture, in and object-based learning. Her publications include a recent collaborative article with Lyndal Roper on the first piece of printed propaganda for the Reformation, produced over a hundred years’ earlier in 1519, and also depicting a wagon ride to Hell.

Connecting collections at Manchester and Melbourne

An exciting project afoot is a collaboration between the universities of Melbourne and Manchester to connect these two geographically distant, culturally rich collections. Face-to-face encounters have already taken place between scholars and special collections staff through two workshops: Manchester in July 2017 and Melbourne in April 2018. These workshops saw specialists come together and exchange ideas about the endlessly interesting works of art, books, textiles, maps and objects located in these cities.

The collections are currently being brought together in a virtual space through the ongoing development of a new Connecting Collections website. The site explores the collective’s first major research theme of ‘Foreign Bodies.’ Every month a different collection object is featured, and this month it is the engraving by Francesco Villamena, Blind man with remedy for corns (Cieco da rimedis per i calli) (1597-1601) from the Baillieu Library’s Print Collection.

Francesco Villamena, Blind man
Francesco Villamena, Blind man with remedy for corns (Cieco da rimedis per i calli), (1597-1601), engraving, Gift of Dr J. Orde Poynton 1959.

Visitors to the site may also read about previously featured items, such as John Speed’s map of Asia (1627) from the Library’s Map Collection.

John Speed's map of Asia
John Speed, Asia with the islands adioyning described, the atire of the people, & townes of importance (London, 1627), engraving with hand-colouring, Map Collection.

Two chilling Gothic micro-stories: Daisy Feller and Joss Deane write for the Dark imaginings exhibition competition

Not the Co-Op Bookshop

There is a space behind the other spaces, the spaces that you see. You will never see this place because you will not look. And if you look, you will not think of it because it is of no use to you. That’s what they will tell you. Do not listen. Look. Please. Come into the room that looks like a storage closet. We are waiting for you in the swivel chair that does not swivel. You will mistake us for someone else, someone with the same name. Do not fall victim to their trickery. Do not be tempted by their orange sign. They will give you things that someone told you that you need. They will make you beg for things. They will make you march in a line of beggars for things you will never touch. Come into the space behind the other spaces. Reach out your arm in any direction. Touch someone else’s mind and steep it with paper teabags into your own heart. Find what you need in the book co-op. We are unaffiliated.

Daisy Feller

Jurassic coast

A year from emigrating, we summered on the Jurassic coast, wet but green. The soil is moist with worms and liminal, squelching mud, and my sister and I rolled about in it naked and howling. Dorset in the rain smells so alive it’s scary. You scale one hillock and you’re lost in emerald feathers… I was blubbering loudly– like at Kew, when I get lost– to be located. A boy my age found me–I straightened.

He was wearing a coat of leaves, his body and genitals covered in mud. I’ve always known mirrors lied to me; his face showed every tremor I had sensed underneath my skin, my gums bleeding when I brushed too deliberately, the desire to chew with my  mouth open, to put myself in a human-like animal. I looked into his eyes hungrily as he pointed to a mound of earth to my left, his right, nails charcoal black and bark-thick.


I did so, keeping my eyes on him, raking my fingers. His eyes were yellow. I stopped when the first flash of teeth broke the earth.

“Sometimes you forget” he said, stepping towards me. “We’re taken in the woods, you take our place, but you forget”; he was clutching a bluestone rock. “You think you’re the real one…”

The next thing I remember is my mum and dad, red-faced, gasping, swabbing me down with handkerchiefs before gripping me tightly. The rock was in my hand, sticky, smelling funny. The hole in the earth was bigger, white gleaming from the mulch like a dragon’s hoard. I asked my mum who they belonged to. They didn’t look at me when they said naturally “it’s a cow, bunny, just a cow.”

Joss Deane

The Dark Imaginings exhibition will finish in less than 5 weeks, on 31 July, coinciding with the close of a competition which invites University of Melbourne students to write and submit a Gothic story in only 300 words, or less. The response has been extraordinary and reading the stories a rare privilege. Soon I shall be handing them on to the judges, Professor Peter Otto and Dr Elizabeth MacFarlane, who will have some difficult decisions to make. In the meantime, I’m delighted to be sharing (with the authors’ generous permission) two stories that arrived in my in-box very soon after the competition opened. Enjoy! And remember: if you are a student here at the University, there is still time to enter.

Jen Hill
Curator, Music and Co-curator, Dark imaginings: Gothic tales of wonder

Cleaning the English Rare Book Collection

A team of four conservators from the Grimwade Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation recently completed comprehensive cleaning of the English Rare Book Collection at the Baillieu Library.

A selection of Sir Walter Scott volumes from the English Rare Book Collection
A selection of Sir Walter Scott volumes from the English Rare Book Collection

The collection comprises around 8,600 works from an array of 18th and 19th century British authors, including 2,500 volumes by Sir Walter Scott. While much of this collection is in excellent condition, collection maintenance and regular cleaning is essential to ensure it remains that way. Over time, dust and dirt build up on the cover, spine and textblock of a book, as well as on the surrounding shelves. Recent graduates of the Master of Cultural Materials Conservation program: Adele Barbara, Lois Waters, Mar Cruz and PhD candidate Sadra Zekrgoo, set to work on the cleaning process.

To clean this collection, each book was removed from the shelf, and the text block vacuumed with a HEPA filter vacuum, using a soft brush to loosen dust and dirt. To clean the leather or cloth covers, each book was gently wiped down with a microfibre cloth. Each shelf was also wiped down with a separate microfibre cloth, before every book was returned to its place. This method ensured that any dirt or dust could be removed without disturbing any elaborate gold tooling, or reducing the colour of the fine leather bindings.

A HEPA filter vacuum and a soft hake brush were used to loosen dust and dirt from the head and fore-edge of each book.
A HEPA filter vacuum and a soft hake brush were used to loosen dust and dirt from the head and fore-edge of each book.

During this cleaning process, the conservation team also took the opportunity to conduct a comprehensive survey of the condition of the collection as a whole. Collection surveys allow staff to gain a comprehensive understanding of the health of a collection overall, and identify individual items that may need further attention. Throughout the cleaning project, books showing signs of wear and tear and their associated fragments were placed into individual bags made of polyethylene, an inert archival plastic. The most common type of degradation found throughout the collection was the powdering and flaking of the leather bindings, known as red rot. Detached covers and cracking at the head and tail of the spine were also common. Degraded volumes were also recorded in a collection assessment spreadsheet along with their condition details. This ensures that Collections staff can easily locate these objects, and formulate a plan for their future care and conservation.

Cleaned collection items ready to return to the shelf.
Cleaned collection items ready to return to the shelf.

The English Rare Book collection cleaning project was not just an essential part of collection maintenance and care, but also provided an opportunity to understand the condition of the collection and to the collection’s future needs.

Adele Barbara and Lois Waters

Grimwade Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation

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