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.

       

    

  

We could be (unsung) heroes, just for one day: update

Following on from my last post, the book cradles I made earlier in the month proved very effective in displaying a superb selection of 12 early printed books from the collections held in the library at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. With apologies for the reflections, the cradles did their job exactly as intended, as you can see from the images below: they fully supported the openings for display and prevented strain on the bindings and sewing structure, yet were invisible when viewed from above. The polypropylene strapping is also virtually undetectable, and keeping it away from text areas as far as possible means that it does not detract from the visual impact of these exceptionally fine objects.

A good cradle always plays a supporting role, and is never centre stage, but without them the stars of the show would not be able to shine quite so brightly.

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View of display from above

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Side view

My thanks to Corpus Christi College for their kind permission to take and use these images.

We could be (unsung) heroes, just for one day

One of the best aspects of my role as a freelance library and archive conservator is the huge variety of work, including some projects that don’t necessarily need me to perform practical treatments on heritage materials. August has seen some great examples of these type of projects, and I have been busy with tasks such as interpreting environmental data collected on behalf of a school archive,  condition checking for the National Trust, conducting a conservation and collection care survey on rare book material at an Oxford college and preparing a training session for an archivists’ group. Last week I was assisting in the digitisation of a manuscript at the Cambridge University Digital Content Unit. Due to the very unique and particular quire make up and condition of the manuscript, this was an intricate and tricky procedure, and my main role was to ensure the delicate binding and sewing structure were well supported on the specially designed digitisation cradle. A very interesting and painstaking task, and I really enjoyed working with a great team at the Unit. The walk to work wasn’t too bad either, see image below!

The end of the week saw me making cradles for use in a temporary, day-long exhibition for a conference that is part of the 500th anniversary celebrations at Corpus Christi College, Oxford.  Cradles really are the unsung heroes of any exhibition: essential in  the vital supporting role they play in the staging of displays, and if done properly they rarely intrude on the aesthetic impact of the books themselves. They are custom-made using a unique template to fit the contours of the opening exactly and hold the textblock and boards at the correct angle to ensure that the binding and sewing structure isn’t damaged or placed under strain during exhibition, however short the length of time on display. Cradles come in many guises: they are usually made in box board for temporary exhibitions as in this case or, for longer and more permanent display, perspex can be used. Depending on the size, weight and condition of the book they can be flat or tilted. Once made, the opening is held down with clear polypropylene strapping, which is unobtrusive but strong.

Here are some of the completed cradles prior to installation, ready to  show off the exhibition items both safely and to their best advantage. I hope to be able to update this post after installation with an image of the cradles in place complete with the exhibition items.