Collection Care blog

60 posts categorized "Materials"

24 November 2014

‘The Salmon Book’: Conservation in Reverse

The conservation team was recently commissioned by the British Library’s Artist in Residence, Rob Sherman, to create a retrospective binding to his specifications. This would form an integral part of his project whilst at the Library and would be exhibited in the ‘Lines in the Ice: Seeking the Northwest Passage’ exhibition. The book would begin life with blank pages which Rob would fill as part of his work, but the binding itself would already have a fictional material history, written by the artist but to be created by Conservation.

As conservators, our usual role is to repair damage, to remove harmful substances and to support weakness whilst preserving the history of an item, so this project proved to be something of a different challenge. One of the most important aspects of our job is to understand the past history of an item from changes to its physical form - its material story - and to preserve aspects of this story by leaving what we can undisturbed and documented. But for this project, we were going to create that story using our knowledge of the materials that we use on a daily basis… and a few unusual ones!

The front cover of the book, showing the salmon-coloured leather and a triangle-shaped notch in the top right corner. The title A Gorging Chronicle For Gentlemen Angling is centred on the cover in gold foil lettering.

The spine of the book, which has the titled against a black background, and gold decorative foiling down the spine.  The book's back cover. It has been made to look well-used, with marks and staining present on the leather.

The book’s covering leather was to resemble salmon flesh; it had a groove cut away at the head to accommodate a fishing rod, gold finishing on the boards and spine, marbled paper endleaves and various other features. It was also to have specific damage deriving from fictional events on the Arctic trip - burn damage, ink splashes, cut marks and dents among many.

The challenge for us was immediately clear:  

• To design a binding whose structure and components were historically believable but still met the aesthetic needs and specifications of the artist

• To choose appropriate materials which we could manipulate to artificially adopt the ageing characteristics of a book of that age and use

• To ‘age’ the book using a given narrative and for this to be visually convincing to ourselves as experts in the deterioration in books and paper, but also to the public and their expectations of ‘old books’

After initial consultation with Rob, the binding was underway. Paper was selected which could be abraded and cockled but also be worked on by Rob with his inks and watercolours. Samples of toned goatskin were prepared taking inspiration from the raw flesh of salmon and headband silks were selected to match. The sections of the text block were cut unevenly to resemble slipped sections as sewing thread deteriorates and once the fibres at the paper edges were disrupted and roughed up, they were toned with acrylic paints to resemble the typical damage from dust, dirt and handling that we see on a day to day basis. 

The sewn textblock rests on a lithography stone, while a conservator rounds the spine of the book by hitting it with a hammer.

The textblock now rests in a wooden vice, and again the spine is rounded by being hit with a hammer.

CC by The sewn book block is rounded which is an early stage in binding a full leather volume. 

The book takes on a rounded appearance which is afterwards given shoulders for the boards to sit against. A pair of heavy boards was made up to compliment the weight and dimensions of the text block and the natural hemp cords were then laced into holes punched into the boards. 

Green boards are attached to the textblock by the cords being slipped through a series of drilled holes in the boards.

CC by Hemp cords being laced into the board.

Part of the book’s story is that it was made with a ‘V’ cut completely through the front and back boards as well as the paper pages at the head to enable it to be used as a rod rest. Being an unusual request, it posed a problem when turning in the leather around this area. It was solved by paring thin strips to cover the inside edges of the ‘V’ before the main covering took place and again afterwards facing the groove with thin strips of leather to make the covering appear seamless. 

The book is placed in a wooden vice and a conservator uses a hand saw to cut out the triangular notch.

CC by A V-shape is removed from the book block to create a groove where a fishing rod could rest.

The colour of the leather was critical to the success of the project and small sample strips were toned in different strengths so that Rob could pick the one most appropriate to his vision. Natural goatskin leather was chosen for its distinctive grain pattern and a herringbone pattern similar to that found in the flesh of salmon was masked out in places whilst toning to give a suggestion of fish texture in the skin.

A piece of leather is place around the book and trimmed to size.

Dyes are put on the leather to tone it.

CC by Toned goatskin leather is fitted over the book block.

Some thought was given to the process of distressing so as to achieve an interesting balance between the careful control of materials and the randomness of physical ‘accidents’ like burning and splattering inks.

Someone holds a lit candle to the leather to burn the edges of the book.      A close up of the burned edge.

CC by Edges are charred using a candle.

The spine area and board edges were toned to take on a ‘dirty’ or discoloured appearance and tidelines and water damage were constructed around the ‘V’, emulating a wet fishing rod being placed there. The leather and labels were abraded and the corners softened to give a sense of wear and tear.

The book rests on a table as black paint is dripped and sprayed onto the leather to create a worn look.

The book stands upright on a table with the boards opened out, showing the marbled paper in tones of blues and creams.

CC by The final stages involved adding marble paper and toning.

The process of making the new appear old was fascinating. To imagine the book being used within the context of a story and then to create layers of patina and wear and tear which depict that narrative, really made us conscious of how intuitively conservators understand patterns of damage and deterioration.  It has been a really different experience to work ‘in reverse’ and surprising and valuable to discover how much of our knowledge of the deterioration of paper based materials and book structures were required to make the ageing of the Salmon Book appear convincing and yet to do all this without actually physically or chemically damaging the book - a future collection item.

Royston Haward and Zoe Miller

12 November 2014

The conservation of two late medieval Hebrew manuscripts

Two Hebrew manuscripts in their original bindings came to the conservation studio as part of our
conservation program. Both texts contain the work of Abraham bar Hiyya (d. 1136) who was a medieval Spanish philosopher, mathematician and astronomer.

Background history

Little is known about bar Hiyya’s life except that he lived in Barcelona. Although there are points of similarity with other medieval thinkers, his writings contain a mixture of Neoplatonist, Aristotelian and Rabbinic ideas, with original interpretations. He was often quoted by later authorities and accepted as authoritative. There was often no distinction between astronomy and astrology in medieval Spanish or Latin text. Astrology was consulted for such things as births, journeys, business and weddings. Abraham was the foremost scientific authority in Spain at this time and he was a firm believer on this aspect of astrology. Many of the terms invented by Abraham have remained current in scientific and mathematic Hebrew to the present (1).

Besides Bar Hiyya’s Tsurat ha-arets which was copied c. 15th century in a Byzantine style of Hebrew writing (ff. 2r-54v), Or 10721  contains  two additional treatises copied by other scribes in the 15th-16th century. The two other works are Torat emet imun by Zecharia ben Mosheh ha-Kohen ha-Rofe (ff. 1r-1v; poetry), and Sefer ha-osher (Book of wealth) a scientific treatise (ff. 57r-61v).

The right board, which features metal book furniture--metal domes placed near each corner with one in the middle. Also present is blind tooling in a decorative, geometrical patterns which form rectangles around the board. The cover is generally scuffed and dirty, showing plenty of wear and tear.
Right board of Or 10721.

