Look, write, say

This year has been filled with looking, writing and talking, three things I enjoy very much indeed. I have had several very interesting assessment projects, ranging from a gorgeous collection of medieval and early modern European manuscript fragments to an incredibly complete representation of arts and crafts printing heritage in a collection based on the output of the Essex House Press.  Looking inevitably precedes writing, and the resulting reports on all these great projects must run to many thousands of words of advice.

Talking this year has involved several presentations, most recently to the members of the Royal Philatelic Society of London on their Perkins Bacon collection of letter books. This vital and complete record of early stamp history and printing on an international level was very difficult to access  due to the damaged condition of the material, and is currently undergoing conservation with the generous support of the National Conservation of Manuscripts Trust.

A project that is just drawing to a close – and one that will deserve a post all of its own – is the extensive work I have undertaken on the Oliver Messel Archive for the University of Bristol’s Theatre Collection. This has been such a wonderful project to conserve, and centres on a series of evocative photograph albums detailing Messel’s early life and work as a theatre designer and an incredible collection of architectural plans of his later interests as an interior designer.  As there are to be no spoilers for the longer post at the end of the project I will leave it at that for now, with one small tantalising example of Messel’s output – who would not want to live in a house like this?

 

My thanks to the Royal Philatelic Society of London and the Theatre Collection for kindly allowing me to use these images. 

 

It’s Friday, it must be Winchester

This week I have been extremely fortunate to have some company on my travels and in my studio, with Surjit Singh joining me as part of his two month internship in the UK.

Surjit has just completed the first year of his Masters degree at the National Museum Institute of History of Art, Conservation and Museology in New Delhi, and is in the UK to develop his understanding and practice in library and archive conservation.

It was a bit of an immersion into the life of a conservator in private practice, with the days being spent both on the road and in the studio. Monday saw us visiting several clients in Oxford, and Surjit got straight into the swing of things by helping me take some cradle templates for a forthcoming exhibition at New College library.

Tuesday was a studio day, and together we worked on the cleaning and repair of the early C19th Petitions of Assistance collection of paper documents for the Salters’ Company archive. This NMCT funded project was a great way for Surjit to practice some key paper conservation techniques and get experience of handling and treating different types of paper which had a variety of damage types, including iron gall ink corrosion.

Wednesday saw us back on the road and heading west, this time to Winchester Cathedral, where I have been working on the Morley Library cleaning project for a number of weeks. We began by helping the volunteers set up the next phase of the cleaning of the collection, and then Surjit moved on to start the installation of the fishing line handling deterrent. In this system, originally developed for use in National Trust libraries, fine nylon fishing line, dark brown in colour, is laced between two conservation grade boards at either end of the shelves. This discourages and prevents casual browsing of the books, and acts as an aide memoir for visitors that touching is not allowed.

Thursday was a welcome studio day after all the activity of the week, and we looked at case binding repair and methods to conserve circulating library collections at Corpus Christi College library. This included scraping and poulticing old degraded spine linings and sewing on new textile linings for additional strength.




We were back on the road again early on Friday morning, bound for Winchester Cathedral to complete our part of the project as well as hand over the cleaning to the volunteers to continue to work their way around the 2000 books that make up the library. It’ll be great to see the progress they have made next time I visit.

Friday afternoon was all about iron gall ink, that key – and rather tricky – component of so much of our manuscript heritage. I showed Surjit how to make and use gelatine-coated remoistenable tissue, through which repairs may be made on iron gall ink media whilst controlling the level of humidity, the primary cause of iron gall ink corrosion.

The week with Surjit Singh went by all too fast. He put up with my hectic schedule, spirited driving style, the menagerie of wild animals that seem to be taking over my garden and my attempts to cook Indian classics for him admirably. More importantly, it was great to revisit some of the techniques and procedures that I do as a matter of course and see them from a fresh perspective. It was even better to see Surjit taking these techniques, thinking how they could be adapted and making them work for him: this is how we all develop as conservators.

