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.

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. 

Trust trainees to do a good job

This week, I have been fortunate to work with Poppy Garrett, one of the museum trainees at The Wordsworth Trust.

Poppy came to my studio to learn about handling and cleaning methods in preparation for working with me on the conservation and fasciculing of a large and significant Wordsworth Trust archive collection. The items we were working with during the training were very generously provided by the archive of The Salters’ Company who were pleased to have Poppy and myself treating a collection that otherwise may have not be cleaned in this year’s conservation schedule.

The collection in question was a box of petitions for assistance, dating from 1805. These documents detail the requests for financial help received by the Salters’, mainly due to hardship and unemployment. As you can see, they made good subjects for cleaning training, with plenty of historical storage surface dirt for Poppy to tackle.

 

 

 

 

We started with making a dusting box, an essential piece of kit to control the spread of eraser crumbs and dirt, moved through to cleaning with a latex sponge, brush and vinyl eraser, including grated eraser, and finished with a couple of simple and straightforward tear repairs. We also managed to fit in a quick tutorial on the best way to adhere bookplates, something that Poppy was going to be doing in the coming week.

 

 

 

 

It was great to work with Poppy, who picked up the techniques really quickly and had a good awareness of how to handle and support these often fragile and damaged items during the cleaning process.

My thanks to the The Wordsworth Trust and to The Salters’ Company for supporting Poppy’s training with me. We have an excellent collections care professional in the making!

Read all about it!

One of the questions I am asked most frequently is:

Do you get distracted by reading what is in the documents and books you work on?

I have to confess that yes, sometimes I do, particularly where there is a human element to the text such as photographs or, in the case of this object, some wonderful insights into a previous version of Britain with many differences but some striking similarities to our lives now.

I was fortunate to be given the opportunity to conserve a copy of The Times dating from Thursday 7 November in 1805.  As anyone with a heart of oak will tell you, October 1805 was when the Battle of Trafalgar took place – in fact, 212 years ago to the day of me posting this. How things have changed – from broadsheets and broadsides to blog posts and drone strikes.

 

 

 

 

 

The condition of the object was very poor, as is to be expected from newsprint even back in 1805. This was right at the beginning of wood being introduced into paper pulp. Although wood wasn’t used extensively in newsprint until slightly later in the nineteenth century, it is likely that this object, given its browned and fragile paper structure, contained low quality fibres and a weak and possibly acidic size. It had extensive ingrained surface dirt and was split and torn along the fold lines and in several separate pieces, making handling, let alone, reading impossible. But it was clear that it was all there – tantalising for its owner, who was keen to read all about it.

 

 

 

 

 

The treatment was fairly straightforward. After gentle surface cleaning using a very light touch due to the fragility of the paper, the paper structure was strengthened with an application of a low-aqueous surface size. This had the additional benefit of flattening out the curled and folded areas, allowing better repair.  All the splits, tears and losses were repaired using a toned Japanese tissue and dilute wheatstarch paste as an adhesive. The paste was applied to the repair tissue on a blotter to reduce over-wetting and the risk of localised staining.

 

 

 

 

The treatment revealed the full text for the first time, and with it some glimpses of a world both very different and strangely similar to today. The newspaper was in a typical format for its time: classifieds on the outer pages and the main story in the centre spread. The account of the battle was suitably heroic and florid, and rather out of step with war reporting today, with plenty of blow-by-blow action to keep readers informed and entertained. But what was most charming were the advertisements.  Solutions to bilious disorders, genteel youths requiring a situation and lost dogs: the conservation has enabled these very human, and familiar, stories to continue to be told and enjoyed.  Let’s hope poor Basto was found and returned to his owner.

 

 

 

 

 

As always, permission has been sought for the inclusion of this project and images.

All that’s gold may not glitter

I have recently been fortunate to work on two book conservation projects which, to outward appearances, concern the conservation of quite humble bindings. However, these modest objects have great significance and importance to their owners. Both are well-used and well-loved family heirlooms, and their conservation has ensured they can be passed on and enjoyed by future generations of the families concerned.

The first project was to conserve a well-thumbed, and judging by the fantastic array of stains and accretions on the pages, well-used cookbook of handwritten recipes, passed down from mother to daughter and then to grand daughter. The recipes themselves are fantastic – who wouldn’t want to eat Orange Velvet, Sticky Bread or Creme a la Russe? – and are both carefully written and fully indexed.  They are also a record of friendships and family relationships, with recipes being named as a particular person’s recipe. The binding was a simple, off the shelf stationery binding with a cloth cover, which I suspect had been covered with sticky back plastic at some stage as a means of keeping it clean and durable.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The textblock was breaking down, and the pages themselves had clear evidence of water damage – this is a hard-working cookbook after all.  As well as bleeding to the media, this had led to softening and losses to some of the pages. The binding itself was cracked and split, with the spine exhibiting the worst of the damage.

After repair and resewing, the textblock and binding have been returned to functionality, ready for the next generation of budding cooks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We all have significant books from our childhood, texts that we never forget and are almost like constant companions throughout our lives.  The second project was to conserve just such a book, passed from father to daughter and enjoyed by both.

 

 

 

 

This cloth case binding was showing classic damage from being a well-loved book, with a detached upper board and some minor splits and tears to the textblock from over-zealous and excited page turning. It was important to make sure the repair to the binding and the reinstated upper joint was as in keeping with the binding as possible – such books are like well-known faces, and any difference in appearance will jar and be very obvious. Through careful toning the new joint is as invisible as possible, and in keeping with the overall fading of the covering textile.

 

 

 

 

 

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

Pick a number, 1 to 8

The fasciculing of a selection of manuscript material at The Wordsworth Trust was completed with an enjoyable tooling session, putting the finishing touches to this part of an ongoing rehousing project.

 

 

 

 

Fasciculing is a effective means of storing primarily single sheet  or bifolia material, such as correspondence collections, with the maximum support and security whilst minimising handing of the original object.  Fascicules are slim pamphlet bindings constructed like a guard book, with compensation guards to allow for the bulk of the inserted material. The individual items are hinged onto to the support sheets with a Japanese paper guard tipped very narrowly onto the verso, allowing a wide border around each item for turning  the pages. These hinges can easily be removed and replaced should the item be required for display purposes. The individual fascicules can then be stored in boxes, keeping the items inside flat, secure and dust-free.

The image shows me tooling the reference number onto the fascicule covers so that the correct volume can be retrieved from each box as and when it is required for research, again to minimise the handling of the collection.

 

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

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.