Ukiyo-e under the microscope: Conserving nine Japanese woodblocks

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 withthe support of the Miegunyah Fund. 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.

Japanese woodblock prints, both the commercially produced ukiyo-e and privately published surimono, 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 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. More

Image: Utagawa Kunisada III, Kabuki actors, 1891. Baillieu Library Print Collection Gift of Dr J. Orde Poynton, 1959