Good luck to Surjit Singh, there’s a great future for him just around the next corner.

 

My thanks to all the clients and sites we visited during the week, and for allowing the reproduction of the images in this post. 

Making a full recovery

Despite my New Year’s resolution to be a more frequent correspondent, like so many other people the good intentions enthusiastically made on that clean temporal slate in the first hours of every January are easy to make but difficult to implement. As you can see, it has taken me until May to have time to actually put virtual pen to paper.

But what a year so far!

 

 

 

 

I spent a good part of the first two months condition assessing the most remarkable collection of bound volumes in advance of a current installation at Tate Modern, Yinka Shonibare’s The British Library: a three-dimensional work of art that is so much more than the sum of its 6327 parts.

Having assessed and measured every single book in the work it was incredible to see it installed in all its impressively colourful glory in the gallery. The books themselves are carriers of the concept of the work: through the application of various patterns of Vlisco’s veritable wax hollandaise textile and with the names of notable Britons with heritage from all over the globe or links to immigration policy or protest blocked in gold on selective spines, the volumes are elevated beyond that of usual library book stock.  The atmosphere in the library-like gallery space was fantastic, with visitors really engaging with and responding to the installation.


A large part of the year so far has also focused on the completion of a treatment based binding project which also has a twist to its covering method, but instead of modern art this was working with very old craft indeed.

Abbots’ Register B is a C14th cartulary that is part of the manuscript collections at Gloucester Cathedral Library and Archive and was conserved through the generosity of the National Manuscripts Conservation Trust and the Dean and Chapter of Gloucester Cathedral.

The manuscript had clearly had some history to tell during its 700 years of life. Having undergone at least two previous sewings, the final binding was no longer extant and the sewn parchment textblock came to me very much au naturel and without boards or a cover.

Where every project starts: the manuscript waiting to be surface cleaned in the dusting box

The lack of a binding presented a great opportunity to preserve the now visible evidence of the structure, sewing and binding history, and it was important not to impose a binding style that was either inappropriate or would potentially create problems for future analysis of the manuscript.

One of the few decorative initials in the manuscript

A non-adhesive binding method was used to attach a beautiful thick linen rag paper cover made by the Moulin de Verger papermill in Angouleme, France using traditionally stamped rather than beaten fibres. This creates a strong and durable paper with excellent stability. Alum tawed supports, laced through the cover, and stitched alum tawed and linen textile linings provided the primary cover attachment, mechanically fixing the paper cover to the textblock without the need for any adhesive. The cover, linings and sewing may be removed at any stage without additional disruption to the textblock, particularly as the previous sewing holes were used.

Linings and sewing supports being sewn into place

Punching the lacing holes through the cover – nerves of steel required!

Alum tawed slips laced through the cover

Before treatment, the back of the spinefolds were heavily glued. By removing this adhesive and by choosing a non-adhesive method of lining as well as through the use of a structural endband and packed sewing, the textblock now opens much more easily and with much greater fluidity and flow, allowing improved access to the gutter margin and reducing the strain on the sewing structure by more even distribution of the weight of the textblock.

A structural endband, non-adhesive lining method and packed sewing provides a good level of fluidity in the textblock

My year continues at an exciting pace, with some fabulous activities in the pipeline, including several externally funded conservation projects ranging from large format C19th mine working plans to Livery Company records saved from the Great Fire in 1666, as well as conference presentations for the CILIP Rare Books Group and ARA 2019. More as these projects unfold, and hopefully before another five months elapses…

The completed manuscript project with laced in linen rag paper cover

 

All images reproduced with the kind permission of the Chapter of Gloucester Cathedral and the Trustees of Tate

Alpine winter greetings this Christmas

You will rightly surmise by the shameful infrequency of my 2018 posts, and especially in the second half of the year, just what an exciting and busy time it has been in the last 12 months. Thankfully, the business continues to flourish since my leap into full time private practice almost two years ago, for which I am incredibly grateful. Thank you to all who have helped me on my way.

