Collection Care blog

10 March 2014

“Islamic/Western” features in three India Office Records manuscripts

Flavio Marzo, Conservation Studio Manager for the British Library/Qatar Foundation digitisation project reports on the conservation of three manuscripts from the India Office Records.

A new conservation studio has been set up at the British Library to support a digitisation project as part of the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership programme. The Library’s Arabic material has been scoped for the creation of a new web portal where, in a year’s time, around 500,000 images will be made available online to the general public.

The font cover of a manuscript, in poor condition. The leather applied to the board has degraded significantly. The first layer of leather appears to have peeled off leaving a random pattern of darker brown-orange and lighter  brown-orange colouration of the leather layers. There is a large white label positioned towards the top, with text faintly reading “Old Index from January 1846 to December 1846. The white label is worn with all edges and corners suffering losses, leaving tattered and jagged edges. There is a modern blue sticky label towards the bottom reading “Not for direct photocopying copies may be ordered from IOR NEG 9300”
Front left board of MS IOR/R/15/1/105

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The majority of material identified for digitisation comes from the India Office records. Many of the files that form this collection are related to the Gulf area, and so are deeply connected to the history of Qatar and its neighboring countries.

The India Office Records are a very large collection of documents relating to the administration of India from 1600 – 1947, the period which spans Company and British rule in India. The archive is held here at the Library and is publicly accessible.

As the formal document of British presence in the Persian Gulf, IOR/R/15 is a fascinating series within the India Office Records, giving a unique insight into a colonial encounter between European imperial power and tribal shaikhdoms on the Arabian Peninsula coast.

One of the most striking features of these Records is the variety and mixture of formats and features related to different manufacturing techniques. These range from bound printed or manuscript volumes to folders containing loose leaves, folded maps, photographs, miscellaneous textile offcuts and samples of products sold in the colonies during the English occupation. In many cases these records were produced by a local workforce in the countries where the IOR officers were stationed.

This mixture of local craftsmanship and foreign taste (and in some cases even foreign materials) has produced very interesting objects which carry a fusion of western appearance and “Islamic” manufacturing techniques.

In this post I want to present some features of three bound manuscripts from the India Office Records: IOR/R/15/1/105, IOR/R/15/103 and IOR/15/1/161.

Front board of a manuscript, with a large discoloured cream-white paper label, with faint brown text reading “Book No.246 from January1857 to December 1857” and below in bright red text reading “Nothing of importance.” The label is in okay condition with no losses or abrasion, but quite stained, possibly from the adhesive  layer below. The leather covering the board is in poor condition, with patches left of lighter orange-brown are the result of peeling and lifting leather. There is a large area of leather loss by the bottom left of the white label, exposing the mill board below.
Front left board of MS IOR/R/15/1/161

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A front cover to a manuscript, completely detached, sitting askew on top of the textblock, with a damaged white paper label towards the middle, and a modern blue sticky label towards the bottom. The board itself is in poor condition, pearing blotchy with varying pale and dark orange-brown colours. The board is in extremely poor condition, cracked from the top right corner down to the lower left side. The crack has caused significant loss to the white paper label, also in poor condition and discoloured, with faint brown text. The blue label is in good condition and reads “Not for direct photocopying copies may be ordered from IOR NEG 9299”
Front left board of MS IOR/R/15/1/103

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These manuscripts were produced in the middle of the 19th century and contain collections of letters sent from the British Political Residency in the Persian Gulf stationed at Bushire (or Bushehr) on the south western coast of Iran.

Many of the features of these volumes are traditionally considered to be Western. They were all bound in full leather and decorated with similar finishing tools without the use of gold (blind tooled decoration).

Detail of the blind tooling that decorates the border of the cover. Blind tooling is the impression of design left by a heated metal tool without the addition of gold leaf. The blind-tooled design used on This cover is a small pattern in the shape of an S, and where one S ends, another begins in a continuous design.
Detail of the tool used to decorate the cover of two of the manuscripts


Detail of the blind tooling that decorates the border of the cover. Blind tooling is the impression of design left by a heated metal tool without the addition of gold leaf. The blind-tooled design used on This cover is a small pattern in the shape of an S, and where one S ends, another begins in a continuous design.
Detail of the tool used to decorate the cover of two of the manuscripts

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They are written in English on western handmade paper. The countermark in the image below indicates that the paper was produced in 1843 in Stowford Mill, which continues to make paper to this day.

