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.

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. 

Bindings with strings attached

As a book conservator, I spend a lot of my time working on earth coloured objects – I am an unofficial specialist in the colours brown, sepia and rust. Most historical bindings and archive objects are varying shades of these colours, and as they degrade the colours may change but usually to another derivative of brown. It will come as no surprise that the toning colours I turn to most frequently for paper and binding repairs are yellow ochre, raw umber and burnt sienna.

Wonderful as shades of brown are, occasionally I get the opportunity to inject a flash of colour into the work I do. The following images show the process of sewing a decorative endband.

 

 

 

 

As the endband sewing progresses, the core is tied down by passing the thread through the centre of the section, firmly securing it to the head and tail of the spine. Endbands were originally intended to add strength to a binding, providing support for the sewing structure and shape of the textblock and also, when laced into the boards, board attachment. Over time their decorative capabilities overtook their structural function, and they gradually ceased to be anything other than a means of adding to the aesthetic impact of a binding.

Another very different form of tying down in book conservation is used during rebacking. Back to the brown: this tightback binding needed to be rebacked after the previous, nineteenth century rebacked spine failed due to chemical degradation.

In order to get the leather firmly adhered across the spine and prevent ‘tenting’ either side of the supports, the book is tied up with strong but soft cord after covering and whilst the leather is still damp. This is particularly important in a large folio volume like this, where extra help to ensure good adhesion across such a large area is very welcome. Anyone else reminded of Gulliver in Lilliput?

 

Well repaired, fit for a Maharajah

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The Maharajah’s Well at Stoke Row is a distinctive local landmark, and I was delighted to have the opportunity to conserve the Well Committee’s first minute book . The fascinating story behind the well can be found here.

Grandly titled The Public Well of his Highness the Maha Raja of Benares, 1863 in gold on a red morocco label on the upper board, this unassuming quarto full parchment stationery binding contained a wealth of treasures concerning the development and construction of the Well, including a pen and wash plan of the original site and a scribe-written letter from the Maharajah himself, complete with a wide gold leaf decorative border.

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As expected of a stationery binding the original construction was fairly robust, but over 100 years of use as a functional object had taken its toll, as can be seen from the four images below. In particular, the Maharajah’s letter, being such a key object in the history of the Well and as such of great interest, was torn and previously repaired using incompatible and unsympathetic materials. The pen and wash site plan was very dirty, with splits along the point where the plan was folded, and it was also tipped in using a wide strip of adhesive, now degraded causing the plan to be almost detached from the textblock.

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In short, if it was to continue to function as a binding and be available for research and display, conservation was required.

The first priority was to stabilise the Maharajah’s letter and the partially detached and dirty pen and wash site plan. The distracting old repair was removed from the letter using controlled and minimal moisture and a steady hand. After surface cleaning the splits along the fold lines and the edge tears were repaired with a long-fibred Japanese tissue.

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The second priority was to reinforce the sewing structure, particularly in the upper textblock, to bring the textblock and the endpaper section back together. This was achieved by reinforcing the broad original textile supports with additional inserts made from 100% linen, a very strong and flexible material.

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These were sewn into position and then pasted onto the outside of the board below the parchment cover, helping to bring the sewing back together and reducing the large gap in the textblock between it and the endpaper section. This was further bridged and reinforced by small splints of a thicker Japanese paper which were pasted around the first section and brought onto the inside of the board at the head and tail of the textblock where access was possible. The effects of these two stages can be seen in the following before (left) and after (right) images:

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The final priority was to repair and stabilise the detached spine and split upper joint. The same linen textile was used to reinstate the joint but this time it was faced with a thick Japanese paper which had been toned to blend in with the original covering material. This treatment allowed the upper board to hinge again, providing maximum protection and support to the textblock below, whilst not jarring with the overall character of the original material.

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Before it returned to its permanent home at the Oxfordshire History Centre, it was particularly gratifying that I was be able to show the current committee in Stoke Row the treatment that had been undertaken on the minute book and the transformative work that had been achieved, enabling some of them to access the information on the activities of their committee predecessors for the very first time.

