To celebrate World Photography Day 2020, Rhiannon Griffiths, Conservator at Gwent Archives, tells us about her work on the Helen Kegie Collection.
Social Work champion, Helen Kegie MBE, amassed a great collection of family history records relating to various ancestors from the Isle of Wight and Chepstow, Monmouthshire. The collection consists of photographs, diaries, films, letters and other documents.
Deposited at Gwent Archives in 2014, part of the collection includes eight Ambrotypes from the 1860s. These were originally owned by Phyllis Wyndham Thomas – her father, Edmund Ballard, was a professional Photographer in Chepstow during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
One of the photographs was taken by Alfred Winter at his studio at 29 Bourke St. East, Melbourne, Australia – we know that he occupied the premises from 1860-1864, based on records at the State Library of Victoria. As several individuals appear in more than one photograph, they appear to be set of family photographs taken around the same time in Australia. No connection has been made between Australia and the Thomas/Ballard family that owned them; it seems likely Ballard came into possession of the Ambrotypes independently.
An Ambrotype is created using a variant of the wet plate collodion process, and was developed by Frederick Scott Archer in collaboration with Peter Wickens Fry in 1852. During the process, Ambrotypes are deliberately under-exposed and can only be viewed when a dark, opaque background is placed behind the glass. Elaborate frames were used to avoid the collodion layer becoming scratched or flaking away from the glass. Each Ambrotype is unique as copies cannot be made.
When assessing the Kegie Ambrotypes, we found that five of them were suffering from silver mirroring, which had caused a metallic halo to form on the surface.
Pollutants, high temperatures and humidity can cause silver particles in photographs to oxidise and migrate. When silver ions reach the surface of a photograph they form a reflective, bluish, metallic layer. Mirroring can also be a result of photographs coming into contact with poor quality materials.
To conserve the Ambrotypes, it was decided that the frames should be thoroughly cleaned and have some of the adhered paint and animal glue removed. After some conservation work, each Ambrotype was digitally photographed, placed in its own made-to-measure, four-flap folder and housed in a bespoke box – this secondary packaging will help prevent further damage being caused by pollutants.
If you would like to read more about the work of Helen Kegie MBE and her collection you can go to http://www.helenkegiecollection.org