THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Collection Care blog

3 posts from April 2020

23 April 2020

Saved from the fire: conserving Charlotte Canning’s burnt diaries

Amy Baldwin, Book Conservator

The British Library’s India Office Records acquired the papers of Charles Canning and his wife Charlotte in 2013. While most were in a fit state to be catalogued and made available to the public, five volumes of Charlotte Canning’s personal diaries had been badly damaged by fire and were too vulnerable to be handled without extensive conservation work (curator Lesley Shapland has provided a vivid account of the fire in Charlotte’s tent which damaged the diaries on the Untold Lives blog).

Charlotte Canning's burnt diary showing a darkened binding and missing edges. F699 2/2/2/3 before treatment

F699 2/2/2/3 before treatment

The primary aim of treatment was to make the diaries available for consultation by curators and researchers. But because the fire which caused the damage is an integral part of the diaries’ histories, and because it sheds light on the wider context of the Cannings’ lives in India, it was desirable that the evidence of the burn damage also be preserved. The conservation treatment therefore had to offset the risks posed by the burn damage while making sure the damage itself remained intact - an intriguing challenge!

The first stage of treatment was to consolidate the burnt edges of the diaries’ pages. This was done by applying a Japanese kozo paper weighing only 4gsm/m² on top of the badly burnt areas. As well as being very lightweight this paper has long fibres, and therefore provides strength and support to the brittle page while being almost transparent.

Burnt page edge from Charlotte Canning's diary after consolidation with kozo paper

Burnt page edge after consolidation with kozo paper

The kozo paper was attached to the pages with a gelatin adhesive. This was specifically chosen because it is compatible with the iron gall ink with which Charlotte Canning wrote the diaries.

Charlotte also used her diaries as scrapbooks and many oversized newspaper clippings had been burned in the areas where she had folded them to fit them into the diary. These were repaired with Japanese papers of various weights.

F699 2/2/2/3 from Charlotte Canning's diary before treatment

F699 2/2/2/3 from Charlotte Canning's diary after treatment

F699 2/2/2/3 before and after treatment

In some cases, where areas of the spine had been burned away, the paper folds of the diary were rebuilt using Japanese paper, so that it could be sewn back together and could continue to function as a volume. Care was taken to recreate the exact original sewing style, so that the diary would continue to open in the same way. This also helped to preserve the historical integrity of the item as a Victorian notebook.

Spine of Charlotte Canning's diary F699 2/2/2/4 after sewing repair

Spine of F699 2/2/2/4 after sewing repair

In the case of one diary, the burn damage was so extensive that the conservation work required to return the fragments of pages to the format of a book would have obscured much of the fire damage. It would also have posed a risk to the fragments, as they were so brittle that they could not flex without cracking, as they would need to in order to survive being turned as pages in a book.

The pages of this diary were therefore encapsulated between sheets of polyester surrounded by rigid frames made from acid-free mount board. This allows the text on both sides to be read without the vulnerable pages being flexed, or indeed handled directly at all.

Charlotte Canning's diary F699 2/2/2/6 before treatment showing extensive damage and losses to the pages

F699 2/2/2/6 after treatment with pages of the diary encapsulated between sheets of polyester surrounded by rigid frames made from acid-free mount board

F699 2/2/2/6 before and after treatment

The diaries were stored in acid-free mount board wrappers to protect the page edges from being abraded. Each diary was then placed in a purpose-made box. The diaries still need to be handled with care, so the wrappers have been labeled with instructions for readers on how to use them safely.

Charlotte Canning's diary F699 2/2/2/3 after treatment showing much improved binding

Charlotte Canning's diary F699 2/2/2/3 after treatment and in its protective wrapper

F699 2/2/2/3 after treatment and in its protective wrapper

This was a major project, taking two conservators nearly 400 hours, and the fact that Charlotte Canning’s diaries are now accessible in the reading rooms is a source of great satisfaction for curatorial and conservation staff. 