 

The left board is the same in design as the right, but shows less wear and tear. The leather is a dark brown and a lighter orange-brown in colour.
Left board of Or 10721.



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The first text was written by Abraham bar Hiyya and was one of the first Hebrew texts on cosmography. It is a short review of the ‘lands according to the seven climates’ - the chief source of geographical knowledge among the Jewish community at the time. Abraham bar Hiyya theorised that the Earth was at the very centre of the universe despite conflicting contemporary knowledge. The second text is a translation into rhymes of Bishop Marbod’s text (c.1090) ‘Liber Lapidum’- a tract on the medical and mystical qualities of precious stones. This text also considers astrological principles and the relationship between geology and the positions of heavenly bodies. The third (ff61v-62r) describes the restorative properties of the eagle.

The manuscript is written in iron gall ink and is attributed to a scribe who worked in Italy named Joseph ben Se’adyah Ibn Hayyim.

Or 10538 is a manuscript copied in Italy and dates from approximately the 14th or 15th century. It contains two treaties on astronomy and the Jewish calendar Sefer ha-Ibbur by Abraham bar Hiyya and Sod ha-‘Ivin by Yosef ben Yehudah Hazan.

The right board which has no design--the leather is tan in colour, somewhat cockled, and has scuffs.
Right board of Or 10538.

 

The left board is a bit darker than the right, but it similarly cocked and scuffed.
Left board of Or 10538.



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This manuscript was copied in Italy approximately around the 14th or 15th century and was censored in the 17th century. Abraham bar Hiyya’s main astronomical work known as Hokhmat ha-hizayon contains two parts; the first part Tsurat ha-arets or ‘Shape of the Earth’, which is included in Or 10721, and the second Heshbon Mahalekhot ha-kokhavim or 'Calculation of the courses of the stars’ which incorporates a whole section on intercalation. The whole work is probably the first exposition of the Ptolomaic system in Hebrew and was the first complete textbook of astronomy in that language. In Or 10538 Abraham further considered the problems of intercalation to enable Jews to observe the festivals on the correct dates (2).

Both volumes contain texts from Abraham bar Hiyya and both have kept their original 14th or 15th century bindings. Even though the binding styles are completely different, they are both unique objects. We decided to take a minimal intervention approach preserving as many of the historic features and characteristics of these manuscripts as possible, and to allow binding features and intricacies individual to these bindings to be visible. Repairs to these volumes would be carried out in-situ, intervening as minimally as possible whilst allowing it to be accessed safely by a guided readership.

Conservation

Or 10721 - There was an increase in book production towards the end of the 15th century when paper became more readily available and also a greater demand for embellishment of finished books as they became more affordable to produce. This meant that binders had to create time-saving methods which led to the adoption of less durable techniques and materials. Despite this, when developing techniques for book conservation today, we can learn a great deal from medieval book structures as their continuing existence is testament to their strong mechanical techniques of production.

The book rests on a table with the left board open.
Left pastedown before conservation showing alum-tawed supports laced into boards and torn vellum.



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When Or 10721 came to conservation it had missing areas to the leather exposing one of the sewing supports, a cracked and abraded surface, and a missing endband. The other endband was present but breaking away from the binding. One sewing support had broken in the gutter at both joints with the boards, which was causing the first and last sections to protrude from the boards (cut flush to the textblock) at the fore-edge.

A number of folios were loose with subsequent tears and crumpling to the edges. Where the vellum pastedowns had come away from the boards a section had torn away and was still adhered to the inner board surface. Rust from the metal bosses had caused burn holes in the first and last few folios, and the volume had surface dirt throughout.

A closeup showing  endband damage to Or 10721   The other Or 10721 endband--it is more intact.

The Or 10721 spine, showing wear and tear where the leather is scuffed and abraded. The damaged endband is visible on the left side of the spine--the book rests horizontally on a table.
Damage to leather spine: Thread remnants from the tail and head endbands showing damage from use and original lacing into boards.

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Some of the damage that has occurred over time has exposed otherwise hidden codicological features which are of interest to the scholarship of bindings of this type. Therefore one factor in the treatment of this item was not to hide this evidence.

The treatment aims for this book were:

• To strengthen and stabilise the sewing structure and its supports
• To reconnect and repair the existing endband (head) and replicate its structure (tail)
• To support and reinsert loose folios and repair vellum pastedown
• To consolidate covering leather

The sewing supports were extended using linen thread which was frayed out and adhered to the wooden board. This repair in addition to repairing and reconnecting the endbands to their cores within the boards helped strengthen the opening of the boards and the connection of textblock to binding. It also helped to ease the sections back into the binding and prevent further damage to the paper where it protruded at the fore-edge.

The worn leather is still visible, but it appears much less friable and prone to further damage.
Or 10721 spine after conservation.

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Or 10538 is a manuscript written with iron gall ink on parchment with annotations and foliation in graphite. The binding is limp vellum with the double alum-tawed sewing supports laced into the cover and a foredge flap extending from the left cover. Writing is visible over the covering parchment. The binding has been sewn all along on two double alum-tawed supports with thick linen thread. These supports are crossed and laced into the cover in a triangle pattern. Remnants of alum-tawed ties were observed. There are no spine linings or adhesive on the spine which has a natural hollow. Paper labels are found on the spine and left cover.

We don’t know the exact date of the binding but we do know that limp vellum bindings were commonly used in Italy in the 15th century answering to the increased demands of the time. This is a non- adhesive structure, which relies on strong sewing and materials. On the textblock there are indications that it has been resewn: a central sewing hole is not used in the current sewing and there is evidence of a sewing support in the corresponding place on the spine.

Or 10538 is opened to show the right board. The leather has been folded in and you can see strips of leather attaching the textblock to the board.
Inside of right board showing alum-tawed supports which have been knotted together.
The left board is opened, and again you can see strips of leather attaching the board to the textblock.
Inside of left board showing flap.



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The covering parchment was severely damaged. Assessment showed that it was cockled, brittle, gelatinised, and stiff, with overall staining and abrasion. There was severe shrinkage and the foredge flap has been folded inside the left cover. The right cover no longer extends to the foredge of the textblock. Shrinkage resulted in tension which has contributed to loss of covering on the spine; 50% of the spine covering was missing. There were losses to the corners of the left cover and foredge flap joint. Paper labels on the spine were torn, lifting, and had losses. The sewing was in poor condition, with broken kettle stitches in the centre at head and tail.

The spine of Or 10538 is severely damaged to the point where almost no spine covering the remains and the pages that form the textblock are visible.
Damage at the spine.
The cover has come away from the spine.
Spine after releasing the supports from the left cover.

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The treatment aims for this book were:

• To strengthen and stabilise the sewing structure and its supports
• To repair the vellum cover and infill the losses keeping all the original features

The challenge was to repair the cover without disturbing the lacing paths and undoing the knots. The alum-tawed ties were carefully removed from the right board, leaving the knotted alum-tawed ties of the left board untouched. The spine was then carefully repaired using layers of Japanese papers dyed to match the original colour.

