Parsee Woman (Poona Figure) from Derby Museum
Treated and written by Monica Irisarri
The opportunity to treat this 19th century Poona figure of a Parsee woman gave me a variety of conservation skills to practice, including in researching its cultural and historic background and the different composite materials it is made of.
Initial testing included X-ray imaging to gain a greater understanding of its construction and using arsenic testing strips to test the green paint on the wooden base, which tested positive for arsenic. X-ray imaging confirmed it was cast on wooden dowels and also showed some breaks in the plaster body that were hidden by the figure’s clothing. In addition, fibre identification was carried out using microscopy to confirm that the outer sari fabric was made of silk and red trousers of cotton. The first treatment was to stabilise the figure’s right foot, which was loose, with a paper twist technique using Japanese paper (OK tissue paper).
The paper was brushed with a 5% solution of Paraloid B72 in acetone, dried, twisted, and then inserted into the large gaps. Once inside the gap, the Paraloid B72 was reactivated by brushing acetone onto the paper twists. Then the gap was finished with in-painting to match the foot’s original dark grey colour. The base was then brushed with a thin Paraloid B72 coating to make it safe to handle because of the arsenic present in the paint.
Some treatments didn’t go as planned. From these, I took some important lessons. After carrying out solubility tests on the figure’s painted clay surface using water, acetone and white spirits, I didn’t witness any issues related to these liquids. I first tried white spirits without any noticeable change. Then tried water with amylase (synthetic saliva). This was giving noticeable results with my swab darkening with dirt. However, what I didn’t notice because I was swabbing by eye and not using microscopy, was that some of the surface paint was indeed water soluble and coming off on the swab. The amylase resulted in being too effective but not suitable. At that point, I stopped treatment and sought advice. Even when I thought the treatment of the object was finished, in comparing my documentation photographs, I noticed an area of deterioration in the silk sari that had worsened while at the lab. Other than gently brushing the fabric with a soft brush, I hadn’t treated the textile at all. It was clear that the textile needed to be stabilised so that further deterioration was prevented. This led me to seek advice and research treatments into textile conservation that I hadn’t previously encountered.
The use of a support fabric was used to stabilise three areas in the sari. Japanese Tengujo paper brushed with a 4% solution of Klucel G in acetone was used to stabilise the shoulder as an insert under the tear; silk crepeline brushed with a 4% solution of Klucel G in acetone was used as an overlay over the upper back so that the weft loss in the silk didn’t worsen; and finally, an overlay of Japanese Tengujo paper brushed with a 4% solution of Klucel G in acetone was laid over the silk on top of the head where the sari covers a top knot. Even though some of these incidents made me feel disappointed in myself, they were important lessons in my development and education as a conservator. The opportunities this little object offered me were large in what I took away in terms of experiences, skills and most importantly, knowledge.