A version of this blog about Historic England Archive collections first featured on the Photo Collections Network blog. It is part of a series of posts on the theme of Women’s History in the lead up to History Day 2018.

To mark the centenary of the 1918 Representation of the People Act, the Historic England Archive has made five collections of photographs available online, including Alice Marcon, Margaret Harker, Eileen ‘Dusty’ Deste, Ursula Clark. This blogpost focuses on the Margaret Tomlinson Collection, which comprises nearly 3,500 photographic negatives taken between 1942 and 1963. The vast majority were taken when Margaret worked for the National Buildings Record, which was established in 1941 to record historic buildings threatened by destruction during the Second World War. For information on Margaret and her work, see Part 1.

Margaret’s work conserved

The Historic England Archive’s Conservation Department had to deal with 297 damaged Margaret Tomlinson negatives before they could be considered for digitisation.

In varying states of disrepair, 47 glass plate negatives were broken and a further 250 had become stuck to their enclosures, which had become embedded in the negatives’ gelatine emulsion (image layer).

Glass offers a wonderfully clear and undistorted carrier for the photographic image. However, chips, cracks and breakages in glass plate negative collections are not uncommon, with many collections suffering due to the inherent fragility of the glass support and more often physical factors attributed to poor storage and handling.

An enclosure becoming fused to the surface of glass plates is often caused by poor environment, such as being stored in a damp garage or loft. While a less common issue than broken glass, it is no less devastating to the condition of a collection.

Broken glass plate negative stabilised with P90 tape prior to conservation repair and after stabilisation repair.

The cracked, broken and shattered negatives were conserved using a standard stabilisation repair, where the pieces are held in place using a card sink-matt and sandwiched between two sheets of cover glass in a pressure binding. This method is totally reversible; it avoids using adhesives and allows the negative to be digitised. It also provides a good long-term storage solution.

The negatives with the paper and cellophane enclosures embedded in the surface were a little more problematic. For these, a specific treatment was devised that would be safe and effective. A Preservation Pencil (a tool which produces a jet of very fine water-vapour) was applied to problem areas with control and accuracy. It was used to good effect to relax paper fibres and to soften adhesives used in the construction of the enclosures so as much of the material could be removed as possible.

Stuck glass plate negative in original housing materials.

Preservation pencil in action, working on stuck enclosure.

Glass plate negative after treatment and which can now be scanned.

All of this was painstaking work but incredibly effective, allowing almost 300 negatives to be preserved and scanned to reveal their secrets which would otherwise have been unusable, such was the damage.

The Margaret Tomlinson Collection can be viewed online at the Historic England Archive. Follow us on Twitter for more images from our collections.

Jenny Harvey
Archives Conservator (Photographic Materials)

Historic England is the public body that helps people care for, enjoy and celebrate England’s spectacular historic environment.