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. 

 

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?

 

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. 

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. 

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