Washing & Mounting the Trajan Column

After surface cleaning the massive Piranesi (see here if you missed it) with cosmetic sponges, the next thing was to attempt to wash it. Like other large prints, it had once been mounted on textile, as evidenced by marks in the animal glue spread across the back and the occasional stray thread left behind. The glue was causing staining and distortions that I wanted to try to remove. There were also dramatic tidelines from previous water damage sustained while it was rolled—the stains repeat like stamps along the edges—that probably wouldn’t come out but might be reduced in appearance somewhat, as well as the significantly discoloured bottom edge that had been on the outside when it was rolled. Although it was printed on 6 reasonable-sized sheets of paper glued together, I didn’t want to separate the joins in the papers if at all possible because it’s hard to get them lined up again and it seemed like an unnecessary intervention. 

So: how to wash a nine foot print, and how to handle it when wet so that it doesn’t tear?

I toyed with the idea of washing it on some kind of rigid support like Perspex on a slight incline, but the logistics seemed hard to imagine in my small studio. What I settled on was rolling it over a wide diameter tube and washing it while it was rolled up. The idea was that this way it could fit in a tub for washing, and it could be carried around rolled up, then unrolled onto an appropriate support for drying. If someone else has already done this, don’t tell me; I want to think I invented it myself.

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A friend of ours was discarding a wide & long plastic tube, so we sawed it in half. I got a long strip of capillary matting, to help water to flow between the layers of the print when rolled, and I cut it longer than the print. Then I sewed together some large sheets of Hollytex: I could have cut this from a roll but I had a few sheets that were already just about the right size once joined and I didn’t want to cut into the roll if I didn’t have to! The Hollytex was also about one tube diameter longer than the print and would protect against any glue that got soft and tacky again. 

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I started by rolling the capillary matting once around the tube, then added the print and Hollytex as shown here. When all rolled up, the excess Hollytex made the outer layer. I did a few dry runs (haha!) and then when I was satisfied it would work, I humidified the print first by spraying with water and then rolled it up. I filled up a big storage tub with water and slowly immersed the print roll. As normal with washing, I changed the water a few times until no more discolouration came out.

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Once any soluble degradation products had been washed out, I tried to remove as much adhesive as I could: some came off, but unfortunately most of it had to stay in place because the thick paper had very little cohesiveness when wet and there was too much risk of disturbing the paper fibres. However, my set-up for this worked and I'd be happy with it in future. I rolled one end of the print onto the other tube, exposing part of the print at a time as I rolled more and more of it onto the second tube like a scroll. In this way I could work on each part of the print without having it unrolled. 

Once the wet work was finished, I drained it as much as possible (it's amazing how much water the capillary matting holds), then rolled it out to dry. For that I laid my huge pressing boards onto the floor in a row, then rolled out a few long strips of Tek wipes, my new favourite blotting material (doesn't cockle!), then the Hollytex/print, then more Tek wipes & boards & weights on top. All the rest is normal paper repair.... which I also did with part of the print rolled up, loosely over an even bigger roll, for ease of working, then humidified and flattened again at the end for framing.

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The moral of the mounting & framing story is basically not to make anything bigger than the standard sizes mounting & framing materials come in. We just barely managed to get wood for the frame long enough, but mount board doesn't come anywhere close so we had to piece together sheets for the support, glued to the backing board for stability, and after a lot of debate over float mounting vs an aperture we settled on an aperture—again dictated in width by wanting to cover as much of the damaged edges as possible while still being able to fit in the maximum dimensions enforced by the frame size. I wanted to cover the mount board in paper, so it would look like it was all one piece, but in the end this was cost-prohibitive as paper that is big enough would have to be bought on a much bigger roll than we needed. So we cut the aperture out in four pieces as shown above, and butted them up against each other as cleanly as possible, attaching them to the support board with Japanese paper strips from the edges. The join is not massively noticeable given the scale of the whole piece. A few braces on the back held the whole thing together, necessitated by the immense length.

The client very nicely sent these photos of the finished thing on the only wall in his house big enough to hold it!