The decision by the current committee to have this important object conserved at this point was timely, arresting the decline of what had become a very fragile object. In doing so, the need for more a more intrusive and costly repair has been avoided. Before treatment, there was a significant risk that handling would accelerate the deterioration not only of the whole object itself, but also of its important component elements, such as the delicate Maharajah’s letter. The damage was such that the minute book was designated not fit for production, resulting in it being withdrawn from use for research. The conservation has returned the minute book to full functionality, albeit with the usual level of care due to an object that is 150 years old: a wise decision to make this stitch in time has made a key element in the history of south Oxfordshire accessible for everyone to enjoy once more.

 

As always, permission has been sought for the inclusion of these images. 

Digging the dirt

Although the primary aim at the outset of any conservation project is to stabilise and prolong the life of existing structures and formats, sometimes this is not possible and the need for safe access to the information they contain has to be given precedence. This remarkably shaped object certainly fell into this category.

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This early C20th stationery binding contained bundles of correspondence in envelopes which had been adhered directly onto the leaves. Over time, the binding structure had become distorted from the thickness and number of inserted items attached to the textblock, resulting in this dramatically mis-shapen spine profile and ultimately the detached (and unfortunately lost) upper board. It must have seemed like a good solution at the time to use the envelopes as pockets to store the sheets of correspondence but ultimately  this proved to be the death of the binding as a functioning housing method. In this case, the access to and safe handling and storage of the correspondence had to take precedence over the damaged binding.

The  physical bulk of the inserts had also allowed extensive dirt deposits to accumulate on all the leaves – it was quite possibly the most consistently dirt-affected object I have come across. There was also browning and embrittlement of the edges of the leaves, again an effect of exposure to dirt and an unfavourable historic storage environment. This, and the weight of the envelope inserts, had caused extensive edge tears and chipping throughout the textblock. The information could not be accessed safely by the Librarian or readers, and the risk of the loose surface dirt affecting the largely clean documents in the envelopes was high. A decision was made in consultation with the Librarian to remove the correspondence bundles from the envelopes and house them separately from the binding. Whilst not ideal, this would provide safer access to the information, cut down on handling and allow an economic treatment solution.

The first stage was to clean every page and inserted item thoroughly, and the positive results of this can be easily seen below.

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Before cleaning treatment

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After cleaning treatment

 

 

 

 

 

As most of the inserts were folded, flattening was required. Due to the nature of the inks used and the quantity of the sheets it was not desirable or feasible to use humidity to encourage the sheets to relax and flatten. Therefore, the inserts were unfolded and weighted between blotters over a period of time, with excellent results.

The flattened inserts were then rehoused in folders in boxes, allowing easy access to the information without the risk of damage to the correspondence collection. The binding and textblock were also stored in a box to maintain the record of their previous housing format.

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Cleaned and accessible, with all evidence maintained

My thanks to the Library of Harris Manchester College, Oxford for their kind permission to allow me to publish this post.

Stabilising a C14th Antiphonal

This impressive object is part of the collection in the library of St Stephen’s House, a Permanent Private Hall of the University of Oxford.  Although it is showing evidence of previous poor storage and handling, it is an impressively proportioned object and contains some remarkable illuminations.

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In terms of previous repair, it has been rebound in a late C19/early 20th and subsequently unsympathetically rebacked at some stage. The parchment textblock has also been treated using methods and techniques no longer advised, such as using silk to bridge tears and losses due to insect activity. My job was to assess the condition of the binding, substrate and media and make unobtrusive stabilising repairs to allow it to be digitised and safely stored and handled.

My thanks go to St Stephen’s House and Library for allowing me to use these images here.

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Old repairs using silk patches, now significantly degraded and browned

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New repairs to the head edge splits using thin Japanese tissue

 

 

 

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Pleat to head edge, before cleaning

and after cleaning

and after

 

 

 

 

 

 

As always, permission has been sought for the inclusion of these images. 

By thin threads…

Although the outer upper joint was split and the supports broken of this 1542 Bible, small areas of the inner joint were still attached. This had resulted in severe consequences: through use, the weight of the detached board had caused these significant tears across the title page and its impressive illustration. Before conservation the book was unusable; after, you would never guess there had been a problem.

 

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As always, permission has been sought for the inclusion of these images.