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.

       

    

  

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