I have been very fortunate to work on some wonderful collections and material, both for institutional clients as well as some very personal objects for private individuals. The ongoing conservation of a series of late C19th and C20th diaries has a foot in both of these camps.

These nine stationery volumes, all in plain Oxford blue half leather bindings, contain a detailed record of visitors to the Chalet des Anglais, a traditional property high in the Mont Blanc range. It was originally built in the 1860s by the Urquart family and bequeathed for the joint use of Balliol, New and University College Oxford students as a place for summer reading and study parties by Francis Urquart, Fellow and Dean of Balliol, or Sligger as he was affectionately known.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Each party was, and still is, required to keep a diary of their time in the Chalet providing a history of its occupancy and use but also a record of changing times, attitudes and fashions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The heavy use of the books over the years has taken its toll on their condition, as well as some temporary ‘in the field’ fixes involving diverse mending solutions such as sellotape and Elastoplast which, although they have maintained the completeness of the record have done little for the material stability. A campaign is underway to fund the current and ongoing conservation of the books for digitisation and future use as research materials.

Many renowned alumni visited the Chalet as students including subsequent Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. This entry for 1900 provides two very famous names, with Roger Casement and Gertrude Bell visiting the Chalet that year.

 

It is Gertrude Bell’s photography skills that provide us with this rather beautiful image of Mont Blanc showing untouched snow and shadow.

I hope all my clients, both past and present, had a very happy Christmas, and send my very best wishes for the New Year. I look forward to working with you all in 2019.

 

My sincere thanks to Stephen Golding of The Chalet Trust for allowing me to use these images.

Chartering a collaborative project

In the solitary working life of a freelance library and archive conservator, there sometimes comes along a project that provides you with a welcome opportunity to collaborate closely with other conservation professionals as well as the client to ensure a really sound outcome. A recent project to conserve, digitise and rehouse two mid-C16th parchment foundation charters was such an opportunity, with some impressive results.

 

 

 

 

The larger 1562 foundation charter                                  The smaller 1551 charter

The charters had been displayed and stored in standard frames with minimal preparation or secure mounting. Consequently, they had not only retained their fold creases and damage from their previous storage but had also slipped down in the frames.

They had previously been displayed in an office environment where conditions were understandably more suitable for human comfort than housing parchment charters. Despite this, and given their age, they were in an acceptable condition. The larger, 1562 charter had lost its great seal and black seal cord, and the heavily applied header ink was cracked with some losses, commensurate with the storage environment and repeated folding and refolding. The smaller, earlier 1551 charter had been extensively water damaged at some stage, and this had resulted in extensive planar distortions and what looked like a loss on its left edge. Both had plenty of ingrained and surface dirt – but some grubbiness after 450 years is to be expected.

The clients’ aim for the conservation of the charters was two-fold: to be good custodians of these key archive items in their institutional story and to provide a means of protecting them for the use and enjoyment of future generations. In discussion with the client, I suggested that the permanent housing could also be a very suitable means of display. Using the example of a Perspex fronted boxed display mount I created for a C13th charter, part of an Oxford college collection, I showed that the charters could be stored and displayed in attractive permanent mounts which allowed full access to the objects whilst offering a high level of protection. Additionally, the two layers of housing – the box mounts and the storage box itself – would act as a buffer against environmental fluctuations, inevitable where storage conditions are unregulated or primarily for human comfort. It was also decided that digitisation of the charters would provide a flexible and safe means of accessing their potential for teaching and research as well as wider institutional interest.

Once out of the frames the charters were lightly cleaned to remove the loose surface dirt. This was approached cautiously, due to the friability of the media of the larger charter in particular. They then spent several weeks between felts and under weights to encourage the most severe folds and distortions to relax and flatten down. This meant that minimal humidification could be employed to remove the most persistent creases. Controlled drying techniques using pinned bulldog clips to tension the minimally humidified parchment as it dried were used to remove the planar distortions.