The right board has areas of repair where the leather has degraded and fallen away. It still has a cockled appearance.
Right board after treatment.
The spine has been repaired and the covering material now fully protects the textblock.
Spine after treatment.

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Our approach is always trying not to disturb the codicological features as we can not necessarily anticipate what future research may be looking for. It is always the challenge of book conservators to make items accessible to readers while preserving as much as possible. In this case it has been very satisfying to be able to preserve the individual features of these unique items and make them available to researchers. Of course the books still need careful handling, as they are not only the carriers of content but also of the history of the objects and the history of materials and techniques of the time.

By Mariluz Beltran de Guevara and Zoe Miller

Further reading

(1) Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol 1, 2nd ed, Thompson Gayle, 2007
(2) Medieval Jewish Civilisation, An encyclopaedia, Ed by Norman Roth, Routhledge, 2002

21 October 2014

Paper cuts: small but mighty!

Hardly noticeable and barely bleeding, paper cuts are the mother of all library injuries. Anyone who deals with paper on a daily basis will have at some point suffered such an affliction. Paper cuts cause a seemingly out of proportion amount of pain due to the anatomy of our skin and the structure of paper. When very thin and held in place, a sheet of paper becomes inflexible and can exert very high levels of pressure – enough to slice through flesh! Yikes! Let’s go under the microscope to see what's happening...

An edge of a single sheet of paper, with the rest of the piece of paper blurred out and against a black background.

Figure 1: A single sheet of paper at x30 magnification.

A finger with a paper cut against a black background.

Figure 2: Paper cuts - small but mighty!

Most paper cuts result from new sheets of paper held strongly in place. A rogue sheet may come loose from the pack but remain held in position by the rest of the tightly-knit sheets. In paper, more resistance is felt when a force is applied parallel to a sheet of paper. This has to do with the paper’s tensile strength. Tensile strength measures the ability of a material to resist rupture when force is applied to one of its sides under certain conditions. Held in place, the sheet of paper becomes extremely resistant to buckling, stiffens, and acts as a razor.

The edges of a stack of paper with one sheet, about halfway down, sticking out from the stack.

Figure 3: A sheet of paper that strays from the pack can cause serious paper cuts!

A paper’s edge may appear to be smooth and flat, but on a microscopic scale paper edges are jagged. Paper cuts leave a wound more like one from a saw than a knife (a miniature papery saw).

The edges of pages of a book, looking quite sharp.

Figure 4: Pages from a copy book at x30 magnification. Fibres at the surface give paper a serrated edge. The black lines are page lines.

Paper cuts are remarkably painful. They usually occur in the fingertips, which have a greater concentration of nerve cells (neurons) than the rest of the body – an evolutionary trait to protect us during the exploration of our environment. Neurons send chemical and electrical signals to our brain, and some of them, called nociceptors, detect potential harm. Paper cuts stimulate a large number of nociceptors in a very small area of the skin. Shallow paper cuts don’t bleed very much so pain receptors are left open to the air resulting in continuous pain as the wound cannot clot and seal. As we continue to use our hands, the wound flexes open, continually distressing these neurons.

Not only do paper cuts part the flesh with a micro-serrated paper edge, but they also damage skin either side of the wound due to the composition of the paper. Pain receptors are continuously irritated by the combination of cellulosic wood pulp, rags, grasses, chemically-coated fibres, and bacteria that make up paper. Paper may also include other additives such as chalk or china clay to make the paper easier to write on. Sizing gives us a great variety of papers to suit the specific type of ink we wish to apply, but involves mixing many additives into the pulp to determine the correct surface absorbency.

Paper cuts from envelopes can be particularly stingy due to the layer of glue along the sealing tab. The glue is made from gum arabic, which although edible to humans, can pack a punch if embedded inside a wound. Gum arabic is the product of hardened sap taken from two species of acacia trees, and is also used as a binder for watercolour painting, and in traditional lithography.

Magnified, adhesive on an envelope looks shiny and jelly-like.

Figure 5: Gum arabic glue at x30 magnification coats the paper tab on an envelope.

A close up of an envelope tab with adhesive.

Figure 6: Gum arabic glue at x200 magnification coats the paper tab on an envelope. When the gum is moistened it forms a seal with the adjacent paper.

When skin closes around the paper cut these foreign particles become trapped inside causing a great deal of pain. This is why a cut from a razor blade is usually less painful than that from a paper cut: razor blades make clean incisions without leaving behind any foreign particles. It hurts initially, but the pain soon ebbs away. Bleeding caused by a razor cut helps to wash away any infection-causing particles, while paper cuts bleed very little (this also reduces your chances of getting any sympathy!)

Three blades of a razor are shown at close up, showing sharp edges.

Figure 7: A razor blade at x50 magnification.

The sharp and smooth edge of the razor is even more apparent at high magnification.

Figure 8: A razor blade at x200 magnification. The razor’s edge is smooth allowing a clean incision without introducing foreign bodies.

It might seem strange that sometimes needles for a flu jab require quite a bit of force to pierce the skin, yet paper (PAPER!) can slice through. This is due to the random orientation of collagen fibres in our skin allowing us to withstand pinpoint forces.

The tip of a finger is being poked by a needle.

Figure 9: Human skin feeling the pressure under a sharp pin (x20 magnification).

Our skin does not have a comparable strength against shearing forces such as those exerted by paper, and so, we are susceptible to the small but mighty paper cut. Libraries can be dangerous places. Be careful out there!

Christina Duffy (@DuffyChristina)

 

Further learning:

Paper May Be the Unkindest Cut, Scientific American, Volume 306, Issue 3 , Mar 1, 2012 |By Steve Mirsky 

Why Do Paper Cuts Hurt So Much? Scientific American - Instant Egghead #25

 

09 October 2014

Burnt Cotton Collection survey enables digitisation prioritisation

With the recent multispectral imaging of the burnt Magna Carta hitting the headlines following our blog post on the 800 year old Magna Carta revealing its secrets, there has been a lot of interest in the conservation work required to protect such items. The so-called “burnt” Magna Carta (Cotton charter xiii 31a) suffered fire damage in Ashburnham House in Westminster on 23 October 1731. This 1215 exemplification formed part of an exquisite library assembled by English antiquarian Sir Robert Cotton during his lifetime (1571-1631). Cotton’s library forms the basis of our collections at the British Library today, and a recent conservation survey of the burnt material has allowed us to categorise items based on their relative condition, enabling us to immediately identify items suitable for digitisation. This has vastly improved our workflow allowing digital access to a wider audience in a shorter time. 

This piece includes material from an article published by Taylor & Francis Group in Journal of the Institute of Conservation on 29 November 2013, available online at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/19455224.2013.815122#.VFDzZvmsWtB.

You can see the Magna Carta is suffering from fire damage--the parchment is burnt, discoloured, and the text appears unreadable. You can see the seal hanging from the bottom of the parchment.

