THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Collection Care blog

3 posts categorized "Literature"

17 October 2016

From West to East: Conservation of the Chinese novel ‘Dream of the Red Chamber’

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By Heather Marshall

Six volumes arrived in the Conservation studio at the British Library. They are all bound in Western style bindings, quarter bound in dark blue leather and marbled paper, and they are very much in the format and style with which you will be familiar when looking at a traditional book.

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One of the six volumes, open, showing the restricted opening, detached boards and spine piece.

I discovered that these volumes contain one of the greatest Chinese novels: the Dream of the Red Chamber (in Chinese: Hong lou meng), written by Cao Xueqin in the 18th century. This edition (British Library shelfmark: 15333.a.1) was made during the Qing dynasty, and it is dated 1811. It is a printed item.

The Dream of the Red Chamber is also called ‘The Story of the Stone’ (in Chinese: Shi tou ji) and it is one of China’s greatest classic novels. Written during the Qing dynasty, this work is widely recognised as one of the pinnacles of Chinese fiction. It narrates the story of two branches of a wealthy aristocratic family (the Jia family) and gives us a vivid account of the Chinese culture and society at that time, portraying funerals, rites, cuisine and medicine aspects.

However, it is relatively unknown in the West, despite the fact that the first translation into English was produced in 1812, just one year after the production of this Chinese copy. It is curious that the original item has at some point been rebound in Western style. The size of the novel is remarkable and when bound in Western style it arrived at 23 fascicules in 6 volumes! The current Penguin books edition is longer than War and Peace!

Books and other collection items in libraries often go through several transformations by being put into a number of different bindings in their several hundred year lives. This can vary from complete rebinding from one style to the next or an amalgamation of styles, through different repairs deemed necessary over the years.

Until recent years, when an item from East Asia was ingested in a Western library’s collection, it was usually rebound with Western style technique, including a hard cover with a spine, which usually contained the title in English. It was in fact believed that in this way the items would have been better stored on the shelves and the paper would have been more protected from dust or humidity. The same happened for the British Museum Library’s items from China (now the British Library’s Chinese collection).

The British Library Lead Curator for East Asian Collections, Sara Chiesura, has informed us that more recent and contemporary acquisitions are left with the original binding and put in a custom made box for shelving. This approach goes along with the current conservation trends, which tends to intervene as little as possible on the original items, and to adopt non-invasive techniques to stabilise them.

As a Book Conservator making decisions about the type of repairs needed to a fragile or damaged binding can be very complex and you will always need to consider the evidence which gives the story of the past. Do you keep a book in its current format and make repairs? Sometimes, in fact, even if the Western style binding is not ideal for East Asian items, the binding itself becomes part of the history of the item, and can sometimes reveal information about previous owners or collectors.

Would a new binding be better able to protect the book for the future and honour its history too instead?

The repair work on these Chinese items became therefore a rare case at the British Library. After a discussion with the curators, we decided that the ‘Dream of the Red Chamber’ would have been taken out of its current western style bindings and been put into a Chinese style thread bindings, housed in wrap around ”Tao” cases. Using strong, archival materials, the 6 volumes (23 fascicules in their original format) deserved the sympathy of a return to their origins and a non-Western approach was the best option for the original fragile, thin paper and the need for gentle opening and a secure binding.

As with many Chinese books that have been rebound in Western style, the tight hard binding in contrast to the fragile and this Chinese paper often does not work. In this case, the solid animal glue at the spine created a tight opening and did not allow the bindings to open far enough to see all the text. The detached boards and spines caused much damage as well.

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Above: one volume after the animal glue was removed from the spine, clearly showing the divisions into fascicules of the original Chinese book and leaving the evidence of the more recent Western style binding.

Working with the item, I immediately noticed some original holes (in the paper text block), which gave me evidence of where the original Chinese thread sewing was. I could therefore reuse these original holes to recreate the sewing for the Chinese binding, tracing back the binding’s original state.

The so-called “Thread Binding” was the usual Chinese binding format in 1811. It is strong and the sewing rarely breaks. Thread bound fascicules in wrap around cases (known as “Tao” cases) would last indefinitely. They allow the flexible pages of each fascicule (which are double sheets, with the fold where the pages are turned) to open flat under their own weight and not be restricted by the spine.

The treatment stages:

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Open fascicule showing repairs to be made with Japanese tissue.

