Collection Care blog

Behind the scenes with our conservators and scientists

13 February 2017

The beauty within: conservation of manuscript Delhi Arabic 1928

Flavio Marzo reports on the conservation of a unique manuscript from the Delhi Arabic collection.

I have recently undertaken the conservation of a very interesting Arabic manuscript that is a good example of how the mixture of features means richness and beauty.

The manuscript, produced in the first half of the XIX century, contains two different texts bound together, about cosmology and astronomy. This book, measuring 285 x 175 x 30 mm, is one of the scientific volumes that we are presently digitising within the project sponsored by the Qatar Foundation, here on the 6th floor of the British Library, for the Qatar Digital Library web site.

The front and back cover of the manuscript, lying side by side, completely separated from the text block and spine. The covers are handmade and roughly the same in imagery, bearing a central ovoid which has had its illustration worn away. This shape is buttressed at either end by two shield-like shapes, which again bear traces of imagery. They are on a brown background, framed in black, in itself framed in brown. Both covers bear writing on white stickers.
Right/front and left/back cover of Delhi Arabic 1928.
The spine of the book, as viewed from the side of the manuscript. The heavy wear can be seen clearly, with only a small amount of the original leather still present, at the centre. The two ends have both been heavily worn, and the text block can be seen coming through the brown underlayer of fabric. Round Insect damage holes can also be seen.
The spine of the book.

 

This manuscript is also another item from the Delhi Arabic Collection; a fantastic series housed at the British Library that has been the subject of other previous blog posts of mine, written for the British Library Collection Care blog.

The book came to us because it needed extensive conservation before any further handling, from cataloguing to photography, would have been possible. Something needed to be done, but as soon as I started to examine the book in detail I realised how interesting and unique its binding was.

Categories are essential to communicate, we need a common language to share information and a common vocabulary to be able to understand each other, but this inevitably often requires simplification. The history of book binding and the craft of book making are not different, we have created a vocabulary that helps us to categorise styles, techniques and features, assigning to specific definitions chronologically and geographically defined areas.

‘Islamic style binding’ is one of them; it identifies books that are bound following specific techniques and are characterised by specific codified and agreed upon features.

At a first look, this book seemed to bear all of those characteristics:

1. A type of decoration with inlays made of tooled toned paper was applied to the leather, as well as being framed with lines of drawn gold pigment. 
2. The boards were not larger than the book block (no squares).
3. It had a flat spine.
4. The burnished shining paper of the pages bore Arabic writing.

A paper inlay on the inner corner of one of the covers, showing decoration that has been, along with the corner of the cover, attacked by insect pests, in the evidence of round bore holes, while the corner itself is heavily damaged and the iternal structure is exposed.
One of the paper inlays, lifting.

 

I was also expecting an unsupported sewing (without sewing supports) and Islamic style end bands, but this was not the case.

The sewing, made with a very thick linen thread was actually made on strips of tanned leather with the thread passing behind them in the so called ‘French style technique’ (link stitch) where the thread passages are linked together during the sewing, as visible in the following image.

A closeup image of the manuscript with its front cover open, showing the inside of the cover and the front page, and text block. The image is illustrating the damage done to the manuscript, as the cover is almost entirely detached from the main text block. There is a large triangular open tear on the front page, while both textblock and cover show severe damage caused by insects, as evidenced by small bore holes and deep grazing marks at the corners.

a zoomed in image of the manuscript on its spine side, showing the text block and centred on the sewing in the 'French style' the white threads interweaving. In the bottom left a finger can just be seen holding back the very tattered remnants of the spine.
The leather strips and the passages of the sewing thread in the ‘French style’.

 

The end bands, or at least what was left of them (only the one at the tail survived almost entirely) were also a surprise, they were in a western style, sewn with two silk threads (pink and green) onto a round core made of linen cord.

The Manuscript shown with the focus on the end bands at the bottom of the exposed spine. The end band is brightly colored in green and pink thread, somewhat frayed at the ends, wrapped around a linen core. The cover of the book can be seen as well, with some of the insect bore holes prevalent.
Detail of the surviving 'western style' end band at the tail of the book spine.

 

What a magnificent multicultural binding! An Islamic style cover with French sewing and western end bands; how many stories this damaged little book is telling all at once - not only the fascinating content of the text but also the intriguing mixture of features that speaks of a binder obviously bridging two different worlds and their book binding craftsmanship.

The book was made in the XIX century, a time when the western domination of the Far East (the book was part of the Imperial Mughal Library so possibly produced in India) was already quite established, and so the reciprocated exchange in craftswork and tastes.

Was the binder a westerner or an easterner artisan? It is hard to tell even if the predominance of eastern features, like the attachment of the leather cover to the book block achieved by only adhering the leather to the spine without any lacing of the supports, makes me favour the second option.