A close-up of the disfigured wax seal. The seal rests in a mount which is cut just bigger than its shape--this keeps it in place and secure.
The burnt 1215 Magna Carta suffered fire damage and subsequent interventive treatment. The vulnerable wax seal of the charter melted and distorted in the intense heat. 

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In the Ashburnham House fire a quarter of the manuscripts were either damaged or destroyed in the blaze, and attempts to extinguish it exacerbated that damage. The documents suffered shrinkage and distortion, bindings were carbonised, ink was lost, soot and dirt was ingrained, tide marks formed on the leaves, and parchment (animal skin) gelatinised. Gelatine is the brownish end-product of a rapid degradation of parchment collagen. Remedial work caused further damage with many of the manuscripts broken up and rebound during salvage. Incorrect reassembly impacted on the codicological history of many of the manuscripts. The darkened gelatinous material which formed along the edge of the parchment was trimmed away from some manuscripts. Unidentified fragments were gathered and put into drawers.

The collection was untouched until the establishment of the British Museum in 1753, where over the coming years invasive treatments were recorded. To separate the leaves which had glued together by gelatinisation, about 40 manuscripts were immersed in a hot aqueous solution (likely to be ethanol in water). Incisions along the parchment edges were made to allow the leaves to dry flat under pressure. Despite the efforts, leaves remained brittle and fragile. Inlaying of parchment fragments into paper was completed in 1856, but a huge number of fragments remained loose and unidentified. While the edges of loose fragments were protected by this inlaying method, over time the degradation of materials caused further concern. The brittle fragments were susceptible to break with every page turn, and acidic paper in heavy volumes tended to cockle preventing the volumes from closing.

The volume rests open, with the left side being supported by a foam wedge and the pages held open with a snake weight on the left side. The burnt parchment pages have been adhered to a tan paper, and all pages rebound.
Cotton Tiberius A. XII. Parchment fragments were attached to paper in the nineteenth century and incisions were cut along the sides to allow the leaves to lay flat.

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Our conservators surveyed 243 items from the Cotton Collection, including 21 paper manuscripts. Items were graded on their physical, chemical and overall conditions based on an assessment of the state of the binding and parchment substrate, and thus rated for treatment priority.

A bar graph showing different characteristics (active mould, old repairs, staining, etc.) and the percentage of items with that characteristic.
Results of the survey of 243 Cotton Collection volumes. From Figure 2 and 5 in The conservation of the burnt Cotton Collection in the Journal of the Institute of Conservation, 2013
A pie chart showing different grades of damage, from Uniform Good Condition (A) to High Degree of Damage (E).
Pattern of damage where D (High degree of damage) accounts for 61% of the total items examined. From Figure 2 and 5 in The conservation of the burnt Cotton Collection in the Journal of the Institute of Conservation, 2013.

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The nineteenth century treatments have been fundamental to the preservation of the Cotton Collection, and many items thought to be lost have since been rediscovered. The condition survey enabled us to quantify the damage and develop a strategy for the long-term preservation of the burnt Cotton Collection. Items identified as being fragile were immediately withdrawn from library use, while research to determine the best methods of stabilising and housing the items was undertaken. The use of analytical techniques such as near-infrared (NIR) spectroscopy for assessing the deterioration or parchment has enabled a better awareness of the nature and condition of these manuscripts. This information has helped to support the choice and realistic scope of conservation methods. In the case of the burnt Cotton Collection, the future project is now directed towards a preservation approach, including digitisiation and multispectral imaging, rather than an interventive conservation one.

Christina Duffy (@DuffyChristina), Imaging Scientist

 

Further reading

The conservation of the burnt Cotton Collection, Mariluz Beltran de Guevara and Paul Garside, Journal of the Institute of Conservation, 2013. Vol. 36, No. 2, 145 –161, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/19455224.2013.815122

Collection Care fired up for BBC Four appearance, Christina Duffy: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/collectioncare/2013/08/collection-care-fired-up-for-bbc-four-appearance.html

Crisp as a Poppadom, Ann Tomalak: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2013/02/crisp-as-a-poppadom.html

‘Their Present Miserable State of Cremation' the Restoration of the Cotton Library, Andrew Prescott: http://www.uky.edu/~kiernan/eBeo_archives/articles90s/ajp-pms.htm

07 October 2014

800 year old Magna Carta manuscript reveals its secrets

Ground-breaking multispectral imaging work of the British Library’s burnt copy of the 1215 Magna Carta has recovered text which has not been read in 250 years.

This work has been completed by British Library conservators and scientists in preparation for next year’s 800th anniversary of the sealing of the Magna Carta. The so-called ‘burnt’ copy of the Magna Carta is one of four original manuscripts from 1215 which survive. In February 2015, the four manuscripts will be brought together for the first time in history for a special 3-day event, which will allow further academic study of them side by side, as well as the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for 1,215 people to view them together.

Megavision multispectral imaging camera with Magna Carta.  A multispectral colour image of a section of Magna Carta showing loss of legibility.

A processed image of the charter revealing text thought to be lost forever.

Figure 1: Top left: The “Burnt Magna Carta” ready for multispectral imaging. Top right: A real colour image of a section of the charter. Bottom: A processed image of the charter enhanced to reveal text thought to be lost.

The British Library owns two of the original 1215 Magna Carta manuscripts (the other two are held at Lincoln and Salisbury Cathedrals). The story of the ‘Burnt Magna Carta’ (Cotton charter xiii 31a) held in our collections is a truly remarkable one of survival against all the odds. In 1731 it was damaged in the Cotton Library fire, and subsequently staff at the British Museum Library used 19th century techniques to try to flatten and mount it, which has contributed to its current condition today rendering the text very difficult to see.

The multispectral imaging of the burnt Magna Carta was conducted as part of a major project involving the reframing and scientific analysis of all the Magna Carta charters held in our collections ahead of the 2015 anniversary. The Collection Care team provided an initial examination of the original frames to determine their structure and composition. All original mounting materials in contact with the charters were tested using infrared spectroscopy, pH tests, and lignin tests to determine their stability and compatibility with new materials. Once the charters were removed from the frames, near-infrared spectroscopy and high resolution digital microscopy was used to investigate the condition of the ink and parchment as part of the overall condition assessment.

With the frames and glass removed there was a rare opportunity to employ the cutting-edge technique of multispectral imaging enabling us to virtually peel away the layers of damage currently affecting the manuscript.

Conservator Kumiko Matsuoka Conservation Scientist Dr Paul Garside

Conservator Gavin Moorhead Imaging Scientist Dr Christina Duffy
Figure 2: Clockwise from top: Temporary housing is prepared to store the charter when removed from the frame; the original wooden frames are removed to enable access to the charter; the charter is released from the mounting; once the charter is free from the frame it can undergo condition assessment.

The "Burnt Magna Carta" also known as Cotton charter xiii 31a.  A microscopy image showing detail of iron gall ink loss.

