HISTORIANS have been thrilled by the discovery of a historic room-dividing screen decorated by author Charles Dickens.

And now a conservationist at Dorset History Centre in Dorchester is so intent on preserving the original piece and taking off 160 years of grime and dirt that she is using her own saliva to remove the dirt.

The reason for this is that it contains dirt-fighting enzymes should not damage the artwork.

It is thought that in 1850 Dickens spent hours gluing more than 800 images, etchings and prints on to the 7ft tall divider in the home of his actor friend William Macready.

It includes images of the Duke of Wellington, Napoleon, Isaac Newton, Admiral Nelson, William Blake, Mozart, George III, Byron, John Swift, Samuel Butler, William Hogarth and George Washington.

It is thought it was created to educate Macready’s children and is a Who’s Who of famous people from the 19th century.

The descendents of Macready recently gave the screen to the Friends of Sherborne House – Macready's old home in Dorset – and now it is now being conserved.

John Sutherland-Smith, chairman of the Friends of Sherborne House, said: “The screen was put together in the 1850s. Charles Dickens and William Macready were very close friends.

“The family story is that Dickens would visit Macready and together they made the screen, probably to educate the children.

“It is canvas on a wooden frame and the pictures are probably from periodicals and have been stuck on with glue in a large collage. They include the names of the day as well as Shakespeare and classical history.”

Rebecca Donnan, the expert who is conserving the artefact in Dorchester said: “It really is a lovely thing and it is remarkable the difference when the surface grime is removed.

“It is a very complicated object with multiple layers. It has a timber frame with textiles stretched across it with etchings and engravings on that.

“There have also been running repairs and it has aged and deteriorated and the wood has created acidity.

“The varnish has discoloured and it has been in a room with coal fire and people smoking.

“I’m cleaning it with a special gel and also saliva. Saliva is viscous and has a special enzyme that helps remove dirt.”

The conservation project will take several months to complete and cost around £15,000.