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Conservation Notes: What’s (literally) behind Belle Époque posters’ longevity

September 3rd, 2014

Théophile Steinlen, Tournée du Chat Noir, 1896. Colour lithograph, sheet: 142 × 98.1 cm (55 7/8 × 38 5/8 in.). Gift from the Donald R. Muller/ Ross R. Scott. Collection through the American Friends of the Art Gallery of Ontario Inc., 2013. © 2014 Art Gallery of Ontario

Théophile Steinlen, Tournée du Chat Noir, 1896. Colour lithograph, sheet: 142 × 98.1 cm (55 7/8 × 38 5/8 in.). Gift from the Donald R. Muller/ Ross R. Scott. Collection through the American Friends of the Art Gallery of Ontario Inc., 2013. © 2014 Art Gallery of Ontario

In a post earlier this year we introduced you to Tessa Thomas, Samuel H. Kress Fellow in Paper Conservation at the AGO. Tessa is currently completing research and treatments on a group of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec posters from the Ross R. Scott and Donald R. Muller Collection. Here is Tessa’s latest update on the progress of the project:

When I first began my fellowship at the AGO last fall I was not sure where my research would lead, if to anywhere at all; I am happy to say now that researching the history and practice of Belle Époque poster linings continues to be a fascinating experience.

You may be wondering what exactly a Belle Époque poster is. The term “Belle Époque” translates to “beautiful era” and represents a period of time from the late 19th century to the early 20th century characterized by new discoveries in science, artistic fervor and general public optimism for the future and peace. It was during this time that a poster revolution occurred in Paris. The convergence of advancements in lithographic printing and artistic expression led to the transformation of the Paris streets into open-air galleries exhibiting works of bold colour, design and celebrity. The public was transfixed by the works of artists such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Théophile Alexandre Steinlen. Many of the images created by these artists still remain very popular today, such as the poster above from the Ross R. Scott and Donald R. Muller Collection at the AGO.

The posters were immediately sought after by collectors in the 1890s – so much so that, reportedly, posters that were pasted up on walls on Paris streets were removed shortly after, often in the dark of night.

The original posters were printed in large editions on poor quality paper composed of wood pulp, much like the printed ephemera of today. Over time, as these papers age, they become brittle and quite fragile. Think of the stability of a years-old newspaper clipping compared to a framed diploma or certificate; the latter is likely in far better condition because the paper is composed of stronger cotton fibres, it is handled less frequently and it is in a protective housing. The question is: how could the ephemeral posters of the 1890s have survived more than a century, especially considering many of them are oversized and very difficult to handle?

Without the secondary support of a fabric or Japanese paper lining it is likely that the great majority of Belle Époque posters would not have made it to the 21st century intact.

The fabric lining is detached from the back (verso) of a poster.

The fabric lining is detached from the back (verso) of a poster.

The linings were typically mounted to the poster with a paste that was applied over the entire surface of the back of the poster. The lining was likely larger than the poster initially, later trimmed after the adhesive was dry. The fabric supports adhered to the Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec posters in the Ross R. Scott and Donald R. Muller Collection are characterized by a loose weave, natural colouration and fairly even thread count. Samples have been collected and sent for analysis to confirm the fibre types and adhesives used for these linings.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Jane Avril, 1899. Brush lithograph, printed in four colours from three stones on paper, 56 x 38 cm. Gift of the Donald R. Muller/Ross R. Scott Collection, 2010. © 2014 Art Gallery of Ontario

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Jane Avril, 1899.
Brush lithograph, printed in four colours from three stones on paper, 56 x 38 cm. Gift of the Donald R. Muller/Ross R. Scott Collection, 2010. © 2014 Art Gallery of Ontario

I believe that the posters were originally lined in the 1890s for the purposes of preservation, ease of handling and display. The linings have held up well and have certainly increased the longevity of the posters; however, due to factors such as the age of the lining, quality of fabrication, adhesive used and previous framing of the posters, some of them no longer provide adequate support. For these reasons conservation treatments may be required to stabilize the posters and provide them with a new suitable secondary support.

The practice of poster lining still continues today: private collectors often have contemporary or modern posters mounted onto a more rigid secondary support or lined with paper and fabric by specialists. But who lined the Belle Époque posters originally in the 1890s? Why were the posters lined, and how has the practice changed or remained the same? These are a few of the questions that have guided my research and even took me as far as Paris and London in the search of answers. Ten days, six different reading rooms and one pair of rain-soaked shoes later, a few questions still remained unanswered. However, a story began to form — one that thus far involves poster dealers, poster pasters, clandestine purchases and fish glue, with more details yet to come.

Please look out for my next post on the conservation treatment of a Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec poster, including a video in which I remove a lining, thread by thread.

–Tessa Thomas


Curious about Conservation?
If you have a burning question about Conservation, leave a comment below. We’ll do our best to give you an answer in an upcoming Conservation Notes post.


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One Response to “Conservation Notes: What’s (literally) behind Belle Époque posters’ longevity”

  1. […] Seeing a nice grouping by the BPG program organizers of talks about big paper, I settled in to be enchanted by more pretty pictures in the second talk of the day. The work originates in the gift to Art Gallery of Ontario of well-known and more obscure works (ephemera, Christmas cards, postcard doodles, & sketches, & theater programs) from the golden age of chromolithograph poster art – some of which drew myself and others to the practice of art entirely. Thomas was a recipient of a Kress fellowship to undertake a study of the collection and has written for the museum’s blog on some of her findings. […]

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