Collection Care blog

Behind the scenes with our conservators and scientists

2 posts from October 2017

10 October 2017

Magic in Conservation – using leaf-casting on paper and palm leaves

As the library is preparing for the opening of the new exhibition: Harry Potter: A History of Magic, on October 20th, and objects for the exhibition begin to arrive into the studio, our minds turn to ‘magical’ transformations of objects in conservation. Visitors to the studio are often stunned by amazing transformations of objects in our care, particularly when shown before and after photographic evidence of treatments. But our work is not based on tricks, but knowledge and skills, and is far from instantaneous! However, there is one conservation process known as ‘leaf-casting’, which comes nearest to ‘magic’, as understood in the traditional way of things happening suddenly in front of our eyes. Similarly to a performing magician, with prior preparation, a conservator using a leaf-casting machine can transform a damaged object in an instant with the help of paper pulp, gravity, and suction!

A blender to the left, a white rectangular leaf casting machine in the middle, and a book press to the right.
Picture 1: Tools of the trade: A blender to make the pulp, a leaf-casting machine, and a press.




The mechanical pulp repair process only takes less than a minute! Holes, tears and missing areas disappear, as if by magic once the paper item is put into a leaf-caster!

A piece of paper with two printed images. The paper has holes and losses.
Picture 2: A paper item placed on the grid in the leaf-caster and masked off.



Paper pulp is poured from a blender onto the piece of paper in the leaf casting machine.
Picture 3: Next, the leaf-caster is filled with water and paper pulp poured into the machine.



The piece of paper with the holes and losses filled using the paper pulp.
Picture 4: The missing areas are filled with paper pulp once the water has been sucked out of the machine.



The leaf-casting process draws on the principles of papermaking and is particularly successful for large-scale repair of damaged artefacts. Our test repair, illustrated above and below, shows the torn edge and holes seamlessly covered by new paper fibres with the repair being more visible in the areas round the edges where the degradation of paper fibres was most pronounced.

The piece of paper on a grey background, with the top image showing before treatment and the bottom image showing after treatment.
Pictures 5 & 6: The damaged paper before and after leaf-casting.



Although the process is mainly used for paper, it has also been tried out on palm leaves as part of the final research project carried out in the Copernicus University in Torun, Polandi. The process was not widely known, but offered a real opportunity for dealing with a large amount of damaged material in a more efficient way than it had been done previously. A Tamil manuscript - Sri Vaishnava Sect doctrines by Pillai Lokacharya - written on 256 leaves was a case in point.

A variety of treatments were tried out on the leaves before they arrived in our studio. They had very old string repairs, and roughly 25 of them were treated using fish glue and palm leaves to repair the missing areas.

The top image shows a palm leaf repaired with string along the bottom left edge, and the bottom image shows a palm leaf repaired with palm leaf on the left hand side.
Pictures 7 and 8: Examples of older string mends and a palm leaf repairs respectively.



The remaining leaves showed varying degree of damage ranging from worm holes, breaks, damaged or missing ends and edges. Some were totally fragmented with the text completely lost.

10 palm leaves on a light table in varying conditions. Many have damage or loss at either edge.
Picture 9: Typical damage to the leaves (1-10) made more visible by the light table.



With no undamaged leaves left in the batch to be conserved, I suggested that we try the leaf-casting on leaves that have suffered severe loss to the base material. Before the process started, the inks incised into the palm leaves had to be tested and proved to be stable. The leaves were leaf-cast in batches of 5 using toned paper pulp. Once they were taken out of the machine, they were dried, pressed, cut into individual strips, faced with toned Japanese tissue and cut to size using a template.

On the left is the palm leaves in the leaf caster, and on the right the case leaves sit on a white surface to dry.
Pictures 10 & 11: Leaves in a leaf-caster and dried respectively.



On the left, individual strips of the cast leaves are placed below the original palm leaves, and on the right the cast leaves are faced with tissue.
Pictures 12 & 13: Leaves cut into individual strips, faced with tissue and cut to size.



The template gave a rough idea of the length and width of a leaf, particularly if it had ends missing or was incomplete. It was not meant to make them uniform, keeping those with undamaged ends or with a natural curve unchanged. Below are two batches of 10 leaves from the manuscript before and after conservation.