Figure 3: Left: The “burnt” copy of the Magna Carta, Cotton charter xiii 31a, is one of the four original manuscripts from 1215 which survive. Right: Much of the ink has been lost with only a few remaining initials (shown here at 50x magnification).

Multispectral imaging is a non-destructive, non-invasive imaging technique using different colour lights, including ultra-violet and infrared, to recover faded and lost text. A high-resolution camera is securely mounted directly over the charter, which is then illuminated with LED lights ranging from the ultraviolet at a wavelength of 365 nm, through the visible region, and right up to a wavelength of 1050 nm in the infrared region. The chemical composition of the material in the charter is varied (ink, parchment, etc.), and so reacts differently to the lights. We are able to see, and capture, additional information undetectable by the human eye.

Figure 4:  An animated gif comparing the original colour and processed images. 

Ultra-violet colour image created by combining three captured images (UV light with R, G, and B filters).

Figure 5: A colour UV image reveals regions of text which are completely faded to the naked eye.

Using this technology and expertise available to us in the 21st century, we are able to preserve the Magna Carta for the next 800 years and present these iconic documents in the best possible condition for visitors who come to see them during the anniversary year.

Multispectral data is still being processed and will be published along with other scientific data collected after the British Library’s exhibition ‘Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy’, which runs from 13 March – 1 September 2015.

 

Christina Duffy (@DuffyChristina), Imaging Scientist

19 August 2014

Eighteenth-century Country-house Guidebooks: Tools for Interpretation and Souvenirs

A print of Wilton House, showing a large home surrounded by grass and trees. The print is in colour.
J. Buckler, South East View of Wilton House, 1810. (Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection)

During the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, country houses in Britain emerged as significant tourist attractions. There was already a long tradition of expecting country houses to offer travellers hospitality, and by the middle of the eighteenth century, part of being a polite landowner was allowing tourists to visit your house and grounds. In theory, this standard applied to all houses, but only a handful, such as Wilton House (Wiltshire), were sites which routinely attracted hundreds of visitors. At houses like these, the huge increase in visitor numbers led to formal opening hours, standardized tours (typically given by housekeepers), inns which catered to tourists and the publication of guidebooks. The guidebooks published during this period are the best records of what an ideal visit to a house was intended to be like: they indicate what you were expected to appreciate and to ignore. Guidebooks were typically published only after a house had established itself as a popular site, and so in effect, they codified visiting practices that were already in place.

Plans from A Guide to Burghley: a series of rooms are outlined and numbered.
Illustration from Thomas Blore, A Guide to Burghley [abridged version], Stamford: John Drakard, 1815. (British Library, 10358.ccc.3)



Guidebooks’ content was typically organized to maximize convenience for visitors as they toured a property. This is a set of schematic plans which was bound near the beginning of one of the Burghley House (Lincolnshire) guidebooks, and these plans are numbered according to the order tourists typically viewed rooms in – beginning with the great hall, room 1, then the saloon, room 2, and so on – they are linked to a key, but the numbering is also linked to the subheadings in the text itself. Not all guidebooks were illustrated in this way, but a room-by-room organization was common, presumably because this made it easier to carry, read and view at the same time.

In this colour print, two boats meet on a lake which is surrounded by greenery. It appears to be nearing sunset with the cloud-filled sky shifting from blue in the top left toward pink in the top right.
John Emes, The Lake, Hawkstone Park, Shropshire, 1790. (Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection)



Guidebooks had tremendous potential as interpretive tools in that they could make a site more accessible and legible to its visitors. One of the main reasons people published guidebooks was to catalogue the art collections: this was not only a gracious gesture towards tourists, it was a clear signal that visitors were expected to carefully examine the individual works on display – many guidebooks, such as those describing Wilton, include entries about each painting and/or sculpture, directing readers to appreciate specific qualities. Outside the house, guidebooks were no less instructive: the guidebook to Hawkstone (Shropshire), for example, a house famous for its garden (and well-known for the comfort of its inn), provided information about the various views and spaces tourists would encounter as they toured the site and indicated what was to be admired at each stage.

As objects, guidebooks were designed to be functional, and book reviewers were very invested in how they were convenient for tourists. To that end, guidebooks are usually small, octavo volumes; and, while many of them are quite long, they are usually bound in paper covers, making them lightweight and inexpensive. Many, in fact, might reasonably be labelled pamphlets rather than books. Yet at the same time, guidebooks could function as mementos for tourists as well as practical aides.

This print shows Corsham House surrounded by trees.
Illustration of the frontispiece from John Britton, An Historical Account of Corsham House, London: Printed for the Author, 1806. (British Library, 796.e.19)



A guidebook’s appeal as a souvenir could be heightened by the addition of an illustrated frontispiece. The most common type of image was a view of the house itself, surrounded by the landscaped grounds, but it also depended on the particular attractions of the property. A number of the guides to Wilton, for example, illustrated one of the house’s sculptures on the frontispiece; that of Duncombe Park (North Yorkshire) displayed the ruins of Rievaulx Abbey, a site visible from the estate’s terraces.

Two people, a man and woman, are at the foreground of this print of Blenheim Palace. Just behind the figures is a lake with a small island filled with trees. At the background sits the palace.
Illustration from William Mavor, New Description of Blenheim, 8th edn, Oxford: J. Munday, 1810. (British Library, 10351.f.6)



The most elaborate guidebooks included series of illustrations. Some editions of the guide to Blenheim Palace (Oxfordshire), for example, incorporated a fold-out map of the gardens (often with hand-coloured details) and a set of views of the house, one each from the north, south, east and west.

Considered as a group, these guidebooks, many of which were available in London bookstores as well as near the houses themselves, might be said to be appealing to readers as texts which might be read for their own sake, after the visit to the house was over. In doing so, they were in effect claiming a greater relevance for their content, and for the cultural significance of information about country houses, their art collections and their gardens.

Jocelyn Anderson

Jocelyn Anderson holds a PhD from The Courtauld Institute of Art, where she wrote a dissertation entitled 'Remaking the Country House: Country-House Guidebooks in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries'. She recently completed a postdoctoral fellowship at The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art.

You can see more images from the country-house guidebooks discussed here on the British Library's Flickr page: https://www.flickr.com/photos/britishlibrary/

29 July 2014

Collection Care Top Ten

The Collection Care blog is a year old this week! It has been a wonderful 12 months for the blog, due largely to you, our loyal readers. Since fluid, food and flames are generally considered our nemeses, we'll hold off on the champagne and birthday cake. Instead, to celebrate, we have compiled a list of the top ten most popular posts. Boy, do we know how to party!

10. A-a-a-choo! Collection Care's Dust Busters: In this post we shared the work of our dust busting team who monitor dust in order to protect our collections. We took a look at what exactly dust is, and how to balance the benefits and risk of dust minimisation programs. Who you gonna call? Collection Care! 

The tops of two rows of various-coloured books are shown with ample dust visible on top of the textblocks.

 

9. Goldfinisher: He's the man, the man with the Midas Touch: Doug Mitchell is our book conservator and gold finisher extraordinaire. Doug demonstrated the blind tooling technique and showed us the variety of tools involved in the process.

