By Gabrielle Vergnoux, Conservation Intern, National Library of Ireland

At first sight, an image of “Cork Harbour by Robert Lowe Stopford in 1862”, as is written on the verso, seems to do exactly what it says on the tin. The large marine landscape (29 x 71 cm), from the library’s Prints & Drawings Collection, depicts figures bustling in the foreground, with an expansive vista of ships fading into the distance. Robert Lowe Stopford (1813-1898) was a popular Irish watercolour artist who represented landscapes and marine subjects, so we assumed the image was a watercolour.

Picture under scrutiny: 'Cobh Harbour' after Robert Lowe Stopford Picture under scrutiny: ‘Cobh Harbour’ after Robert Lowe Stopford


The picture, in rich sepia and bistre brown tones below a vibrant blue sky on a thick coated paper, was in fair condition. There was water-damage and dirt across the image on a thick delaminating board. The blue sky colour, which extends onto the board, had also faded from exposure to light.

Thick delaminating board supporting the image (left) A shiny substance in the foreground (right) Thick delaminating board supporting the image (left) A shiny substance in the foreground (right)


After observation, we noticed some odd details. The painterly figures in the foreground were almost ghostly apparitions with fuzzy edges. There were uneven traces of a shiny substance, possible a gum or resin varnish, applied with a brush. The atypical colour balance of very bright blue and the musty browns were even more confusing. We could not see the back of the image, which can often tell more than the front, so before any treatment, we decided that a more in-depth examination linked with research was necessary.

3--Figures-in-foreground-seem-ghostly-apparitions-under-magnification-small Figures in foreground seem ghostly apparitions under magnification


So was it a watercolour painting? Was the date written on the verso correct? Did Stopford, the watercolour artist, create it? Could it even be some sort of reproduction under watercolour over-paint? If so, which printing process could it be? This question is at the heart of our investigation. Let us try to better understand what secrets this curious image might reveal … A lithographic impression is made from a drawing made with thick wax on a stone, based on the principle that the water and the oil do not mix. As one of many economical methods of reproducing artworks from the 19th century, Stopford’s images were reproduced by lithography. So, could our image be a lithograph reproduction? We looked in the NLI Topographical print collection and found similar maritime lithographs after Stopford. We could quickly see that our object lacked the tell-tale grain pattern of the lithographic stone. Besides, lithographs are generally done in black and our object had distinct sepia and bistre tones.

Lithograph reproduction of a watercolour by Robert Lowe Stopford Lithograph reproduction of a watercolour by Robert Lowe Stopford


Having ruled out lithography, we found an exhibition catalogue featuring the original watercolour by Stopford, now part of the Cork Port Authority’s collection. The similarity to our object was striking; the smallest details and imperfections seen on the original were also visible on our object. Even the signature was reproduced identically in the bottom right-hand corner. This fantastic detail meant that our image was not flipped, as happens in printing. The discovery compelled us to think that the image was reproduced by a photographic process. We also learnt that the original was in fact of Cobh harbour and was painted in 1852; so the information written on the verso of our object was somewhat doubtful.

The 1850s were a fundamental decade in the history of image trafficking. For the first time, art publishers had at their disposal numerous ways of reproducing an artwork. But which photographic process had been used to create this image? It was back to the microscope to understand what process was used to reproduce this image. The fuzzy aspect of the edges of the figures continued to confound us. Under magnification, the contours seemed to have been “burned” onto the paper, as if they had been subjected to light exposure. We also noticed a demarcation at the corners of the image, a distinctive element of photographic images. In addition, the sepia and bistre tones are typical colours of early photographic processes and depending on the process used, it was easy to find traces of gelatine or gum on the image surface.

Microscopic investigations! Microscopic investigations!


With the help of the Graphics Atlas database –  – and Care and Identification of 19th century Photographic Prints, we compared the date and the documented magnified images of the different processes. We found several possible matches; gelatine POPs was soon ruled out as it was extensively used for commercial portraiture, fine aquatint grain was considered, but our image lacked the smooth gradation of tone this process normally gives. The salt paper process (with gum arabic highlights) gives a similar effect to our ghostly figures but the paper used in that case is generally matte and our paper is glossy.

5-small Our object (left) and the original (right) in Cork Port Authority


Lastly, the gum bichromate process, a contact print process based on the light sensitivity of dichromate salts, was considered. Known as the pictorialists’ favourite process from 1885 to 1915, it’s capable of rendering painterly images from photographic negatives – which explains why we have the image in the “positive” sense, with the signature on the right.  This gum bichromate process permitted the creator to use painters and photograph’s tools: brushes, pigments and negatives, to directly intervene and give a personal interpretation of the reproduced image. Furthermore, a coated paper that can withstand repeated soakings was used, and this is the type of paper that we have on our object.

