Artlab has recently completed the treatment of a large number of paper labels written mainly with iron gall inks, from the bird egg collection of Captain Samuel Albert White (1870-1954), belonging to the South Australian Museum. Between late 1800’s to early 1900’s Captain White, a keen ornithologist and conservationist, collected many of the eggs in South Australia. Particularly in a large wetland no longer in existence known as the Reedbeds, located west of Adelaide.

Many species collected by White are now locally extinct, such as the Azure Kingfisher and the Ground Parrot. The physical specimens in the collection are crucial as there is imperative evidence some extinct species once thrived in various habitats and the temporal change in species distribution is documented and archived.

White’s wife donated the extensive egg collection with an additional 3,760 bird skins, collected by Captain White, to the Museum in 1988. Handwritten paper data slips accompanied the egg clutches containing detailed information, including the founder of the egg clutch, the date and location. Given the age of the collection, a number of labels had been effected prior to donation, by insect damage, creasing and ink corrosion.

The Museum approached Artlab to stabilise the condition of the labels, digitise and preserve the collection. A large-scale conservation project was set up by Roberto Padoan, Principal Conservator, Paper and Books at Artlab in close collaboration with Maya Penck, Collection Manager of the Ornithology Department at the South Australian Museum.

The original labels were inserted into 3,400 numbered envelopes by volunteers at the Museum and then transferred to the Paper laboratory at Artlab. Jorji Gardener, volunteer from the Museum and Artlab and Desiree Rinne (former intern at Artlab), conducted the stabilisation treatment under the supervision of the Principal Conservator with assistance from the Paper and Books conservators.

During the assessment phase it became apparent most of the labels were written in iron gall inks and some in pencil. Iron gall ink is made of galls formed by wasps who lay their eggs in the tissue of a tree, resulting in growths that are high in tannins. Through various processes, including fermentation, the resulting tannic acid is mixed with iron sulphate and gum Arabic which creates a permanent ink.

The distortion in the paper labels was reduced with controlled heat, using an electric spatula and stabilisation was achieved by facing the label with a thin Japanese paper tissue. Some were so fragmented, true detective work was required to recompose the labels. At the end of the process, the treated labels were stored in archival enclosures and returned to the Museum.

Whilst working on this project, Jorji, a practicing artist, became fascinated by the variety of techniques and materials used in the process of conservation treatments and developed a keen interest in iron gall inks. This led Jorji to begin a two year research project under Roberto’s and Maya’s supervision, studying the types of inks used in the White collection and the production of iron gall inks in South Australia.

Jorji discovered during the project, there are several Australian gall wasps which lay their eggs predominantly on the Acacia species, which grow abundantly around her neighbourhood in the Adelaide Hills. Despite thorough research, Jorji was not been able to determine if early settlers to Adelaide made their own ink and if so, whether they used these local galls or imported the traditional Oak galls.

During these tests there was the pandemic interruption and as Jorji was unable to continue testing at Artlab, she took this opportunity to set up some homemade trials of ink using Aleppo Oak galls and the Acacia galls. Jorji also created a series of artworks of the birds from Captain White’s specimens.

An important focus of Jorji’s art practice is the environment and during her work on the White egg clutch labels she was profoundly affected by the realisation that many of the birds, prolific during White’s lifetime, were now rare, with some classified as vulnerable and others, like the Regent Honeyeater, now regionally extinct. Furthermore, Jorji recognised this eradication was due to the environmental impacts of urbanisation development causing loss of habitats for many bird species.

Having worked so closely with the labels, Jorji developed an idea to include them in her artwork. With permission from the Ornithology department, Jorji photographed the original labels then enlarged and transferred them onto her artwork using carbon copy paper, another 19th Century invention. She then traced the writing using iron gall ink.

The labels were the starting point for her art project and contained a myriad of stories of the era as well as scientific data. By reproducing White’s handwritten labels with historic ink, Jorji uses the materiality to convey a tangible connection to White’s collection. 

Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Material (AICCM) Chinwag Webinar:
Jorji will present this project at the next AICCM Chinwag Webinar on Thursday the 29th of September at 10:30 ACST time.
Participation is open to anyone interested and it is free of charge, you can register here.

Flight, An Illustrated Notebook of Bird Life and Loss:
Jorji and her mother Viv Szekeres, historian and artist, have collaborated on a body of work illustrating the extinct birds from the Adelaide Reedbeds. These illustrations are featured in the book: Gardener, Jorji and Szekeres, Viv. Flight: An Illustrated Notebook of Bird Life and Loss.

The book was launched at the opening of their SALA exhibition: Flight, An Illustrated Study of Bird Life and Loss on the 4th of August at Hamra Auditorium Gallery, West Torrens. Exhibition dates: 1 to 31 August 2022.

Jorji flattening labelsJorji Gardener at work on the original labels of the White collection. Photo: Artlab Australia.

Egg collection at the MuseumCaptain White eggs collection at the SAM in their original museum drawers before rehousing. Photo: G. Hancock, © J. Gardener.

Detail of egg collectionThe egg clutches contains vital information about locations and date of their collection and in some cases extra information added by the finder. Photo G. Hancock, © J. Gardener.

Detail of damaged label

Fragmented labelSamples of heavily damaged labels stabilized with Japanese paper tissue and Klucel G. Photo: J. Gardener.

Acacia gumsGalls collected by Jorji in Bridgewater from local Acacia species. Photo and © J. Gardener.

Jars with ink The fermentation process is important for the separation of gallic acid from tannic acid. Photo and ©: J. Gardener.

Label with textA label of the Swamp Harrier bird reporting “I believe this to be the last of the Swamp hawk in the Reed beds”. Photo: J. Gardener.

Women sketching birdsJorji and her mother Viv Szekeres working together on the sketches for the representation of species no longer found in the Riverbanks (SA). Photo G. Hancock, © J. Gardener.

Bird illustrationAn illustration from the book drawn by Jorji Gardener using handmade Iron Gall ink. Photo G. Hancock, © J. Gardener.