16 April 2020

Conservation treatment of late 19th and early 20th century silk theatre playbills from the Western Heritage Collections

Author: Emma Smith, Textile Conservation Intern

Introduction

This blog post will discuss the conservation treatment of four silk theatre playbills and programmes, dating to the late 19th and early 20th century. Playbills like these were printed for special performances, such as the benefit, gala and state performances promoted here. Since they were intended to be sold at the theatre as souvenirs, they were not printed on the rough, cheaper paper generally used for this type of promotional material, but on a fine silk fabric that gave a soft textured sheen. Playbills like these were often also embellished with a delicate fringe, making them all the more desirable as mementos of the performance. The objects featured here are part of a collection consisting of six playbills and programmes;

  • 689.a.2.(1.): Theatre Royal (Sunderland), [A Playbill for a performance, 7 August 1846]. Printed on white silk satin.
  • 689.a.2.(2.): Lyceum Theatre (London), [A Playbill dated 21 February 1850]. Printed on white silk satin.
  • 689.a.2.(3.): Royal Opera House (London), [Programme for gala or state performances, 11 June 1907]. Printed on white silk satin.
  • 689.a.2.(4.): Royal Opera House (London), [Programme for gala or state performances, 27 May 1908] [London, 1908]. Printed on white silk satin.
  • 689.a.2.(5.): Royal Opera House (London), [Programme for gala or state performances, 11 May 1914.] [London, 1914]. Printed on white silk rib.
  • 689.a.2.(6.): Royal Opera House (London), [Programme for State performance in honour of the visit of the President of the French Republic dated March 22 1939]. Pamphlet on card

Conservation of the paper programme (Tab.a.2.(6.)) and additional silk playbill (Tab.a.2.(2.)) from the collection is due to be completed following the reopening of the Library.

Tab.689.a.2.(3.): Royal Opera House (London), [Programme for gala or state performances, 11 June 1907]. Printed on white silk satin Tab.689.a.2.(3.): Royal Opera House (London), [Programme for gala or state performances, 11 June 1907]. Printed on white silk satin
Figure 1: Tab.689.a.2.(3.) before (left) and after (right) treatment

Condition before treatment

The playbills and programmes arrived in poor condition. They had been adhered into a customised guard volume which did not meet contemporary conservation standards, and was acting as an acidic environment, promoting degradation of the silk giving an overall yellow discolouration and brittleness. As well as the paper and cotton tape hinges from the current mounting, the 20th century programmes had been subjected to previous mounting which was evident due to patches of adhesive in the corners; this was causing discolouration and embrittlement to the silk and fringing. The 19th century playbill had additional paper repairs on the reverse causing the silk to embrittle and split.

The treatment planned was to remove the objects from this historic housing, reduce the acidity and adhesive staining, and develop a new storage solution allowing them to be safely accessed by readers. For the playbill with old paper repairs these needed to be removed, with new repairs introduced which were more sympathetic to the silk.

Tab.689.a.2.(1.): Theatre Royal (Sunderland), [A Playbill for a performance, 7 August 1846]. Printed on white silk satin.

Figure 2: Tab.689.a.2.(1.) in its old housing

•Tab.689.a.2.(1.): Theatre Royal (Sunderland), [A Playbill for a performance, 7 August 1846]. Printed on white silk satin.

Figure 3: Paper repairs on the reverse of Tab.689.a.2.(1.)

Tab.689.a.2.(3.): Royal Opera House (London), [Programme for gala or state performances, 11 June 1907]. Printed on white silk satin.

Figure 4: Adhesive staining on the reverse of Tab.689.a.2.(3.)

Treatment

The playbills and programmes were first removed from their housing using a scalpel to cut the paper and cotton tape hinges that secured them in place. This allowed further examination and assessment of their condition, before speaking to curators about the proposed treatment.