Until the 1960’s, most photographs were the result of an impression by contact, which means the negative was the exact dimensions of the original. The gum bichromate process generally has at least two steps. Firstly, glass or paper with a light sensitive emulsion, the same dimensions to the original, and the original are “sandwiched” together. The sandwich is exposed to ultraviolet light such as mercury vapour lamp, a common fluorescent blacklight or quite simply, under the sun. By exposure, the emulsion hardens and becomes insoluble creating a reversed or negative copy of the original on the paper or glass. Then a new blank sheet of paper is prepared with gum arabic mixed with pigment of choice and bichromate. The negative is then sandwiched between a sheet of glass and the prepared paper, and everything is exposed to light again. This creates a positive image on the coated paper. Therefore the paper used for the printing, the ghostly image, clearly seen under magnification, and the surprising dimensions match the gum bichromate process.

In our object, the foreground is produced in this way, but the background is clearly painted in watercolour. Why then did our artist decided to add watercolour to the photographic print? There are two possibilities. Maybe our artist hid the parts he did not want to print on the negative, in order to give free rein to his creative talents. Or, maybe the rendering of the printing of the foreground was not satisfactory and he decided to complete the image with watercolour. The final artist step seems to be the addition of a highlighter, such as glycerine, gelatine or more gum arabic, onto the figures in the foreground, to darken tones and create more contrast.

It remains to be understood by whom, when and why this image was created.  We cannot know if the image is contemporary to the drawing or if it was created after. We can wonder if Robert Lowe Stopford or a family member was responsible, seeing as access to the original watercolour or at least its negative was essential to the creation of our object. It’s also plausible that an anonymous artist created this object as a “kitchen-sink” experiment in the early 20th century as he liked the subject!


With thanks: Clodagh Neligan ACR, Senior Paper Conservator, Glucksman Conservation Department, Trinity College Library and Gillian O’Leary, Port of Cork Company –

The post of Conservation Intern is jointly funded by the National Library and the Heritage Council.



Only very cool conservators get to work on the conservation equivalent of CSI. Yes, it’s fun to wear white coats, flash the ultraviolet light around and talk abut acidity (for us, anyhow!), but the reality of preserving our paper heritage collections is somewhat more mundane. That is until we must deal with LOTS of mould. Then things become somewhat more exciting!


Preservation of the Pearse Papers, funded by the Heritage Council, was recently completed. Conservation student volunteer Valentina Giunta, from Tor Vergata University in Rome, worked on re-housing and surface-cleaning the collection.

 Conservation student volunteer, Valentina Giunta, re-housing the Pearse Papers collection


Re-housing the papers was essential to their preservation. Normal stationery supplies are not suitable for long-term storage. They are made from wood-pulp paper that will very quickly turn acidic, creating an acidic ‘micro-climate’. The manuscripts in these folders can absorb the acids, speeding up their degradation. The new grey folders are acid-free, lignin-free and with an alkaline buffer for ‘permanent’ storage. While the new folders may not seem very exciting, they will actively protect the items from degrading.

Spot the difference-new and old folders


A condition assessment found that many papers are mould-damaged. This has resulted in extreme discolouration, ink damage and embrittlement. Some of these sheets are very fragile and cannot be handled safely. The mould and water damage has even resulted in the cementing together of each sheet in one booklet from Cumann na Poblachta (a precursor to Fianna Fáil political party) signed by Margaret Pearse in 1922.

Mould & water damage has resulted in cementing together of each sheet in this booklet from Cumman na Poblachta Mould & water damage has resulted in the cementing together of each sheet in this booklet from Cumann na Poblachta


Prior to re-housing, these mould damaged items have been isolated for treatment. The Next step is to plan the conservation treatment of over 450 sheets, which will be undertaken this summer. This will involve solubility testing of all inks, photographic documentation and lots of scratching of heads while we decide how to deactivate mould spores and strengthen and repair all the papers. Stay tuned for more updates on the project this summer.  Now to where did I leave my ultraviolet light…

This letter is severly damaged by mould causing extreme discolouration ink damage and embrittlement Letter severely damaged by mould causing extreme discolouration, ink damage, and embrittlement


Blog written by Louise O’Connor, a Conservator at the National Library of Ireland.