A conservator picks up a piece of gold foil. Next to him is a book in a wooden press, with the spine facing upwards.

8. Sea Snails & Purple Parchment: Did you know that the colour purple found in many of our manuscripts comes from sea snails? The snails are essentially "milked" to extract a gland secretion in a very labour intensive process. 

A variety of small snails in shades of brown, tan, and white on top of a rock.

7. A Guide to BL book stamps: You've seen them on our collections and online, but what do they mean? Library stamps are generally divided into four types according to when they were in use, ranging from 1753 to the present day.

Two British Museum stamps: one in blue and one in red. The stamp features a circular crest in the middle with a crown on top. On the left side of the crest is a lion and on the right side is a unicorn. Below the crest and animals is a banner and above is text which reads BRITISH MUSEUM.

6. Digitisation as a preservation tool; some considerations: This post by Qatar Project conservator Flavio Marzo confronted the growing public expectation for online access. Marzo challenged the conservation community to use mass digitisation as an opportunity for the long term preservation of historical items and their features.

A screenshot of Microsoft Sharepoint. This shows various items arranged by shelfmark, and what stage in the conservation workflow each item is at.

5. The Bookie Monster: attack of the creepy crawlies!: Here we delved into the underworld of pesky pests who seek to eat their way through our collections. We identified some of the primary culprits and showed examples of damage to look out for.

A closeup of pest damage on paper. Small holes and tunnels are visible.

4. Cleaning and rehanging the Kitaj tapestry: What happens when creepy crawlies do successfully attack? This year we had to don our hard hats to remove the enormous R.B. Kitaj Tapestry If not, not from the St Pancras Entrance Hall for conservation cleaning. The tapestry was hoovered and frozen to remove all pests and surface dust before rehanging in the hall. It was a major operation and a complete success. We even made a time-lapse video!

Three people in hard hats stand on scaffolding and re-hang the large tapestry.

3. Fail to prepare for digitisation, prepare to fail at digitising!: Digitisation is much more than just taking a picture. With mass digitisation projects being announced every month, we shared what we've learned when it comes to preparation. We listed five main outcomes of pre-digitisation checks, which highlighted the potential risks in each case.

Four images showing books opened at various angles: the top two images are books open at gentle angles on black foam book wedges, the bottom left is a paperback book opened without any supports and the bottom right shows a hardback book being opened with no supports.

2. Books depicted in art: Being surrounded by books everyday is all part of the day job for us here in Collection Care. As you can imagine, seeing books in paintings can be quite thrilling. In this lavishly illustrated post we saw that some historical paintings contain a wealth of information about bindings that were not well-documented in the trade.

On the left is a painting of a man in black with white collars and cuffs in front of a book shelf. He is also holding a book in his hand. On the right is a closeup of some of the books on the bookshelf.

1. Under the Microscope with the Lindisfarne Gospels: Finally, in our most popular post, we shared microscopy images of the Lindisfarne Gospels collected by our team during a condition assessment. At up to 200 times magnification the medieval artistry and attention to detail blew us all away.

A magnified image of ink. Some brown dots sit high on the surface of the parchment. A brown ink shows the lettering with a teal ink resting inside letters (think filling in an o).

Many thanks to all our readers from the Collection Care team. As ever, we are truly grateful for your following and are always keen to hear from you. Do let us know if there are any topics you'd like to read about, and don't forget you can subscribe to the blog at the top of this page, and follow us on Twitter: @BL_CollCare


Christina Duffy (@DuffyChristina)

27 July 2014

Fleas, mould and plant cells: under a 17th century microscope with Robert Hooke

This week we celebrate the 379th birthday of Robert Hooke, a Fellow of the Royal Society and key figure of early modern natural history and natural philosophy, born on 28 July 1635. Many of Hooke's innovations paved the way for a more rigorous scientific analysis of materials, for which we in Collection Care are very grateful. To mark the occasion we are thrilled to host a guest post from Puck Fletcher who has just completed a doctorate on space, spatiality, and epistemology in Hooke, Boyle, Newton, and Milton at the University of Sussex:

Hooke’s most famous work is the Micrographia: or Some Physiological Descriptions of Minute Bodies Made by Magnifying Glasses with Observations and Inquiries thereupon, published in 1665 by the Royal Society. It is a descriptive work detailing sixty observations of specimens at magnification, starting with the point of a needle, ranging through silk, glass drops, hair, and various plants, seeds, and tiny insects, all viewed through a microscope. It closes with observations of the fixed stars and the moon as seen through a telescope. 

The top cross section is a circle. The  negative space is black, and there are two 'patches' of texture: cross section B on the left and A on the right. A is amorphous in shape, and somewhat giraffe-like in texture--it is made up of various dots which are not perfect circles. B shows a more rectangular texture and comes to somewhat of a point at the bottom. Below this is a branch.
Two cross sections of cork and a ‘sensible’ plant. In his description of cork, Hooke coined the term ‘cell’ for biological contexts. Image source.

CC zero 

The project was a collaborative one started by Christopher Wren who, in 1661, so impressed Charles II with his drawings of magnified fleas and lice (possibly the ones on which the corresponding Micrographia engravings were based), that the King requested more. Wren persuaded Hooke to undertake the bulk of this work and over the next few years, Hooke amassed his collection of observations, regularly bringing new drawings to the meetings of the Royal Society for approval by the other members.  

An illustration of a flea in profile. The fleas face is to the right.
Among the drawings and observations in Micrographia is this famous and extraordinarily detailed large-scale illustration of a flea. BL Shelfmark: 435.e.19, XXXIV. Image copyright The British Library Board. Read more.

CC by 

The impressive folio volume contains thirty-eight highly detailed engravings, which turned the book into an instant bestseller and secured its reputation as the most beautiful and lavish work of early European microscopy. The sense of magnified scale is staggering. A head or body louse, for example, is just a few millimetres long, but the engraved image is 52 cm long, roughly two hundred times actual size, a level of exaggeration that is emphasized by the fact that, large as the volume is, the reader must still unfold the oversized plate to view it.

Head or body louse from below.
Engraved image of a head or body louse, roughly two hundred times actual size.

CC zero  Image source.

For his readers, Hooke’s illustrations brought a whole new world into view. Hooke captures this excitement in his preface, describing how, by means of instruments like the microscope, ‘the Earth it self, which lyes so neer us, under our feet, shews quite a new thing to us, and in every little particle of its matter; we now behold almost as great a variety of Creatures, as we were able before to reckon up in the whole Universe it self.’ Pepys was famously so enamoured of the book that the day after he brought home his copy, he stayed up until two in the morning reading it, describing Micrographia in his diary as, ‘the most ingenious book that I ever read in my life’. 