The challenge here was then how to treat the book. The leather strips were completely gone and the sewing very loose. A huge amount of insect damage, especially on the spine folds of the bifolia, had made most of the pages detached. Likewise, the leather on the spine and the board edges were almost completely gone.

Approaches in modern conservation are based on some clear principles and ethics, two of which are ‘minimal intervention’ and ‘fit for purpose’. In this specific case I chose the ‘minimal’ approach aimed at keeping all the historical evidence of an object undisturbed as much as possible. I decided to work ‘in situ’ and try to restore all the elements of the binding leaving them as they were.

This was a very ‘minimal’ but not at all ‘fit for purpose’ approach. Digitisation project workflows are based on the constant processing of material to be imaged and uploaded online. Conservation within these work streams is there to support this flow, making sure that the items processed are stabilized and safely handled to produce good quality images. In this context, the ‘fit for purpose’ approach means that conservation treatments on single items should not take more than 5 to 10 hours to be completed. To repair the manuscript, however, took me one week. The time was needed and it was found within the scope of the project, but making sure that we were also keeping a steady flow of material to work on for the rest of the workflow strands.

A new spine lining made of Japanese paper was applied onto the spine to secure the book block as much as possible and to support in place the remnants of the end bands before starting to work on the pages.

The manuscript undergoing treatment, seated in a wooden vice with handles at the edge of both sides of the photo. The spine is free of the vice, and the linen remnants of the spine hve been reinforced with Japanese tissue paper, while there are white linen strips inserted under the two central sewing. A green desk can be seen in the background, with scissors, a metal ruler, a metal spatula tool and a green pencil.
The spine of the book and the remnants of the end bands are reinforced with Japanese paper layers adhered with wheat starch paste and the new linen tapes inserted under the passage of the sewing.

 

New cotton tapes were inserted under the sewing thread passages where the leather strip supports were originally placed. In most of the sections the sewing thread was secured in place with small pieces of Japanese paper and wheat starch paste. The loose pages were secured with hinges of Japanese paper, making sure that the correct collation was maintained.

The boards were re-attached to the book block as they had been by attaching the original linen spine lining and the remnants of the old leather supports reinforced with the new cotton tapes.

All the remnants of the covering leather on the spine were secured to the spine lining now supported by a new Japanese paper hollow. No infill with new leather was made, but the spine was repaired only with thin toned Japanese paper instead, leaving the linen fabric of the original lining exposed.

The Manuscript book photographed after conservation work. The book is lying down, with spine facing the camera. The spine itself has been reworked, with the linen backing and the remnants of leather spine well afixed and consolidated with toned Japanese tissue paper along the exposed linen backing of the spine.
The book after the conservation work.

 

During the conservation of the book block, a note was also found inserted. Written on this note are the shelf mark and probably a request from the cataloguer for the restoration of the book (‘Repairs & binding’).

The note was most surely inserted at the time the book was being catalogued since the handwriting on it matches the calligraphy on the cataloguing labels adhered on the right and left boards.

Two photographs compared side by side. The left photo is a pink paper slip, with tidy handwriting in black ink, as a request for 'Repair & binding'. Running down the right hand side of the slip is a printed message in a bold capitalised font 'M.S. Not To Be Issued'. The image on the right is of the two stickers afixed to the cover of the book, in wgite with two thick and thin blue borders. The text, in the same handwriting and thus showing then eed for comparison, has in the top sticker, 'Delhi Arabic 1928' while the second, slightly more rectangular lower sticker, reads in the same handwriting, 'Arabic catalogue' and in roman numerals, 3, then 2, then the numbers 2187. Some insect bore damage holes can be seen around the stickers on the front board.
Pink slip with handwritten shelf mark and annotation compared with the shelf mark written on the labels adhered on the right/front board.

 

At the British Library, the practice of inserting pink slips to highlight the need for urgent conservation work is still in use today. This procedure obviously dates back quite far.

We know that the manuscripts in the Delhi collection were moved from Calcutta to the India Office in London, and at a certain point divided into their respective language collections. This arrangement was made after they were catalogued in 1937, so it is reasonable to assume that the labels were placed not much later than this date.

The request on the slip was obviously ignored and the book was not restored, a ‘negligence’ that probably saved the manuscript from a complete rebinding that would have destroyed all the historical evidences of this unique artefact.

The perception of beauty is another very controversial topic; this work of mine was meant to preserve as much as possible all the evidence of a very unique and fascinating item, keeping the original features in place and preserving all the possibly hidden information for future research.

The tattered look of the damaged book was also preserved, arguably not a pleasing look, but time has left its marks and that has its own beauty.

Flavio Marzo

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