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Repairs were made (with wheat starch paste, a neutral adhesive and Japanese tissue) to the delicate spine edge which is still partly glued together by the animal glue used on the previous Western binding.

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Detail showing remains of the original paper twists and their holes.

The paper twists are used to bind the loose leaves of each fascicule before it is sewn. They are made from a twist of paper pointed at one end and in this case inserted in two places into each fascicule. The Chinese style binding is very strong and the paper twists are often thought of as an ‘inner binding’. They hold each fascicule together before sewing and can act as a back up to the sewing if it breaks.

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Paper twists inserted.

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Trimmed paper twists.

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One stitched fascicule.

Each of the 23 fascicules were re-stitched using the 4 existing sewing holes, using a strong linen thin thread. Extra care was taken to re-use these holes by sewing with a very blunt needle. The needle then finds the hole and eases gently through without causing any damage to the fragile paper.

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Traditionally thin silk (lined with paper) is folded around the corner of each fascicule to protect the corners and give another source of strength. In this particular case aero cotton was lined with Japanese paper.

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Re-sewn fascicules (with corners and covers).

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Flexible opening.

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Cases (Tao style cases) were custom made to ensure the fascicules have a snug fit and give very good protection to the book. It is a big advantage of the Chinese style of binding that the elements work together but can also be separated. The wrap around case has to be exactly the correct size. If it is too tight the fascicules can bend, if it is too loose fascicules may fall out! These cases were often remade several times in the book’s life. In this case strong, archival materials have been used so correct storage and handling will ensure good protection for the fascicules and cases in the future.

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The wrap-around case is made of board covered in cloth, lined with paper, and then fastened with bone pegs.

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“Chinese Book” is the expression used for the whole object. For this copy of the ‘Dream of the Red Chamber’ 23 individually bound fascicules were encased in 6 wrap around cases (keeping with the format of the 6 western style volumes which arrived in the studio).

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With thanks to Sara Chiesura for input on this post.

Bibliography:

Atwood, Catherine, ‘Japanese folded sheet books: Construction, materials and conservation’ in The Paper Conservator, papers from the 10th anniversary conference, 14-18 April 1986, part 2

Helliwell, David ‘The Repair and Binding of Old Chinese Books’ in The East Asian Library Journal, Spring 1998, Vol. VIII, no. 1

Ikegami, Kojiro, ‘Japanese Bookbinding’ adapted by Barbara B. Stephan, Wetherhill, London, 11th edition 2007

Wood, Michael, ‘Why is China’s greatest novel virtually unknown in the west?, in The Guardian, 12th February 2016

28 April 2016

Much Ado About…Possibly Something

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Conservator Flavio Marzo reports on his fascinating findings during the conservation of one of the books bearing the presumed signature of William Shakespeare.

As it is now the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare and the British Library has unveiled a major exhibition about the Bard of Avon, I thought it was a good time to share the conservation work I carried out on one of the items currently on exhibition. In 2005 I was given the opportunity to work on an item here at the British Library bearing one of the few surviving (possible) signatures of the poet. The book, possibly part of Shakespeare’s personal library, is a copy of “The Essayes of Morall, Politike and Militaire Discourses” written by Michaell Montaigne and published in London in 1603. The volume was sent to the conservation studio to be treated before being sent out on a loan and presented some very interesting and unusual features.

The Examination

The cover and the book block were detached and the main task was to secure them together ensuring that any treatment was clearly visible and unobtrusive.

Front cover

Left: Front cover. Right: Cover and book block detached.

The sewing of the body of the book, most likely the result of a quite recent restoration campaign, was made on five narrow strips of tanned brown leather. Probably at the same time new end leaves were added and secured to the first and last sections through an over-casted stitching. There was no evidence of spine lining or glue applied to the spine. When the cover was removed the original sewing supports remained laced through the boards and the page with Shakespeare’s presumed signature was attached on the inside of the left board.

Detached cover

The inside of the detached cover with the signature page and the original supports laced with the cover.

The original sewing supports were made of strips of alum tawed leather with a second layer of tanned brown leather added to give thickness to the raised bands ensuring their visibility on the spine of the book.

Leather strips
Left (viewing from the inside): A strip of alum tawed leather with clear distortions due to the original passages of the thread of the original sewing. Right (viewing from the outside): One of the trimmed tanned leather strips used to create the raised effect on the spine cover.