A manuscript sits flat on a desk with the spine facing us. The front board is missing, and the  first page of the manuscript is being held up at a 90 degree angle. There are losses, small tears and creases along the edges. Light is shining through the page from the back, illuminating the features of the sheet. We can visibly see the laid lines, and the watermark in the centre of the sheet reading “STOWFORD MILL 1813.” The watermark and laid lines are lighter than the surrounding paper due to the manufacturing process. Paper is produced by a screen being dipped into and lifted out of a slurry of paper fibres suspended in water. The construction of the screen has raised lines, and sometimes a watermark, a design from wire and attached to the screen. These raised areas result in a thinner layer of fibres than the rest of the sheet, and visible with illumination.
Page from one of the volumes, photographed in transmitted light to reveal the countermark

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Other aspects of these books have been produced using ‘Islamic’ style binding techniques. For example, the textblock sections are secured with ‘unsupported sewing’. The Western binding technique of using a material (vellum or cord) to sew around, attaching the sections to it using the thread, is absent here meaning that it is only the thread itself securing the sections together.

Another example is the execution of the endbands that you see in the images below. These are typical of Islamic bindings as commonly recognized in the field of the history book by the way they are sewn and by the final pattern and appearance.

The endband is presented vertically and at a slight angle and left of the spine. The endband is made from white string, and resembles a braid. It is in quite poor condition, the internal leather chord of the end band is visible, as the threads of it are worn and falling off. The bottom edge of the manuscript to the right of the endband is stained and discoloured. The orange leather of the spine and backboards wrap around the image.
Islamic style endband
The head of the text block is shown, vertical, and almost directly on, with the orange-brown leather spine on the right hand side out of focus and going away from us. The end band is made of white string and is in good condition. The anchor stitching is to the right of the endband, descending into the spine folds of the textblock.
Islamic style endband

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It is clear from this mixing of binding influences that these volumes were not produced in a Western bindery! It is likely that the materials were provided by the India Office, along with specific requests regarding the appearance, which tie in with traditional Western tastes. The rest was down to the knowledge and expertise of the local binders, and what an exciting interesting fusion of styles it has resulted in!

An open book sits on a blakc table. The book is on an angle, cutting off all four corners of the manuscript in the picture. The colour of the sheets of paper have a green off-white tinge to them. The text is written in brown ink, and is neat tidy cursive, written on blank sheets, but still keeping the writing in neat even lines. The page on the right is guarded into the book, meaning it has a long tab of paper attached to the latter, the tab is then used to secure the sheet within the book structure. In this opening, the writing butts up right to the edge of the guard. The sheet on the left side is not guarded, however the writing goes right into the tight gutter, which would be very tricky if not impossible to write after being bound. It could indicate that the volume was bound after the letters were written and not produced as a blank notebook.
The writing close to the gutter of the book can make it difficult for digitisation.

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In these specific cases, we re-housed the books in custom made archival boxes and repaired enough of the damaged paper and boards to stabilise it for future handling.

They will soon be fully digitized and available online on the Qatar National Library web site. The process of digitisation gives conservators the opportunity to assess large numbers of items in a short period of time, enabling them to more fully understand the collection. In this case, it allowed me to appreciate the fusion of binding styles that make these items so interesting. Their content will be made available and their peculiar and unique features will be preserved.

An open box made of a single piece of board which folds to cover a book, with paper tabs to secure it closed into slots on the fore edge of the box when closed. Made of a thin board white on the inside and blue on the outside, it is known as a phase box. There is a manuscript sitting inside of the open box on a green table. The manuscript has a white label towards the top of the front board, and a blue label towards the bottom. The front board is mottled with dark orange brown to light orange-brown patches due to leather loss and damage.
The final product!

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Flavio Marzo


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