The Tools I Use

The Tools I Use · Ruth Shervington, NGV's Senior Conservator of Paper

When shows come and go at major galleries, public attention is focused on the exhibition in its final form. The many months (and sometimes years) of work to prepare artwork for display is a somewhat mysterious part of the process, that often goes unnoticed. But when you pull back the curtain, and take a look behind-the-scenes, there’s a fascinating journey that takes place before an artwork is ready to be hung. 

Today we offer an insight into the invisible magic of art restoration, with Ruth Shervington, Senior Conservator of Paper at the NGV for over 20 years!

Sally Tabart

Photo – Zan Wimberley.

Photo – Zan Wimberley.

Photo – Zan Wimberley.

Photo – Zan Wimberley.

Photo – Zan Wimberley.

Photo – Zan Wimberley.

Ruth Shervington knew she wanted to pursue a career in the arts, but also wanted to do something that used her hands. Combined with a love for art history, she set about studying the art of paper conservation in London during the early 90s.

After graduation, Ruth spent many years working for a private paper conservation studio, before moving to Australia. Today, she has found a home at the NGV, where she’s worked as the Senior Conservator of Paper for over 20 years (!) and has prepared thousands of works for exhibition.

From treasured Indian court paintings to Andy Warhol works, Ruth meticulously assesses all works on paper before they are presented in the gallery, repairing and restoring the pieces to bring them as close to their original condition as possible. ‘It ensures that the artworks have a life span for as long as they possibly can,’ Ruth explains of the immense satisfaction she gets from her work. ‘You’re bringing it back to the way it was intended to be seen’.

This passion for returning artwork to its original glory is reflected in Ruth’s own processes. She often uses the most historically accurate methods of restoration, sourcing tools and materials from all over the world to ensure her process is as close as possible to the methods used by the original artist.

Today, we take a look inside the unconventional toolbox of this niche vocation, to see how Ruth has prepared some 270 artworks for Visions of Paradise:  Indian Court Paintingson now at the NGV!

Specimen Jars

‘Jars contain an array of pigments and materials that paper conservation have been collecting over the last 5-10 years. We have been attempting to source local materials from the regions around the world that relate to the artwork in the NGV collection. Many of the pigments are in their pure form, rocks, powders, petals, husks and roots. One can imagine artisans grinding powders and soaking the husks and petals as they would have hundreds of years ago & still do in some regions today.’


‘The edge of the repair has to be shaved with a scalpel, to a neat thin bevel to allow for a seamless join, while also being an accurate contour shape. The paper used here is 19th-century Indian paper, and the paste is made from purified wheat-starch. This type of treatment is very satisfying when the repair can be made very accurate and the join can be virtually invisible.’

Japanese brushes

‘Japanese brushes are used in paper conservation for different purposes from pasting, to wetting, smoothing and pounding. Different bristle relate to their different purposes, for example if they are stiff, soft, thick or thin. Bristles come from animals such as rabbit, squirrel, and horse. Whether the brush has straight or curved ‘shoulders’ tells you where they have been made, either in Tokyo or Kyoto.

We love these handmade brushes and try to find excuses to use them!’

Traditional Rajasthani brushes

‘These are traditional brushes made in Rajasthan from Palm squirrels. The smaller brushes are curved. These curved brushes are also used in Persia.’

Mussel shells

‘Mussel shells were commonly used as the receptacles for ground pigments and powdered metals such as gold and silver. While of course, we don’t have to use mussel shells today, we thought we should remain true to tradition ( and enjoyed our meal of mussels!)’

Photo – Zan Wimberley.

Sally Tabart
4th of March 2019


What’s a piece of industry advice you wish you’d known before learning the hard way?

Conservation can be physically arduous at times, with highly detailed and often repetitive treatment work. It is easy to get absorbed into the treatment you are doing and be aching and stiff by the end of the day. You have to be disciplined to get up and move about to stop yourself getting terrible back problems!

What are you listening to when you work?

It depends on the type of work being undertaken in the studio as to the music being played. Some higher risk, more stressful treatments need classical calm, such as Bach, while Prince gets played when we need a pep up with repetitive work & on a Friday.

Top three resources most useful to your practice?

With regard to Visions of Paradise, traditional brushes, pigments and gold powder were sourced from Rajasthan, various historic Indian papers from London and specific international sourced pigments from Germany.

Favourite books related to your practice?

Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and Tracey Chevalier’s novels such as Burning Bright that references William Blake.

Marvel at Ruth’s incredible work (even if you can’t see it!) in the Visions of Paradise: Indian Court Paintings exhibition, on now at the NGV until April 28th!