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Conservation Case Study: The Mystery of the Watercolour Box

By Conservation Technician, Mark Anderson
March 2017

Watercolour Box - in pieces
Artifact WDM-1973-S-2311 as it was first found.

In many museum collections there are artifacts that are “foundlings”- their stories or histories unknown. Sometimes the full story is not known at the time an artifact is donated or key research avenues are not yet available. Records can be mislaid or mislabeled - problems that were much more common before computer databases. Sometimes it takes fresh eyes or new tools to reveal clues to an object’s history. In the Western Development Museum’s collection, one such ”foundling” was discovered, but with a bit of sleuthing, its history was recovered and its story can now be told.

In one of the many storage rooms of the Western Development Museum’s Curatorial Centre, a little box was found sitting on a shelf. Its record showed no known history or donor information. While making room for the storage of other items, our Conservation Technician picked it up and took it to the conservation lab for research and repair.

When it was put onto the lab work table it was in 14 different pieces.


Examining each piece with a variety of methods (under visible light with the naked eye; with a magnifying glass; and under ultra violet (U.V.) light) revealed many small clues about the box, it’s construction and condition, and, ultimately, its connection to a famous Saskatchewan suffragette.

The manufacturer and use of the box were easy to determine. The box top shows an image of Bradbourne house from Kent, England. On the inside lid of the box is the manufacturer’s inscription “Imperial London Made Watercolors for Juvenile artists.” The interior portions of the box, still in pieces, were covered in watercolour marks - evidence of a well-used paint box.

Watercolour Box - Close-up of top
Bradbourne House, Kent, England.
Image from the top of WDM-1973-S-2311

Whom the box belonged to was harder to determine. On the underside of the box were faint markings made in ink not entirely legible in normal light. A U.V. light was brought in to examine the box. Using this tool, it was found that there were inscriptions on the bottom of the box in iron gall ink:
• The bottom of the box had written on it “20, Spittle, Borden, Kent.”
• Below that was a large letter “S” and the letters “tle” under that and to the right.

Though not entirely legible, these clues led to revealing the identity of the original owner.

Watercolour Box - detail under UV light
Image of the bottom of 1973-S-2311 when examined in U.V. light.

Searching through Museum records, recently added to a new digital database by WDM volunteer Debbie Porter, it was found that a paint set titled “Juvenile Artists Paint Set” had been donated in 1970 by Mrs. R. Beamish from the estate of Mrs. Violet McNaughton. A search through the rest of the records databases showed only the one paint set had “juvenile” in the description.

Jackson and McNaughton Family

Violet McNaughton
Violet McNaughton delivering a speech at Saskatoon’s Western Development Museum’s Pion-era in the late 1905s or 1960s.

Mrs. Violet McNaughton was a powerful woman in Saskatchewan for many years and through her efforts and work many social changes were wrought on the province including the franchise being extended to women and the push to a provincially funded Medicare system. Find out more about Violet at Researching her past, it was found that she was born in Borden, Kent, England to progressive parents. Her father was a coal miner Mr. William Delmark Jackson and her mother was Mrs. Sedelia Jane Jackson, nee Spittle.

Matching this history to clues from the box, especially the markings on the bottom examined under UV light, revealed that the paint set once belonged to Violet McNaughton’s mother Sedelia Jackson when she was a little girl in Borden England. Even the image on the top of the box connected it to Sedelia: Bradbourne house is a short distance from Sedelia’s childhood home

Sedelia was an upper middleclass woman who was educated in the traditional manners for a young woman of the 1860s and 70s. She was taught to read and write, to sew and embroider and how to paint. She shared her skills with others, including her husband whom she taught how to read and write. Both parents gave her a lot of encouragement in getting her education and didn’t let her being born a woman in a time of unequal rights stop her from going as far as she could.

Now, this little box had its shared its rich history, but it was still in 14 pieces. Next step: conservation.


First thing was identifying why the box had come apart. Our Conservation Technician examined the outer pieces of the box. He discovered that bottom of the box was warped. When the box was examined under U.V. light, the edges of the box where it had been had together fluoresced. The location of the fluorescing and age of the piece indicated that it was adhesive residue and that the adhesive used to make the box was made out of animal hide.

Watercolour box under UV lightParts of the box WDM-1973-S-2311 when examined under U.V. light. The parts that appear to be glowing is old hide adhesive remnants.

Together, the fact that the box was made with an animal hide adhesive and that the bottom board was warped suggested a cause for the box’s condition: that over its lifetime the box had been subjected to changing temperatures and humidity levels. These factors caused both the wood to warp and the glue to fail, eventually leading to the state the box was found in.

Due to the warping, the box would never be able to be put back exactly the way that it had once been, but our conservation staff decided to try to get it as close as possible to its original condition. The box was first given a gentle cleaning with a document cleaning sponge to remove any loose dirt particles. Then the old adhesive was carefully removed, utilising a variety of small hand tools. Once the entire piece was clean, it was time to reassemble it.

A dry assembly, where the pieces were put back together without any adhesive, was done to determine where each piece went and see how they would all fit together. Then the box was dismantled again and laid out according to where each piece fit and it was time for the real assembly, with adhesive, to begin. An reversible adhesive for wood was selected because in museum conservation the first rule is that everything done to an artifact must be reversible so that it can be undone if necessary. The first step was reattaching the outer sides of the box to the base. Clamps and weights were used to hold pieces together while the adhesive dried. Each piece was adhered and the adhesive allowed to dry completely before the next piece was added.

Clamping the box together.

Clamping the holder for the small ceramic bowl together.

After the exterior of the box was all together, the interior was reassembled and placed inside. The small ceramic dish for holding water for painting was chipped. One part of the chipped piece was in the box. An adhesive appropriate for ceramics was used to reattach it. There is a small piece of the chip still missing.

The paper on the interior bottom of the box was also re-adhered using a third adhesive safe for both paper and wood.

After the adhesives had all dried all of the clamps were removed and the small box was all together once again, in one piece and with its history.

The completed box reassembled.

The interior of the reassembled box.


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