Conservation of a mechanical pull-toy bulldog
by Ségolène Girard
Seg is speaking !
Remember me ? So much happens all the time in Nico’s workshop that my past articles about the conservation of a Horse Racing Game are far buried under other wonderful adventures…One of which I was part of just recently and I am going to tell you about !
When I met Nico in 2013, I was a second year student in paper conservation in Paris. I now graduated some time ago, and it happened that the development of a new product for conservation brought me to speak for AIC’s conservators annual meeting in Houston in May 2018. It is a long journey from home therefore I did not give it a second thought when I learned I was going: I told Brittany we should Skype ASAP, as I had the most exciting news !
Indeed, we never shared that piece of information with you dear readers, but Nico and I met online…and never in real life at that point. It started with a comment on her blog and we became Skype pen-pals. Actually we chatted so much at that point that it felt like we had visited each other’s workshop dozens of times and shared many coffee cups vs tisane’s (hour difference obliges).
We lost no time and decided I would come from Houston to her Seattle workshop Memoria Technica for a few weeks – once the AIC’s one week conference would be over. She had a great piece that needed the expertise of a paper conservator, and I expected no less from her !
CHAPTER 1: A SAFE KIND OF BEAST
The object in question is this papier-mâché bulldog barking pull-toy from the late 19th c. … with an unintended pulled apart head. The dog was never meant to look so scary and actually probably made the pride and joy of a small kid – which cracked us up every time we looked at it, I mean how scary would it be to cuddle now ? It would have taken a very brave kid to handle this dog, or a nice fixing, for which we would need all the bravery we could ask the conservation fairy for. Luckily I am always excited by a good challenge and I found myself in the best location to get inspiration from, in this new setting that a horologist conservation workshop is compared to the pristine white, minimalist, feng-shui paper conservation operating space.
So let’s roll our sleeves up and start with the necessary understanding of what is on the slab, meaning knowing the origins and components of the bulldog, and what caused its arrival in the workshop.
« A late Victorian British Bulldog pull-along toy, flock finish, papier-mâché, with green/black glass eyes, opening mouth and bark operated by chain from collar, moving head, wooden castors, coconut hair in collar, 13″,25 » 
Would be the description of those sympathetic growling toys, very popular in the late 19th c. as pets for wealthy children. With no doubt we had a fine specimen before us, let alone for a few components differences, such as a collar made of horse hair instead of coconut fibers.
The explanation for this extravagant collar is a far-back French penchant for exotic animals that went wild in the 19-20th c., when beasts from foreign countries such as lions would be brought back to Paris and walked proudly in the streets. That way, Dali’s personal art critic Babou the ocelot would pee on his prints regularly, and Josephine Baker favorited sleeping with Chiquita the cheetah, while a sweet story tells how Rosa Bonheur’s lioness walked painfully in the stairs to call her mistress and make sure to die in her comforting arms.
Those who would rather walk a dog, accessorized their fierce looking pet with a long hairy collar evoking a mane, thus reducing risks. Naturally, toys followed the trend.
CHAPTER 2: A TERRIBLE ACCIDENT
Dismembering the bobble-head to inspect the insides of the bulldog, we found another both funny and interesting piece of information: the head is made of two hard papier-mâché parts, and covered with a thin cast paper “mask” that covers both parts and refines the face features.
On both parts a paper tag is pasted from the inside, on which is written on one side “Alphonsine… [date]” and on the other “Alphonsine… [different date]”. Alphonsine is a French soft-sounding girl name, particularly fashionable in the 19th c., which means….this would have been our bulldog’s model name ! Very fitting is it not? Both parts would be assembled thanks to this mark-up differentiating them from all the other heads on the toy maker’s bench. We can imagine there were several breeds, each with a different boy or girl’s name to disntiguish the toy model, as we still do today with dolls.
A hidden mechanism in the collar allows the dog to bark by pressing in your palm on the extremity of the leash, basically like a pump similar to that of a motorcycle making the distinctive “tac tac tac” or “bark bark bark” sound ! It is enhanced by a diaphragm hidden in the jaws, which also open up and close alongside the barking. Unfortunately, being one of the best feature of this toy, the use of the mechanism slowly caused pressure on the head and led to the cracking of a rigid papier-mâché head not big and strong enough to withstand those repetitive moves.