It was decided that due to the acidity of the silk and the presence of what looked to be an animal glue adhesive, wet cleaning to reduce this would be the best course of action. In-situ wash-fastness tests were performed in order to understand how the colour of the printed design would respond to water, especially whether dye bleed may occur. Each colour was tested by exposing small areas of the playbills and programmes to blotting paper wetted with reverse osmosis water (a pure water which would not leave residues in the objects after washing) for around an hour. No colour bleed or transfer was seen in any of these tests and so wet cleaning went ahead. It was decided to wet clean the playbills and programmes in slightly warm water in order to help solubilise the adhesive, with soft sponges and brushes used to aid in removal. The water was changed regularly to prevent the adhesive solubilising into the rest of the textile. The fabric and paper hinges and paper repairs were able to be removed as part of the wet cleaning process. Following wet cleaning, any fringing was aligned and the objects were dried under slight weight to prevent dimensional change and creasing.

Tab.689.a.2.(4.): Royal Opera House (London), [Programme for gala or state performances, 27 May 1908] [London, 1908]. Printed on white silk satin.

Figure 5: Removing the cotton tape hinge from Tab.689.a.2.(4.) during wet cleaning

Wet cleaning was incredibly successful, the adhesive staining, overall yellowing and acidity was reduced, enhancing not only aesthetics but the longevity of the objects. For the 19th century playbill where paper repairs had been removed however, there were now numerous unsupported holes and areas of weakness. In order to support the playbill an overall support of silk crĂŞpeline, dyed to match the colour of the playbill and backed with conservation grade adhesive, was used. The weave of the support was aligned to the weave of the object to provide strength, and a heated spatula was used to reactivate the adhesive, securing the support to the object. 

Tab.689.a.2.(3.): Royal Opera House (London), [Programme for gala or state performances, 11 June 1907]. Printed on white silk satin.

Figure 6: Reverse of Tab.689.a.2.(3.) after wet cleaning

Tab.689.a.2.(1.): Theatre Royal (Sunderland), [A Playbill for a performance, 7 August 1846]. Printed on white silk satin.

Figure 7:Tab.689.a.2.(1.) after adhesive support had been applied

Finally, the objects were secured to custom made padded boards; unlike the original storage method these were made from acid free materials.  To negate the need for stitching into the objects in order to secure them to the boards, the three fringed 20th century programmes were secured using nylon net tabs at the corners. Due to its increased fragility a more robust solution was needed for the 19th century playbill. Strips of adhesive cast silk crĂŞpeline were adhered to the front edges of the playbill in order to sandwich the object between these and the support. The silk crĂŞpeline was extended to just beyond the edges of the playbill, allowing this to be stitched into to secure the object to the board. These new boards fully surround and support the playbills so that each can now be separately lifted from a custom made box which will be created for their storage, without the need to touch the fabric surface at all. This improved handling platform allows the playbills to be made available to readers in the Rare Books Reading Room of the Library, according to their research needs. Handling instructions will also be made to accompany the objects to the reading room to ensure their safety.

Tab.689.a.2.(1.): Theatre Royal (Sunderland), [A Playbill for a performance, 7 August 1846]. Printed on white silk satin.

Figure 8: Securing Tab.689.a.2.(1.) to the padded board

Ongoing treatment

The remaining playbill is in the worst condition. The silk is incredibly brittle and yellowed, with a multitude of adhesive stains and paper repairs to the lining, and a large amount of structural damage to the silk. Conservation of this playbill will continue following return to the Library, and will hopefully be the feature of a future post.

Tab.689.a.2.(2.): Lyceum Theatre (London), [A Playbill dated 21 February 1850]. Printed on white silk satin.

Figure 9: Front of Tab.689.a.2.(2.)

Tab.689.a.2.(2.): Lyceum Theatre (London), [A Playbill dated 21 February 1850]. Printed on white silk satin.

Figure 10: Reverse of Tab.689.a.2.(2.)

