Wicked Wit: Conserving Mary and Matthew Darly’s Comic Prints

The conservation team have just completed a project to conserve over 140 hand-coloured, eighteenth-century etchings by the husband and wife team, Mary and Matthew Darly in preparation for the Library’s next temporary exhibition Wicked Wit.

This printer-publisher team produced well over 500 comic images of Caricatures, Macaronies, and Characters from no. 39 Strand (London) in the decade between 1770 and 1780. They became so popular that their publications were available throughout Great Britain and Ireland, Europe, and even America. The name Darly became synonymous with the humorous images they produced.

Wep 0494_disbinding (2)

The exhibition focuses on the largest album of Darly prints in the Chester Beatty Collection (Wep 0494). The 18th century binding contained 147 prints and was in very poor condition when it first came to the Conservation Studio at the beginning of 2015. Both boards of the quarter-back leather binding were detached, the spine leather was fragmentary with extensive losses, and the sewing was almost entirely broken. The prints were covered in surface dirt and a number had large tears and creases. Due to the level of damage that had already occurred to the album, and the risk of further damage to the precious prints it contained, it was decided to disbind the volume fully to allow for the conservation of the collection.

The decision to disbind an object is never one to be taken lightly, however in the case of this album, the extensive deterioration meant that disbinding the volume was the only option which would facilitate the safe conservation of the prints. It also presented a unique opportunity to display the folios as individual art objects in a dedicated exhibition before the eventual restoration of their integrity as a rebound volume.


Once disbound, glue accretions were carefully removed mechanically before the prints were surface cleaned to remove dust and dirt with chemical sponges and localised use of polyvinyl eraser. Next, a number of large tears and losses were repaired with a range of handmade Japanese papers and wheatstarch paste. With the prints clean and fully repaired, they could be handled safely for photography and exhibition mounting.

As the prints will be rebound into an album after the exhibition, the mounting is a temporary measure, so the folios were secured in the bespoke conservation standard window mounts using Melinex V hinges. They were then framed in plain black wooden frames, which were sealed using paper tape; removing every fleck of dust and finger print from the glass is a surprisingly time consuming task for the team.

Darly slide

Hanging the framed prints is a precision operation and during the planning process a model of the gallery is used to work out the hanging for the room and calculate any additional temporary walls required. Curator, Dr Jill Unkel worked closely with the installation team to ensure the layout and order was correct, taking into account the positioning of text panels and labels. The conservation team then installed a number of bound volumes and mounted prints into four desk cases. Following a final clean of all the glass and touch up of the paintwork all was ready for the opening.


The exhibition Wicked Wit opens to the public in the temporary Gallery on 11 September and will run until 14 February 2016. There is a richly illustrated catalogue to accompany the exhibition which is available to purchase from the Library shop.

2 thoughts on “Wicked Wit: Conserving Mary and Matthew Darly’s Comic Prints

  1. Pingback: Exhibition | Wicked Wit: Darly’s Comic Prints | Enfilade

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