The right back foot also suffered pressure from the inside on the castor wheel and a too short paper mold. Cracks and deformation appeared here and there on strategic areas supporting the structure, such as the ribs or the twisted right front leg. The tail broke with another kind of pressure, and one we can imagine too well: the repeated pulling of small children on that fragile appendage.
Someone attempted repairs with glue at two different times, as characterized by different looking glues, each times on the tail and on the broken leg. Those repairs are irregular and dripping over the whole area, forming a thick oozing shell of shiny appearance around the cracks. Hair is caught in the hardened adhesives and the paper got darker.
The hair is missing in several areas because it is only flocked, and a lot of tears are naturally joined with paper flakes and entirely missing areas. There are major losses to the collar hair. Fun notes, if the collar hair is made of horse hair, Nico had doubts about the flocking origins. Regular diameter, shortly cut (around 5 mil.), fair and hard…it does not look like any other animal than one that is human ! Ahem…any thoughts about this? It will not impact our treatment thankfully.
CHAPITRE 3: ALPHONSINE GOES TO THE CONSERVATOR
After taking some photographs and reporting all of the above in details, we suggested the following operations.
1. Dry cleaning with a hepa filter vacuum
We removed the head from the neck and secured the detached parts with pillows and textile tape on the leash. Covering the mouth of the vacuum hose with fine mesh, we started dry cleaning the outside and inside of the object’s surface. With help from a soft brush in some instances to guide the dirt in the aspiration, and sometimes with a “metal air pump” from our conservator horologist’s workshop that we found helpful to avoid hair loss.
Indeed, the process was very slow and risky as the hairs were not very well fixed and those that were detached gathered in corners and grooves. We removed as much dirt as possible, but did not insist where no humidity would be needed during further treatment, as humidity fixes dirt and makes it harder to remove.
2. Dry cleaning and wet cleaning of the gesso covering the tongue and gums
Most of the dirt accumulated on the colored gesso was in the mouth as dirt tends to stick to gesso partially made with gelatine. After dry cleaning the mouth covering with rubber sponges, and erasers on paper and stable areas, we proceeded to wet cleaning with methylcellulose. Cleaning a mouth with synthetic saliva sounded appealing, and it proved to be efficient although used short term and followed with a quick water “rinse” with wet cotton swabs. Where dirt was really hard to remove, 5% methylcellulose gel was applied topically. It allowed the area of dirt to swell and remove it with a wet cotton swab afterwards.
3. Removing glue with synthetic clay
Removing glue with laponite and solvent can be pretty satisfying… but oil and scissors are still not part of the conservator’s toolbox, and removing what is close to chewing gum in hair became rather challenging with no user guide.
Soaking pieces of laponite with acetone or ethanol we made sample zones and with different timers, we were able to assess the following:
Layers of glues had been intertwined during two different old repair sessions, therefore steps would be taken to remove the glue and what would be residual.
We started with a laponite poultice with acetone to remove the first layers, applied through non-woven fabric and sealed around the tail. After 10 minutes, we were able to lift easily the first layer of glue, like nail polish chips. It had to be repeated a few times to access the second layer of different glue. But in places where it had no “second layer of glue” intermediary and was directly applied on hair, there was a pigment migration in the glue which loss could not be avoided through removal of the glue.
In order to remove the second layer of glue, we applied laponite soaked with ethanol and water – or it would dry too quickly following the same method as previously described. After 15 minutes, we were able to cut through the thick layers, but mechanical removal was dangerous and hard to control grabbing hair with the blade of the scalpel. Therefore we used pointy tweezers with which we would pull pieces of glue little by little. When it would harden again, we would soften it with the poultice to repeat the process. It was a long and repeated method, as the glue would harden very quickly once the poultice was removed. Softening it longer than 15 minutes did not help as the hair would then be caught in the really soft glue along with the painted paper underneath. In some places, to avoid loss of pigment and hair, residual glue was abraded dried, then smoothed with ethanol and a brush.