    

 

The above image (left) is a good comparison between the flattened charter and the as yet to be worked upon codicil attachment

After flattening came repair, with the welcome discovery that the damage to the left edge of the 1551 charter had resulted in very little loss, and most of the torn area once flattened could be returned to its original position.

Repairing the damage to the 1551 charter with lightweight toned Japanese paper

Now we come to the collaborative part of the process. Working closely with library and archive digital photographer Colin Dunn of Scriptura the conserved charters were imaged at a high resolution to produce a faithful digital copy for archiving and facsimile reproduction as well as lower resolution images for use online. I was able to transport and handle the charters safely on behalf of the client and return the items to the studio within a day. After digitisation, my final task was to strap the conserved, digitised charters to individual bifold mounts with inert polypropylene strapping, secured on the verso of the mount with Tyvek tape. The charters themselves were not hinged or permanently secured in any way, and the strapping could easily be removed if it was necessary to take the charters out of their mounts.

The final stage of the project was the construction of the box mounts and the storage box for the mounted charters. My design was based on each mounted charter being stored and displayed in individual Perspex fronted hinged box mounts with a paper covered plastazote frame to give the necessary height. The two box mounts would slot into a specially designed presentation box which could safely and securely accommodate both charters, with the smaller charter recessed into a step in the base of the box and the larger and more frequently used charter on the top. Here effective collaboration was essential, as the measurements had to be exact to ensure a good fit for all the components with no movement during storage or transportation.

Originally specialist box and mount maker Bridget Mitchell of Arca Preservation was going to create the outer presentation archive storage box only but given the need for exact measurement required it made sense for her to create the box mounts too. The impressive results wholly vindicate this decision, and are an effective demonstration that the sum can be equally good as the parts in a complex project where many talents come together to create the best outcome for the object and the client.

       

    

  

Cut Threads and Fancy Weaves

There has been quite a gap between this and my last blog post, mainly due to end of academic financial year deadlines and several extended on-site projects. So by way of compensation for my neglect of my blog, I bring you a collection that is full of colour, texture and variety.

I was very fortunate to assess the conservation and collections care potential of the pattern book archive at The Silk Museum in Macclesfield earlier this year, mainly with the aim of making ongoing housing and storage recommendations for this wonderful collection of impressively proportioned books.

Macclesfield was the centre of silk manufacture from the late eighteenth century. The current museum is very appropriately housed in the original School of Art building where the designers for the silk products were educated from the late 1800s until the silk industry declined in the mid twentieth century, as people no longer wore silk goods such as headscarves or, with the advent of synthetic materials, used silk for parachutes, handkerchiefs or ties to such an extent.

One of the museum’s jacquard looms, and incredible piece of machinery used in decorative silk goods manufacture

The pattern book archive is an incredible record of a lost industry’s heyday: each book is full of textile samples and intricate painted designs, and demonstrates a surprising love of vivid colour and in some cases fairly outlandish patterns during the Victorian era.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Each book is a classic stationery binding, constructed to withstand fairly vigorous use and handling, and looking through them is an journey into a highly imaginative taste and style.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The extent of the pattern book collection – there are over 900 volumes – and each volume’s weight due to their elephant folio size presented a significant challenge to find a housing solution that was protective but would not substantially add to the weight or the bulk of the volumes, space being limited in the repository. This ruled out boxing, even before the financial implications of rehousing over 900 volumes came into consideration. The solution was Tyvek, a wonderfully versatile material made from inert polyester that is resistant to tearing but provides an excellent protective barrier to handling damage and dust. This is easy for the volunteers working to support the care of the archive to fit and replace, and make each volume more contained and easier to handle for use in research.

I look forward to posting more when the work to rehouse the collection is complete.

 

Many thanks to the Silk Museum for allowing me to post these images.

