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. 

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!

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.

2016_hmc_misc12iv_bt-12016_hmc_misc12iv_bt-6

 

 

 

 

 

 

2016_hmc_misc12iv_bt-26

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.

2016_hmc_misc12iv_bt-12

Before cleaning treatment

2016_hmc_misc12iv_dt-2

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.

2016_hmc_misc12iv_at-11

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.