Interview: Jennifer Robertson, Art Conservator

Careers based in the history industry fascinate me. I recently had the good fortune of connecting with Jennifer Robertson, a book and paper conservationist based in London, Ontario. She was kind enough to answer some questions about her job and share some images with us. You can learn more about Jennifer’s work at her website.

 

How did you become interested in this type of work?

I came from an arts background and initially studied painting and drawing, obtaining my BFA at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCADU). After graduating, I worked for a while in an antiquarian bookstore, and the experience of handling all sorts of fascinating rare books, prints and ephemera led me to become interested in working with historic materials. I knew I wanted to work with my hands, so art conservation became obvious as the best fit for my skills and interests.


What kind of education or training do you need for the industry?

A Masters degree in Art Conservation (MAC) is the best route into the field. Queen’s University in Kingston is the only Master’s program offered in Canada, although there are several good college diploma programs as well. In order to get into the Queen’s program, you need studio art experience and a good grounding in chemistry. The degree is two years long and includes summer internship placements. After graduation most people pursue further training opportunities like fellowships or contract work for several years before finding permanent positions.

I graduated from Queen’s in 2011, and spent several years after that doing internships abroad, at the British Library, Johns Hopkins University Libraries and Special Collections, and the Smithsonian Institute Libraries among others. I can’t say enough about the importance of continuing professional development – as with any profession that you love, the more you learn, the more you realize you have yet to learn. I regularly attend conferences and workshops in order to keep up to date and expand my knowledge base.


What time periods do you come across most often in your day to day?

I conserve materials from the 15th century to the 20th century. What some people consider old – a hundred year old book, for example – seems pretty new to me. The wonderful thing about paper, which is highly underestimated, is that good quality rag paper is extremely strong and stable and can last unchanged for hundreds of years, as long as it is stored safely away from light and moisture. So it isn’t unusual to see 17th and 18th century books in fantastic shape. I’ve worked on 15th century parchment manuscripts pages, 16th century printed books, 18th century documents, 19th century photographs, 20th century watercolour paintings, and everything in between.

I would say the most common period of objects that I work on is 19th century. During the mid-19th century, with the rise of a middle class with education and leisure time afforded by the Industrial Revolution, reading and writing became possible for an increasing number of people. The need for paper to provide novels, stationary, ledgers etc for the masses led to many advances in papermaking technology – and not always good ones. Poorer quality materials and faster manufacturing processes were introduced, and the result is that 100 years later a lot of 19th century paper is brittle and acidic and easily damaged. That, combined with the fact that there is just more material from that time period than any other, means that 19th century materials are a lot of what I see.


What’s your favorite or most memorable project to date?
One of my favourite projects was working with a page of the Gutenberg Bible. I’m sure your readers will know that the Gutenberg bible, the first book printed with moveable type, was the gateway to all modern books and printing. It’s a real icon of history, the development of which made possible all modern knowledge and progress. Handling it was an almost holy experience. It didn’t need much work – the paper was in great condition – but it was being mounted for an exhibition of landmark publications in science and technology.

As treatments go, one of the most satisfying projects I’ve worked on was the conservation of an 18th century prayer book at the Canadian Conservation Institute. The large leather-bound volume had suffered damage to its spine and boards, which someone with good intentions had repaired with pressure-sensitive adhesive tape. Once I removed the crude brown library tape, a gold stamped royal crest was revealed on the cover, signifying that the book had associations with the royal library of King George I. The boards were reattached, the spine re-backed with repair calf skin leather, and some paper repairs performed on the text block, bringing the book back to a stable and usable condition.


Click an image above to see a larger version.


Anything else people should know about the job?
It’s a fantastic profession! Everyday brings me something new to work on or to learn. There are a lot of challenges, but the end results of conserving a beautiful or important artifact, and knowing you have prolonged its lifespan, are extremely rewarding.

 

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Written by

Jillianne Hamilton is a history enthusiast, author, graphic designer, paper crafter and artist living on Canada's beautiful east coast.

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