On the left are 10 leaves prior to treatment, with holes and losses along the edges present. On the right, the palm leaves have been conserved, with the losses infilled using the cast leaves.
Pictures 14 & 15: Leaves 1-10.



On the left is 9 palm leaves prior to treatment, and on the right the holes and losses have been filled.
Pictures 16 & 17: Leaves 241-250 before and after conservation.



Leaves with less damage were not put through the leaf-caster, but mended by hand. A surgical needle was used to insert toned paper pulp into worm holes, and small missing areas. A piece of blotter paper was placed underneath for absorption of excess water.

The top image shows a close up of two palm leaves infilled by hand. The bottom image shows a beaker with paper pulp and the needle used for infilling.
Pictures 18 &19: Showing an example of leaves mended by hand and a beaker with toned paper pulp and the needle used for mending.



The leaf-casting technique used on the palm leaves had several advantages. It returned some flexibility to the leaves, making them less brittle, and it was also a time saving treatment when compared to the traditional repairs using palm leaves. The before and after photographs of the treatment have this magic ‘wow’ quality of seeing items transformed not by a magician, but by a skilful practitioner!

Iwona Jurkiewicz

 

Notes: I would like to thank my colleague Lorraine Holmes for training us to use the leaf-casting process, and for helping me with the conservation of palm leaves.

iThe conservation procedure to repair the palm leaves manuscript from Cambodia was developed as a final conservation project by Anna Hałucha-Lim in the Copernicus University in Torun, Poland – for details see:

Anna Halucha-Lim ‘Kambodżański rękopis na lisciach palmowych (XIX/XX w.) ze zbiorów Muzeum Azji i Pacyfiku w Warszawie – propozycja konserwacji zachowawczej ;Torunskie Studia o Sztuce Orientu, Torun, Tom 1.

04 October 2017

Talk: Iron Gall Ink - Conservation challenges and research

Join Zoë Miller and Paul Garside in a lunchtime Feed the Mind talk at the British Library to find out how conservators are treating manuscripts at risk of being destroyed by their own writing.

Iron Gall Ink: Conservation challenges and research
Mon 9 Oct 2017, 12:30 - 13:30

Full details and booking information can be found here.

So what is the problem with Iron Gall Ink?

Handwritten text on a piece of paper with laid and chain lines visible showing fracture and losses in the iron gall ink.

Conservators caring for the 150 million items in the British Library face many challenges, from crumbling paper to detached book boards. But arguably one of the biggest issues is the conundrum of how to care for one of the most widely used and inherently damaging historic inks - iron gall ink.

You have probably come across this ink with its distinctive brown colour and halo of discolouration. Made from a combination of tannins (from oak gall nuts), iron sulphate (extracted from cave walls or pyritic nodules) and gum Arabic, this ink can become corrosive and thereby damage the writing surface it lies upon. Why was such a damaging substance used so prolifically? Because iron gall ink can be made from readily available materials, and cannot be rubbed or scraped away without leaving a textual stain behind. Thus it was used to write important manuscripts and legal documents for thousands of years. These include such iconic ‘Treasures’ of the Library as Magna Carta and the Lindisfarne Gospels, and range from illuminated manuscripts to personal correspondence and formal maps to impromptu sketches including those of Leonardo Da Vinci.

A geometric drawing done in iron gall ink, with the ink being lost or water damaged in some areas.

The beauty - and evil - of the recipe lies in its properties of corrosion. When applied to paper or vellum the ink ‘burns’ into it leaving a mark which is insoluble in water or alcohol, and which cannot be erased. Over time it may attack the underlying paper or parchment, weakening the material and causing areas of text to be damaged or lost. In the very worst cases, we can lose the text completely as it drops out of the sheet of paper! The work of conservators is vital in identifying vulnerable items and intervening when necessary.

Handwritten text with iron gall ink showing some areas of severe loss where the iron gall ink has destroyed the paper.

What can be done? Come and find out at our Feed the Mind talk on Monday 9th October where, using visual examples, we will examine the historic use of this ink, including the influence which different recipes and writing implements can have on its properties. We will illustrate the range of treatments that are currently used in the Conservation department to address this problem, some traditional and some very modern, as well as the ongoing research to develop new approaches. This will demonstrate one of the many ways in which conservation helps to safeguard the collection and ensure its survival for future generations. Book your place now.

A handwritten page with most text written in iron gall ink and some text written with a red ink.