When looking at the large-scale, clear engravings in Micrographia, it is easy to imagine that this was the view Hooke had in his lens and that his task was simply that of looking and then recording what he saw. However, the practice was much more difficult and required considerable skill and experience – when Pepys looked through his microscope, he was disappointed to find that at first he couldn’t see anything at all! The lens making technology of the time meant that impediments to clear vision such as chromatic aberration or artefacts in the glass were not uncommon, and the view through a microscope was often blurred, distorted, and dark. It was difficult to make out true colours or to tell whether a shadow was a depression or protuberance, and the field of vision was quite small.1

Part of Hooke’s contribution in Micrographia was his skill as an instrument maker and technician. Although, as he reports, he had difficulties in seeing through his microscope, Hooke made his own adaptations to the commercially manufactured instrument, in particular devising an improved light source, which he called his ‘scotoscope’.  

A drawing of the 'Scotoscope'. The eyepiece one would look down is similar to what we use today, if a bit more 'pretty' with floral engravings. To the left of that is a flame providing light.
The microscope, featuring an improved light source.

CC zero  Image source.

Hooke also worked diligently and looked very carefully, making multiple observations from multiple angles, of multiple specimens, created with various preparation techniques, to gather enough visual information to be able to produce a single image of what the whole object looked like, as near as he could make out. For Hooke, the act of looking through the microscope and recording what he saw was an interpretive one.

Hooke’s observations have been praised by modern scientists for their accuracy, and Howard Gest even credits him with the first accurate description and depiction of a microorganism, the microfungus Mucor, described by Hooke as ‘blue mould’.2 

In this illustration, blue mould looks flower like, with stems coming from the surface, some of which end in circular balls and others which end in petal-like shapes.
The microfungus Mucor (‘blue mould’).

CC zero  Image source.

In his preface to Micrographia, Hooke heralds ‘artificial Instruments’ such as the microscope and telescope, and the methods of the new science based on observation and the careful and rational scrutiny of results, as at least partial correctives for the failings of fallen man and his limited sensory faculties. He also looks forward to the technology of the future, which he believes will enable man to see even more clearly.

‘’Tis not unlikely, but that there may be yet invented several other helps for the eye, at much exceeding those already found, as those do the bare eye, such as by which we may perhaps be able to discover living Creatures in the Moon, or other Planets, the figures of the compounding Particles of matter, and the particular Schematisms and Textures of Bodies.

Puck Fletcher

1Brian Ford’s wonderful book, Images of Science: A History of Scientific Illustration (The British Library, 1992), pp. 182–83, contains a photograph of the partial and distorted view through the sort of lens used by Hooke.  

2Gest, Howard, ‘The Remarkable Vision of Robert Hooke (1635–1703): First Observer of the Microbial World, Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 48.2 (2005), 266–72 (p. 267).

15 June 2014

‘Enduring War: Grief, Grit and Humour’ - World War One Exhibition

Conservation work never ends; we had just finished working on the Comics Unmasked exhibition when the First World War material arrived in the studio. The next exhibition: Enduring War: Grief, Grit and Humour in the Folio Society Gallery is a very topical one. The year 2014 marks the First World War Centenary and the start of commemorative events worldwide. In Britain a number of interesting documentaries, discussions, drama, etc., aiming to explain the events leading to the outbreak of the war have already been aired on television, radio and other media. The First World War Centenary commemorations have not by-passed the British Library.

The exhibition: Enduring War: Grief, Grit and Humour opening on 19 June 2014, is part of the Library’s contributions to these events. The exhibition will showcase nearly 80 items from our collections looking at the human aspect of the war, and how ordinary people coped with the momentous events of the war. The space for the exhibition in the Folio Society Gallery is smaller than for our main exhibitions, but it will host some large and well known recruitment posters and leaflets, together with smaller, less known and more personal items including letters, postcards, photographs, poems, prayers, songs and even knitting instructions!

Out of the 30 items prepared for the exhibition by the conservation department the majority needed standard hinging and mounting, but some also had to be flattened and repaired.

The top right-hand area of the certificate is pictured in the photo. It features a printed map of the world with different territories coloured in different shades of pink, white and orange. To the right of the map, in the margin of the certificate, Commonwealth flags are pictured. The certificate is lying on a green cutting mat and the right-hand corner has been repaired on the back with a piece of white paper which extends beyond the corner’s edges. In the lower left of the photo a conservator’s hand holds a scalpel above the repair, about to trim it.
Trimming a corner repair

 

The same area of the map is lying on a piece of cream-coloured mountboard. The repair has been trimmed down so that is flush with the edges of the corner and is therefore now invisible from the front of the map. The conservator’s hand has gone, and three soldiers in khaki uniforms are revealed to be standing beneath the Commonwealth flags.
Finished repair

CC by Pictures 1 and 2: Trimming a corner repair and the finished repair showing the top right hand corner of ‘How the World Is at War’ certificate.

The ‘How the World Is at War’ certificate is one of many the Overseas Club produced for schoolchildren who raised money for soldiers and sailors serving in the war. The one above was issued to Elsie Donald in 1916.

Below are two examples of World War One recruiting posters: ‘These Women Are Doing Their Bit Learn to Make Munitions’ and ‘Lads You’re Wanted: Go And Help’. Both posters are displayed on the wall and needed to be mounted flush (hence flush mounted) onto 100% cotton Museum Board for support.

The poster lies face-down on top of a sheet of white bondina (non-stick fabric). It measures approximately 1.5 x 1 metres and the back of the poster is white. In the left of the picture a conservator’s hands are attaching a tab of white paper measuring approximately 2 x 15 cm to the edge of the poster, in the middle of one of the long sides. Two tabs are already attached to edges of the poster at each of the corners, and one is attached in the middle of the other long side.
Adhering hinges

 

The poster is now lying on its back on a piece of cream-coloured mountboard. The area of the poster in the photo shows the top half of a woman with one arm outstretched. In the lower left corner of the picture a conservator’s hands are applying adhesive to one of the tabs attached to the back of the poster.
Attaching hinges

CC by Pictures 3 and 4: Adhering Japanese paper hinges to the back of a poster and then attaching them to the back of the board.

The poster shows a female factory worker with one arm raised as she pulls on an overall. In the background are more women operating factory equipment and a soldier holding a rifle waves as he exits through a door. The poster is mostly yellow, white and purple - it is very bright and catches the attention.
War time poster

CC by Picture 5: The poster ‘These Women Are Doing Their Bit Learn to Make Munitions’ mounted and ready for the exhibition.

The poster ‘These Women Are Doing Their Bit Learn to Make Munitions’ designed by Septimus Edwin Scott and measuring 760 mm x 510 mm is one of the larger posters in the exhibition. The black, yellow and purple lithographic print was issued by the Ministry of Munitions in 1916-17 and was aimed at recruiting women for the war effort. The campaign must have been very effective - by the end of the war almost one million women were employed in the war industry supplying munitions and weapons to the Front.

The ‘Lads You’re Wanted: Go and Help’ poster below is smaller, but no less powerful in its message. It measures 760 x 150 mm and is quite long. It was folded in half in storage and therefore required flattening prior to mounting.