Smoke and the water: salvage and disaster recovery training, Birmingham

Continuing professional development is an essential part of any conservator’s ongoing toolkit. It allows development of techniques and skills and extends the service offer I am able to give my clients. This was particularly the case for my most recent CPD venture.  I was fortunate to be able to attend Historic England’s immersive residential three day Salvage and Disaster Recovery course, thanks to an Icon Tru Vue CPD grant.

The course structure is based around both theoretical lecture sessions on all aspects of disaster response as well as several practical, hands-on training exercises involving highly effective enactments of emergency scenarios, all led by experts in the field. My aim was to gain experience in managing disaster response situations, and in doing so increase the range of my collections care consultancy and practical help I am able to offer to clients through being named as a first responder on emergency plans.

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On the morning of day one, the focus was on effective methods to implement, test and adjust emergency plans. This included understanding the nature of emergency situations such as the specific risks from fire and water and the roles of the fire service in heritage recovery. Kitted out in firefighter’s gear, the first practical exercise took place in the afternoon, and included effective knot tying, working with ladders and lines to facilitate easier and safer salvage and a very useful but thoroughly claustrophobic walk through a smoke filled building. This really contextualised how difficult the work of the emergency services is in heritage disaster situations, and enabled participants to see incident priorities and challenges from a very different angle.

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The day ended with an excellent managing water exercise. This enabled teams to react to a specific emergency scenario – a burst pipe – and enact their immediate response using a variety of available resources, some of which were less than ideal or of limited use. There were plenty of equipment red herrings to tempt us into what seemed like obvious or easy solutions, but it was clear simplicity was the best option. The exercise was an extremely effective means of practicing what did and didn’t work well and how communication is a key factor in the success of any response situation.

Overnight we were asked to think about the roles we may like to take in the main practical exercise on day two. As my primary aim for the course was to gain team management experience, I volunteered to be Recovery Team Leader, responsible for triage and first response conservation and preservation measures following salvage. This was a perfect role for the experience I required, involving pressurised and difficult decision making where priorities were constantly shifting, dealing with large volumes of salvaged material at once and the challenges of keeping communication lines open between a large team spread over a wide area and a number of locations. Following a practical session on how to provide first response treatment for a variety of collection materials and fuelled by lunch the exercise started.

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After an initial period of what felt like complete chaos the team definitely coalesced and together we developed a system that worked sufficiently well to ensure that some order and process was maintained. The key learning points were the need to regularly review how the situation was being managed and adjust the response accordingly. The main practical difficulties were insufficient people initially appointed to deal with the rapid influx of salvaged items and the need for quick and easy identification and documentation of objects as they were brought into the recovery area. Up to date and well illustrated inventories and clear, well defined and named floor plans should definitely be the top of everyone’s priority list for emergency planning.  As the exercise was so realistic it really did feel like a response to a real emergency situation.

The final day provided an excellent learning opportunity through a detailed analysis of the disaster response at Clandon Park, following the devastating fire in April 2015. This gave all participants a first-hand view into how this disaster was managed by the people who were actually on site at the time and showed how long it takes not only to be able implement first response but also the scale and complexity of a major salvage event.

With the lessons of Clandon firmly in mind, I left Birmingham feeling fully equipped to plan for and deal effectively with the risks and the incidents, both large and small, that occur within my clients’ collections.

Access all areas

Conservation is rarely undertaken without future use being the driving force. It is usually dictated by the need to access the information an object contains, but being prevented from doing so by its overall poor condition or the stability of individual components such as the sewing structure or the media. The first question I ask when assessing objects for conservation is often

How will the item or collection be used?

The treatment is guided by the response, with different approaches being taken for say, stabilisation for cataloguing and digitisation or extended term storage with occasional future use to an object that will be regularly handled or is scheduled for display. But in the end it all comes down to conservation being the means of improving access to an object. 