Areas of the leather cover were missing at the head and tail. After a thorough examination of the cover I realised that the page bearing the signature, adhered onto the inside of the left board, was not originally attached as a paste down, and in fact was never originally placed at the beginning of the book. Careful visual examination revealed that a raised oval was showing through the page.

Signature page

An image of the page taken with raking light clearly showing an oval shaped imprint from the recto of the page.

Since the page was adhered to the board along the edges only, it was possible to insert a light sheet between the page and the board. Under transmitted light it was possible to capture an image of what became clearly identifiable as a British Museum stamp - proving that this sheet was, until quite recently, still detached. Under transmitted light it was also possible to locate and record the watermark present on this page.

Transmitted light
Left: British Museum stamp imaged with transmitted light. Right: Watermark of the page with the signature.

This watermark was subsequently compared with others found on the pages within the book block. Although no perfect match was found between the watermarks, there was a very strong similarity between them.

Watermarks
Other watermarks found within the book block.

Another detail that immediately caught my attention was the observation that the damages along the edges of this sheet did not match the losses and tears present along the edges of the first page of the book.

Damage comparison
Mapping of the stains and damages show how different and inconsistent they are along the edges of the two sheets.

Remarkably, these damaged areas matched almost perfectly to the last restored original end leaf of the book-block proving that this sheet was originally placed at the back of the book and not at the beginning.

Damage comparison
Matching damaged areas between the signature sheet and the last right end leaf.

The Repairs

The conservation of the volume involved the removal of the leather strip supports. These supports were failing and becoming brittle due to the acidic nature of the tanned leather. The strips were mechanically removed from the sewing thread passages and replaced with new linen tapes so that the book did not have to be re-sewn.

Leather strip removal
Removal of the leather strips (left) and their replacement with new linen tapes (right).

The leather of the cover was reinforced and in-filled with dyed Japanese paper and wheat starch paste.

Leather cover
Japanese paper and wheat starch paste are used because of their strength and reversibility.

A new spine lining made of light cotton fabric was adhered to the spine of the book-block to further secure the sewing. The extensions of this spine lining with the frayed linen supports were then inserted between the leather and the boards and adhered to the boards to secure the book-block back with its cover.

Secured book-block
The strips of cotton fabric are adhered between the leather cover and the boards to secure the book-block with the cover.

Conclusions

It is hard to say why this page was tampered with. Possibly it was thought that by attaching this page to the front board it would become more difficult to steal. Sometimes conservation needs some forensic skills, but it always requires great attention to detail. Physical features when correctly interpreted can tell us a lot about the history of an item. It is extremely important when repairing items of historical value that conservators are careful not to inadvertently hide or remove features which may later prove to be significant.

This work, carried out a long time ago, is today still one of my most cherished projects. I am very pleased to be able to share it with you, especially during this year so significant in the history of the Great William Shakespeare.

Flavio Marzo

See this intriguing collection item for yourself at our exhibition: Shakespeare in Ten Acts open until Tuesday 6 September.

27 April 2016

Opportunity: Digitisation Conservator

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Salary range is £26,000 - £29,966 per annum
Full time (36 hours per week)
Fixed Term Contract for 18 months
St Pancras, London

The British Library is undertaking a number of new digitisation programmes including four hundred pre-1200 manuscripts and illuminated manuscripts and Kings Topographical maps. The ‘Discovering Literature’ web resource is also moving into its next phase requiring items to be digitised. 

This is an opportunity for an experienced conservator to undertake condition assessments and conservation treatment of paper and parchment books and manuscripts to enable digitisation as part of these and other projects. The conservator will work closely with the project managers and curators and will report to the Conservation Digitisation Manager. You’ll operate with minimal supervision and have the skills and knowledge to plan, manage and track your work to ensure that deadlines are met. You must be able to communicate effectively with people at all levels, and be able to keep clear, consistent and accurate records of all activities undertaken.

You need to have either a degree in conservation or equivalent knowledge and skills sets, and practical hands-on experience in conservation of library materials for digitisation and/or large-scale conservation projects. A broad knowledge of available conservation treatments within the field of book/paper conservation together with the ability to diagnose conservation problems and to develop and evaluate options for solutions. You should also have a high level of manual dexterity, together with knowledge of materials chemistry and the properties, behaviours and interaction of a wide range of organic and inorganic materials. A good knowledge of preventive conservation issues is also required.

For further information and to apply, please visit www.bl.uk/careers quoting vacancy ref: COL00841

Closing Date: 12 May 2016
Interview Date: week of 23 May 2016