4. Repairs with strips structure
One of the biggest challenges was the crack on the head. As explained earlier, because of its direct relation to the way it was made, it meant we could not just mend it without taking into consideration the origin of the skull alteration. The inevitable crack would appear again under the pressure of the mechanism on the two parts of the head mold if we just pretended nothing happened. This probably is one of the great and few occasions we have as conservators to make a point for what we do versus restoration.
Restoration would consist in covering up the default in the object, causing more tension on an already fragilized area, and dragging further damage and loss in time. Conservation here is the balance between: respecting the general overlook of the object, not repeating characteristics that could bring further damage, with care of not denying them for legacy.
Our job as conservators is to make sure to prevent the cause of alteration to strike again, without changing the first goal or intention of the object.
For that matter, we needed to find a way to consolidate the crack layer by layer, with a material that would be strong but still thin and flexible enough to put no stress on the tear. We pasted one sheet of 30 gms Japanese tissue on Tyvek with Lascaux that was cut into 15 x 5 mil. strips once dry.
With a mixture of Lascaux and wheat starch paste (50:50), they were adhered through the original laminated papier-mâché, starting from the bottom, drying with continuous pressure of a Teflon bone folder. Once a strip was applied it was sandwiched with a piece of 30 gms Japanese tissue pasted with thinned wheat starch paste until reaching the upper layers.
The inside of the skull where it splits in two naturally from the mold design, was reinforced with a large strip of the Tyvek repair material, pasted on the papier-mâché on the Japanese tissue side with the Lascaux + Wheat starch paste mixture (50:50).
Working in a horology conservation workshop, we found that using “too many different materials would be the enemy of well-made” so we kept using the 30 gms Japanese tissue we had at disposal. Pasted pieces were slits in some areas, and when the gap was to large, it was first stuffed with cotton linters.
To ease the process through and through we bandaged the head in strategic areas, using book conservator materials. Repairs were held still with first-aid bandages and artists clippers while the repairs would dry. Access was still pretty intricate and hard to access in many places, where we had to apply continuous pressure…by hand.
Infills were finished with a toned 17 gms Japanese tissue – the color of the papier-mâché – before final retouching.
We retouched using with 3% hydroxypropylcellulose in ethanol and raw pigments chosen for their stability characteristics. Both are picked from the tip of a medium hard brush and juxtaposed on the infill until desired color effect is reached.
7. Hair flocking
We found that hair flocking was not disrupting the general aspect of the object in areas of loss. Therefore, since we were unsure of the nature of the hair and with no definitive or unique solution yet for this field of conservation, we just did not add hair on the infills. However, the dog was the perfect cobaye for an idea we have had in our mind for a few years now…a future article will tell you all about our idea to make fake hair on such pieces. To be continued! (The link will appear here)
More before-after pictures:
And here are two sets of pictures Nico sent me after I left, that illustrate quite well our collaboration :
Above – right chop corner was mended and retouched by Nico, and the left one by myself. She looks less « crazy » now that her grin is back in shape, don’t you think ?
Here on the leg, I thinned down the glue and started aligning the gap while I was still in the workshop, and Nico completed the conservation treatment with the remaining infill layers and retouching.
CHAPITRE 4: AU REVOIR CHÈRE ALPHONSINE
Dear Alphonsine looks better now if I dare say of my own work. Although she came in very poor condition, it was possible to gain back some of her past lush with rounded-up conservation and keep her integrity intact.
Racing horses cannot be made from donkeys, therefore, some distortion is still present – but believe me when I say three weeks were not enough to shape the face into her past glory. More months would not have been enough either, as, remember: the head is made of two hard papier-mâché molds, covered with a thin papier-mâché “mask” which was not of the same shape exactly. When the thin mask broke in the middle, it had already changed shape from the pressure applied from behind with the other two parts, and elongated on the nose, thus a strange shape confined under paint.
We lift it up to a close appearance to was it used to look like (both parts of the face are asymmetrical on all the pull-toy bulldogs we found), but did not insist, as the client wanted the mechanism to work again – who knows for how long. Trying too hard to reshape the head would have just make it break again, eventually, as you remember the two small « mask » could not whistand the large « skull » pressure.
Therefore we compromised to bring the tear together but did not insist more than allowed. Leaving to a conservator with more time (if that exists) the possibility to shape it one day again, as all materials employed are removable, compatible, and durable in time.