Tab.689.a.2.(2.): Lyceum Theatre (London), [A Playbill dated 21 February 1850]. Printed on white silk satin.

Figure 11: Close up of damage to Tab.689.a.2.(2.)

03 April 2020

Lotus Sutra Project: Conservation of a burnt scroll (Or. 8210/ S.2155)

The Lotus Sutra Manuscript Digitisation Project at The British Library is a multi-year project which started in 2018. The project aims to digitise almost 800 copies of the Lotus Sutra scrolls in Chinese, with a view to make images and information freely accessible. Out of these 800 scrolls, a large portion of them need conservation work. Our conservators deal with a variety of lengths of scrolls on this project, ranging from 30 centimetre fragments to scrolls measuring up to 13 metres. This blog post covers the treatment of an item which I (Marya Muzart, IDP Digitisation Conservator) had the opportunity to work on. 

Falling under a treatment time estimate of 25 hours, the condition of this item before treatment was not ideal. As a digitisation conservator, my aim is to stabilise the object to:

a) Ensure the item can be safely handled during digitisation and quality control

b) Ensure the text is visible and accessible so that high quality images can be taken

Or 8210 before treatment shown laid out on a desk with visible burn marks and missing areas of text.

Picture 1: Or.8210/S.2155 before treatment

Before treatment neither safe handling or a high-quality image capture was possible. The damage left the scroll incredibly vulnerable. With every handling, small fragments of burnt paper were flaking off. In addition, the burns were making the paper curl at the edges. 

The scroll had been damaged by fire at some point during its lifetime. It is certain that the scroll acquired these burns whilst it was rolled up as the burn damage is throughout its entire length, in a repeated pattern. How the scroll came to be burned, we can only assume. This could have been due to candles, incense or oil lamps used at the time (6th- 11th Century).  It is most likely that while being handled in its rolled up state, it accidentally came in contact with an open flame or heat source. Whilst there may be some large losses, luckily much of the text is still present. 

As this scroll measures 10 metres, it was crucial to work in sections. To start off, I surface cleaned the scroll using some soft cosmetic sponges to remove any surface dirt. Next, humidification was applied to the scroll via a gentle mist, and then flattened under boards and weights. The whole length of the scroll had to be humidified for the paper to lie as flat as possible in order to enable repairs. The introduction of moisture also returned a little flexibility to the burnt areas. 

A toned Japanese paper was selected for the repairs, which has a sympathetic tone to the original paper. A common question we often get is: why do we use Japanese paper, such as kozo (made from the bark of the mulberry tree), when treating an object made of Chinese paper? The long fibres in kozo gives it mechanical strength, tear resistance and flexibility. On the other hand, fibre length in xuan paper (Chinese paper) is much shorter than kozo (and generally other Japanese papers) and consequently its tear strength is not as great. This makes Japanese papers ideal for repairs in paper conservation, it can be strong enough to act as a repair paper, whilst being flexible and light enough to not cause any damage to the original scroll.  

To apply the repairs, I used wheat starch paste. When working with scrolls, the paste has to be the correct consistency to enable enough flexibility for the rolled item. Each repair was then left under a weight for an appropriate amount of time.

Before treatment showing the scroll with burn damage along the full length.

Picture 2: Or.8210/S.2155 before treatment

After treatment showing the scroll with Japanese paper repairs.

Picture 3: Or.8210/S.2155 after treatment

After treatment, the scroll is now in a much better state. It can be safely handled and digitised by trained internal staff. Whilst the burnt edges no longer curl up and now lie flat, notes have been passed on to our trained photographers, to take extra precaution when handling this item. I am pleased with the result of this treatment, it was a great success! 

Scroll after treatment showing the scroll lying flat with repairs. The burnt edges are no longer curling up.

Picture 4: Or. 8210/ S.2155 after treatment

Marya Muzart, IDP Digitisation Conservator