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. 

 

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

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.

       

    

  

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.

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:

2016_ohc_maharajah_bt-23wp2016_ohc_maharajah_at-13

 

 

 

 

 

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.