The poster lies face up on top of a piece of cream-coloured mountboard cut slightly larger than the dimensions of the poster. The area pictured shows the black silhouettes of two crouching soldiers holding rifles, against a yellow background. In the left of the picture a conservator’s hands are folding a tab of paper underneath the board to attach the poster to it.
Flush mounting

CC by Picture 6: Attaching a poster to a board (flush mounting).

The poster shows the black silhouettes of two crouching soldiers holding rifles as they advance up a grassy hill. The background is bright yellow. The poster text is in white against the black hill.
War time poster

CC by Picture 7: Finished poster ‘Lads You’re Wanted: Go and Help’.

The poster showing soldiers in silhouette will be displayed in the first section of the exhibition explaining how and why people joined the army. The black-and-yellow lithograph was published by the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee in 1915. The Committee’s sole purpose was to assist the War Office in orderly recruitment, and the poster campaign was one way of doing so. The posters were published in great numbers by different printing companies, often with slight variations in design, so all had to be passed as fit for use by the Committee. The poster above is from the British Library’s collection and was printed by David Allen and Sons in Harrow.

The exhibition is only one aspect of the ongoing commemorative events. In the run up to the centenary of the First World War the Library has been involved for three years in a major Europeana 1914-1918 Project digitising hundreds of documents including personal papers, trench journals, photographs, letters - as well as newspapers, maps, posters, etc., all relating to the 1914-18 war. Over 250,000 pages of collection items have been digitsed providing a wealth of the material ready to be explored, interpreted and narrated. A selection of the newly digitised material is available free to researchers, historians and students and is introduced through our new learning website, World War One.

The exhibition ‘Enduring War: Grief, Grit and Humour’ aims not only to showcase the original objects from our collection but will also provide a link to the work done on the Europeana project through an audiovisual art installation.

Iwona Jurkiewicz

09 June 2014

Know Your Yellow!

This rather ancient looking Qur’an is deceptively young. In fact, it is thought to date back to the early 18th to late 19th century. The style is typical of African manuscripts originating south of the Sahara, and was presented to Lt. Heygate of the British Army, in Nigeria in 1916.

A book in a rectangular dark brown leather wrapping lies on a grey background. The picture is sideways, so that the head edge of the book is on the right-hand side. The wrapping is decorated with concentric rectangles of dots and lines imprinted onto the leather. A triangular leather flap folds over the front of the book from the spine edge, which is at the top of the photo. A leather thong is threaded through the point of the triangle. The leather is faded and is splitting at the spine edge.
Front
The unbound textblock lies in the middle of the open wrapper, with a dark brown leather board on top of it. The leather of the underside of the wrapper is much paler leather of a light orange-pink colour. There is an old repair on the right-hand side of the wrapper, where a tear has been repaired with white thread.
Front Open

CC by Above: Manuscript in its wrapper. Below: Manuscript sandwiched between its boards with the wrapper open

It has a number of components; starting from the inside, there is an unbound textblock with thick tanned, haired goatskin boards on top and bottom. This in encased in a goatskin wrapper, which then fits into a goatskin satchel. This multi-faceted construction is similar to other 19th-century Qur’ans from West Africa, south of the Sahara.

A rectangular satchel with a triangular flap lies on a background of dark grey foam. The main body of the satchel is made from an orange-brown leather, and is decorated with square and diamond-shaped motifs of red-brown leather. The edge of the flap has a dark brown leather trim and the top edge of the satchel has a wide strip of the same, decorated with vertical and horizontal lines. The strap of the satchel is made from plaited strips of leather.
Satchel

CC by Satchel lying on inert grey foam, with acid-free tissue padding to retain shape

The manuscript lies open to its first page, on a grey background. The pages are a creamy-brown colour and have rounded corners, with creases and small tears to the page edges. A piece of paler paper with black handwriting on it lies on top of the first page. To the right of the textblock is the top board, with its underside facing upwards. This is still covered with animal hair, which has a black and white spotted pattern.
First page

CC by Left: Manuscript open at first page with the letter detailing its origin inserted

As exciting as it is to have this fascinating object in the studio, it is responsible for some real headaches as a result of one particular element of its composition. Before an object comes to the studio to be worked on, a conservator will often carry out an assessment of its condition and write a treatment proposal, estimating the time and materials likely to be used. In this case, when my colleagues carried out the assessment, a large proportion of the textblock was ‘blocking’. This simply means pages were sticking together, which meant that most of the book was unreadable.

Strangely, in the period of time between the book arriving in the studio and the point where I took it out of the safe to work on, around a third of the textblock had released itself. This is not something conservators are trained to expect; most things get worse over time, so to see something improve without our intervention was exciting!

The only conclusion we can come to is that the studio’s environment is slightly different to the one the manuscript came from. The difference in the moisture levels in the air is the most likely culprit. 

A page of the manuscript showing Arabic writing in red and black ink. The picture is sideways, so that the text flows from the bottom to top of the photo. There are yellow dots placed throughout the areas of text.
Pigment detail

CC by Detail of yellow pigment, orpiment

On closer inspection the ‘sticky element’ was discovered to be yellow dots painted intermittently within the text areas. These were tested by our Conservation Science team, and found to be orpiment (a poisonous, arsenic-based yellow pigment) mixed in a medium of gelatine. It is the gelatine that is fairly hydrophilic, which would have softened in a humid environment and stuck to anything in direct contact with it.

So the obvious solution to this is to change the humidity levels around the volume further, to release all of the sticky dots. If only it were simple! The brown ink you can see in the image is most likely iron gall ink, which has been used as a writing medium since ancient times. Its main characteristic is that once it’s a few years old it turns from purplish-black to brown. Another, less innocuous ageing property, is its potential to ‘burn’ through the paper it sits on. The extent of the damage can depend on the recipe the scribe followed to make the ink; some are more acidic than others. But it can also depend on the level of humidity the ink has encountered in its lifespan. The introduction of medium to high levels of moisture, even in vapour form, can solubilise ions contained in the ink, which can catalyse the oxidative degradation of the cellulose fibres of the paper. This leads to weakened paper and potentially a severely damaged collection item.

A page from the manuscript, featuring an illustration. The picture is sideways, so that the head edge of the book is on the right-hand side. The illustration lies across the centre of the page and consists of a rectangle divided into three panels. The two outermost panels are subdivided into smaller squares and triangles, coloured in white, yellow and red. The central panel has a pattern of red and yellow stripes interwoven with each other. There is also a small circular motif in black, yellow and red in the left margin. The text above the main illustration is in black and red ink.
Text

CC by Detail of one of the illustrations amongst the text

So keeping it dry is the best option for the ink, but pulling apart the pages without moisture could lead to skinning off the top layer of fibres, or even tearing paper.

We’re still deciding what to do about this sticky dilemma, but as ever with conservation decisions, we will have to balance our need to enable access by our readers to collection items with the wellbeing of individual items. Never a dull moment!

Jo Blackburn

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