Eugene Lemercier Eugène Lemercier, 1914


French painter Eugène Emmanuel Lemercier is not remembered primarily for his artistic work. Rather, his name evokes the vibrant correspondence he sent from the western front to his beloved mother in Paris, between August 1914 and his death in April 1915.

This unique collection of wartime correspondence is preserved in the National Library of Ireland and available for the first time for consultation on the Library’s website: See

Eugène Lemercier’s grandmother was the Dublin-born portrait painter Harriet Osborne O’Hagan, who settled in Paris in the late 1860s. Her daughter, Marguerite O’Hagan, also became a painter. Her husband Eugène-Augustin Lemercier died before the birth of their son, Eugène, in Paris in 1886.

At fifteen Eugène entered the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts to train as a painter. His studies were interrupted in 1906 by his military service in Chalons-sur-Marne, west of Paris, where he joined the 106th regiment of infantry. All young men in France had to do a two-year period of compulsory military training. As there were dispensations for higher education students, Eugène’s military service only lasted a year.

Between 1906 and 1914 he won several government prizes for his paintings, including ‘La Contemplation’. Eugène was starting on his next painting when he was drafted into the French army at the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914.

La Contemplation Study for ‘Contemplation’, NGI. 1172 Eugène Emmanuel Lemercier.


From 4 August 1914 until 6 April 1915, Eugène Lemercier wrote to his mother Marguerite nearly every day, sometimes several times a day. He also corresponded with his grandmother and, at least during the first few months of the war, to a network of other faithful friends.

Between September and October, while thrown into what he called ‘the zone of the horrors’, no correspondence reached him and he confided in a small diary. Lermercier’s writings, preserved in the National Library of Ireland, constitute the testimony of a witness of the Great War.

Front page of Lemercier notebook. Front page of Eugène Lemercier’s notebook


Eugène’s first letters were sent from the administrative depot of his regiment in Chalons-sur-Marne, where soldiers were waiting to be sent to the western front.  In September he was stationed south of Verdun, at Les Éparges

Very soon Lemercier became part of the military roster, usually following a nine days rotation system. The first three days were spent at the front line, be it in the trenches or the mine galleries. The next three days were spent at the second line, in the woods; finally, the last three days of the roster were spent resting, billeted within the local civilian population.

Lemercier wrote about the war as he saw and felt it. He poured out his soul entirely to his mother, who became his sole reason to survive. He often discussed art works, books, religion and music with her in his letters. He described the landscapes as well – so the flow of the correspondence feels like a conversation with a close friend.

Lemercier gave details of his daily life: how soldiers exchanged clothing and what the chores were. He mentioned his companions and superiors, sometimes praising their courage and kindness, sometimes feeling incapable of communicating with them. He also described the sufferings of civilians.

He conveyed the horrors around him in a simple and evocative language: the smell of decomposing corpses, the bayonet attacks, the muddy trenches, the cruel lack of sleep. But beyond the factual account of the war, also emerges the sensibility of a man that was completely unprepared for the terror of conflict. He even described his very first battle saying that he felt more like a ‘war correspondent’ at that point. He wrote poetry, often in the form of prayers. The other thread that runs through all this correspondence is his closeness to and boundless love for his mother – writing freely to her was his lifeline. His writings provide an insight into the coping mechanisms soldiers developed. His insight and literary skill make his a fascinating account that offers many avenues of research. While his letters echo some of the themes brought up in other war writings, his individual experience, as an artist and a man versed in philosophy, sets him apart.

In April 1915, Les Éparges was the scene of one of the fiercest battles of the war. Eugène Lemercier disappeared during the course of the battle, on 6 April 1915. His body was never recovered.

Perhaps the most striking feature of Lemercier’s letters is the hope of what was to come after the war, what lesson could be learnt. He expressed his vision of the ‘United-States of Europe’ that would rise in the aftermath of the war, an idea that was taken up by French foreign minister Aristide Briand and Winston Churchill. Lemercier’s wisdom is timeless – though it was also very specific in coming to terms with the problems that Europe faced at the time – and demonstrates his uncommon generosity of spirit. His words are relevant to all facing uncertainty, and will resonate for a long time to come: ‘Let us eat and drink to all that is eternal for tomorrow we die to all that is human’.

Lemercier Postcard Postcard from Eugène Lemercier to his mother, Marguerite, 3 Sept. 1914


Dr Marie Leoutre is the Research Student in the Dept. of Manuscripts at the National Library of Ireland

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