 

 

 

 

 

This was certainly the case for an impressive archive item from the St Bartholomew’s Hospital collections that has just been conserved. Measuring almost a metre in height and over a metre in width and dated 1867, this tracing paper plan of the hospital’s laboratory equipment is a wonderfully evocative object, showing the inner workings of a state of the art hospital, nineteenth century style. Detailing autoclave cauldrons, mechanised stirrers, twisted pipework and complex pulley and winch mechanisms, the delicate accuracy of the ink and possibly watercolour drawing was remarkable. Perhaps it was created to introduce or promote a model for modern hospital practice at the time but in 2018 looks quaintly archaic and more than a little steampunk.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Use and storage over the intervening 150 years had taken its toll, with the object now in two main sections and several loosely attached or detached sections around the edges.  The surface dirt accumulations on the exposed surfaces of the object were also problematic for safe handling, with cross contamination being a significant risk. At some stage it was backed with stiff, thick wove paper and rolled. It is probably this rolling that caused the main tear up the length of the object, as the edge peaked and tore as it was being unrolled. Some of the original tracing paper had chipped away from the torn edges, showing the much lighter backing paper behind to high visual contrast with the darker toned tracing paper. This backing, although less than ideal and overly sturdy for the object, has probably saved the very fragile tracing itself. The fierce curl that the relatively more rigid backing had created from being rolled meant that the tracing could not be handled safely and as such was unable to be used for research or display.

Tracing paper is extremely sensitive to moisture, so lengthy humidification to flatten was not an option. After an extended period of weighting to reduce the curl, minimal humidification was able to be used to flatten the object almost completely. Unobtrusive conservation using very thin strips of toned Japanese paper on the recto and naturally coloured on the verso has reduced the aesthetic impact of the backing below. This and supported storage in a melinex sleeve in a board folder has allowed the full joy of this object to be revealed, restoring its status as being in a fit state for production for use and research once more.

 

My thanks to Barts Health NHS Trust Archives for allowing the use of the treatment images

Back to the Near East with TE Lawrence

Following on from my recent posts on the conservation of David Roberts’ travels in the near east, I return to that region but this time in the company of TE Lawrence.

I have recently written a piece for the Jesus College, Oxford college record on the work I have undertaken over the years to conserve and preserve TE Lawrence’s undergraduate thesis, and which has just been posted on the college’s library and archives blog.

This wonderful object has been a constant thread through my professional career and it was a great privilege to lead the project to create two facsimile copies in 2017.
The project was a strong collaboration between conservator, curator, digital photographer and box maker to create a truly tactile and dynamic surrogate, and bring back Lawrence’s lively interpretation of his study travels in Syria in 1909 to the digital copy.

You can read the piece on the library and archives blog by following this link: https://jesuslibraries.wordpress.com/…/…/19/f-for-facsimile/

Image included by kind permission of Jesus College Oxford

Christmas greetings from the Holy Land

At this time of year, it is appropriate that I should be involved in the conservation of Harris Manchester College’s copy David Robert’s Sketches of the Holy Land and Syria along with its companion volume for Egypt and Nubia.

Based on drawings made by Roberts during his travels in the region in 1839, this impressively proportioned elephant folio volume is lavishly illustrated with some exceptionally fine and evocative lithographs of significant sites in the region. The image of as yet un-excavated monuments such as the Sphinx are quite remarkable, and let us see very clearly an area that in some cases has changed beyond all recognition or ancient sites that are, alas, no longer there. This is the second copy of this book that I have conserved and it never fails to be a fascinating object to work on, such is the intricacy and perfect perspective of Roberts’s work and the beauty and precision of the lithographs.

For Christmas I bring you Roberts’s drawing of the the Shrine of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Although not the most beautiful or exciting image it is definitely the most appropriate for the time of year. I wish you and all my clients past and present a very merry Christmas and a happy and peaceful New Year.

 

My many thanks to Harris Manchester College Library for allowing me to use the image.