Conserving the Leeds Ichthyosaur

Something large and very blue, with a lot of issues, came into the Conservation Studio in April 2015.  Some items can be conserved in a short space of time, others need a little more time spent on them and some can be a labour of love.

The Ichthyosaur lives down in ‘dinosaur alley’ at the Leeds Discovery Centre, where our objects are stored when they aren’t on display. The Ichthyosaur was initially chosen to go out on loan. Unfortunately, this did not happen but it meant that it could come in for some sorely needed conservation work.

The Ichthyosaur before conservation with a blue background
The Ichthyosaur before conservation

Paint-stripping

As you can see the background was very blue, the in-painting was noticeable and there was underlying damage. My first course of action was to strip the paint back to see what was going on! We used a steam cleaner, scalpel, a very small sander and a lot of hard work to do this.

Ichthyosaur after the paint layer was removed
Ichthyosaur after the paint layer was removed

Discovering what lies beneath

Once the layer underneath the paint was revealed a number of problems were spotted. There were numerous cracks, missing pieces of bone that had been damaged in antiquity and various types of materials had been used to infill different areas.

Once this was documented the work could begin on stabilising and repainting the fossil.

Gaps are being filled between the backing and the fossil.
Filling all the gaps

Filling in the cracks

A conservation grade type of Poly-filler was used to fill in the cracks and stabilise the fossil. This can easily be carved and sandpapered down until it lays flush with the surface.

Once these areas had been in filled and left to dry the surrounding matrix needed to be coated with a paint layer.

The background has been painted a light grey colour.
The background is painted

4. In-painting and colour-matching

After two coats the infilled sections of the fossil needed to be painted. This needs a steady hand and a good eye for colour-matching. We tend to use pigments rather than paints, but it is dependent on the material.

The ichthyosaur is finished and in a mahogany frame
The Ichthyosaur is finished!

5. The finishing touches

Nearly there, just the frame needed varnishing and a deep mahogany was chosen to complement the blue grey paint.

I hope you’ll agree the finished article, which has been in conservation for one year and three months, looks a lot better than when it started its journey with us.

Emma Bowron, Conservator

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