Collection Care blog

14 July 2020

Starting with A Book – A Conservator in the Lockdown

The pandemic took the conservation department in the British Library by surprise along with everybody else! Conservators working on physical objects found themselves transported to digital working overnight. For some it was an easy transition, while others adjusted with a few more hiccups on the way, but all were missing practical conservation and working on objects. Home libraries in need of attention were in luck in the pandemic - mine certainly was, and one such book sent me on a voyage of discovery. The book: Maria, Lady Callcott by Rosamund Brunel Gotch, was a modest looking cloth bound book suitably embellished with a picture of a sailing ship gold tooled on the front cover.

The picture of the front cover before conservation showing a red cover with a gold leaf ship in the lower right hand corner. Some loss is evident on the cover.. The picture of the front cover after conservation showing a red cover with a gold leaf ship in the lower right hand corner. Loss is no longer evident on the cover..
Picture 1: The picture of the front cover before and after conservation.

The book, passed down through generations, must have been tightly squeezed on the shelf at some point of its life, as paper fibers from the adjacent book transferred onto the cover. It didn’t need much work, but it was a pleasure to hold a scalpel in my hand and to take time to remove the paper fibers. A gentle saliva swab dealt with the remaining adhesive residue.

The text block inside the covers was in good condition but with time on my hands, I looked through the contents and was intrigued by the subject of the book; Maria Callcott, a Regency woman who lived and travelled extensively in the days when getting to places took months and a travelling woman was an anomaly rather than a norm!

Title page reading: Maria, Lady Callcott. The Creator of “Little Arthur” by Rosamund Brunel Gotch.

Picture 2: Title page.

My itchy hands, however, would have moved to the next project without delving too much into the contents, had it not been for the gradual release of the lockdown and a prospect of meeting a friend in an open space within easy reach. My friend suggested Kensal Green Cemetery, an unusual choice but quieter than parks in the pandemic. It was also a resting place of many well-known people including Maria and her husband, Sir Augustus Wall Callcott, a notable painter and the Surveyor of the Queen’s Paintings. There was a chance we might locate Maria Callcott’s final resting place during our meeting too.

Before the meeting we checked the coordinates for a few graves we wanted to find and discovered that a number of well-known people had none listed but there were some for Maria’s husband.

The weather throughout the lockdown had been a real tonic, and the sun shone for our meeting too. We had a nice stroll through a very atmospheric place, but finding graves was near impossible. The cemetery lost its original layout and most graves lost their inscriptions. It looked like the story of my book would have ended there had it not been for another twist. The Callcotts’ grave could only be located because of Maria, rather than her more distinguished husband. It was restored 12 years ago by the Chilean embassy with a plaque dedicated to Maria.

Plaque reading: Here lies Lady Maria Callcott formerly Graham 1785 – 1842 A friend of the nation of Chile and her husband Sir Augustus Wall Callcott R.A. 17-86 – 1844 Artist Placed here by the Embassy of Chile

Picture 3: Picture of the plaque on Maria’s grave.

The passage of time has righted a historical wrong. Maria, the wife of Sir Augustus Wall Callcott became Maria, a woman in her own right, a friend to the Chilean nation, an intrepid traveller, an author and an illustrator of her travel, art and children’s books, and a governess to a Brazilian princess. I feel I should now try to find more about her by not putting the book back on the shelf and reading Maria’s biography.

Iwona Jurkiewicz-Gotch

P.S. After the above blog had been completed I came across another blog about Maria posted on the V&A website, which might be of interest.

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