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.

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. 

Worms that make dust our paper

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The inside of the upper board showing the fragile insect damaged endpapers and the missing, presumed eaten, corners

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The inside of the boards; here, the reconstructed corners before they are recovered can be clearly seen, as can the vein-like insect channels

This devotional text had spent a greater part of its time in humid and inadequate storage, and had become a feast for insect pests. The pages of the textblock were effectively a web of thin paper strands, and needed extensive support to allow them to be handled. The conservation of the binding was also challenging but the end results were very pleasing, keeping the original elements of the  cover but making it aesthetically and structurally sound.

 

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DSCF3740 Before and after treatment. The upper image shows the condition of the binding before conservation, with extensive insect damage and losses. The lower image is of the book after conservation, showing the new spine, reconstructed corners and corner pieces and the infilled area of previously missing area of the green siding textile