As I was working there three weeks only, you will sadly not see in this article how to put back in place a crooked leg (which could have been graphic), or hear the bark (not suitable for all audience either) of Alphonsine. This is a mission for Nico and I know we will get a ticket for the show.
I wish to thank her, once more and always for all the light and fun she brought me through this collaboration. Meeting her met all my best wishes, and working together on this really challenging and fun piece was the absolute cherry on top of the Twin Peaks famous pie. She introduced me to a lot of talented and kind people that went accross the shop for work or encouragement and I am glad to say she is well surrounded – and to say this to them that will recognize themselves, I cannot start naming them as I don’t have enough fingers to count them.
More than this, I made a great friend in Nico and confirmed a passion for my job, which I hope everyone can say also. Goodbye for now with a picture from the farmer’s market in Seattle (in case you still had doubts that the two of us really met). À bientôt ! – Yours truly, Ségolène
Pictures kindly taken by A.Diaz, yet another (rare) cool watchmaker lady! You are pinned in my best memories from this trip! (get it get it ?)
Post scriptum: A quick stop by Las Vegas allowed me to meet the real Sigma Derby which has an evil modern twin one table away ! I am glad to say that many players were still captivated by the extremely slow and hazardous mechanism that ate all of my pennies. But maybe I just did not get the rules correctly or I am a terrible gambler, or both. Anyway I feel complete, and the buckle is buckled ! https://mechanicalcurios.com/2013/11/13/a-french-horse-racing-game-a-bit-of-history-part-2/ !)
Post-Post scriptum: I dedicate all of the terrible transcriptions of French sayings in this text to Chris and Patou, and I know I could have done better. Sorry.
(to be continued when I am back in the studio)
 As seen in Hartley’s auction on September 27th 2014 : https://www.the-saleroom.com/en-gb/auction-catalogues/hartleys/catalogue-id-srhar10003/lot-a1b46a28-633f-4b31-84f1-a3f70167a3c2
Barbara Dumont, Anne-Laurence Dupont, Marie-Christine Papillon, Gaël-François Jeannel. Technical Study and Conservation-Treatment of a Horse Model by Dr Auzoux. Studies in Conservation, Maney Publishing, 2011, 56, pp.58 – 74. <10.1002/anie.200905131>.
Jeffrey Warda, Irene Brückle, Anikó Bezúr & Dan Kushel (2007) Analysis of Agarose, Carbopol, and Laponite Gel Poultices in Paper Conservation, Journal of the American Institute for Conservation, 46:3, 263-279 http://dx.doi.org/10.1179/019713607806112260
13 thoughts on “Papier-mâché that barks : Woof ! Crack ! Woops…”
Fascinating post! I loved all the details you provided about this fun project 🙂
For non-francophones, a ‘cobaye’ means a guinea-pig 🙂
I very much enjoyed reading this account of the restoration. Now Alphonsine looks rather less like Spike in Tom & Jerry, and more deserving of her sweet name.
Ha ! Thank you for the good laugh, that is indeed the closest comparison that could have been made of the dog before treatment, I had not thought about this ! And yes, it seems I got lost in translation with cobaye….happens a lot even in my tongue, which is not always useful to French interlocutors when English pops every now and then to replace words I cannot find. Can’t seem to find any way to prevent that méli-mélo !
This was extremely interesting…Really enjoyed reading and viewing all the details and pictures of the ancient bulldog!
Thank you dearly Phyllis, and thank you for bringing the love of preserving heritage in your home, once upon a time…
Absolument fantastique! I love your in-depth restoration articles of incredibly fragile objects.
It’s too bad we only seem to get them every five years. 😐
Having a “cobaye” thrown-in there was indeed very smile inducing. 🙂
Merci mille fois ! I should think of writing more then, if very fragile objects need a long time to fix, it generally do not last five years indeed…
And ha! cobaye sounded so well…I had not realized it was not correct English 🙂 I am glad it made the trick for an accent made silent through writing.
Bonjour Ségolène! I am so glad to see this little puppy got some much needed love. She looks wonderful!
Merci Justin !
A wonderful piece — thanks for sharing!
another of Nico’s conservation friends,
A very sincere thanks for your words Mostyn. I am very glad you liked it ! Congrats on your recent thesis.