THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Collection Care blog

11 posts categorized "South Asia"

07 December 2020

Lotus Sutra Project: Storage Solutions

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Paulina Kralka and Marya Muzart

The Lotus Sutra Manuscripts Digitisation Project at The British Library, is a multi-year project aiming to conserve and digitise almost 800 copies of the Lotus Sutra scrolls in Chinese, with a view to make images and information freely accessible on the International Dunhuang Project (IDP) website. These manuscripts come from a small cave in a Buddhist Cave complex near Dunhuang, in Northwest China, where tens of thousands of documents, paintings and artefacts dating from the late 4th to the beginning of the 11th centuries were discovered in 1900. Out of the 800 manuscripts included in this project, a large portion of them need conservation work.

Depending on the scrolls’ condition, treatment can range from surface cleaning and minor repairs, to lengthy mould remediation and intricate infills to ensure that they are safe for digitisation. With manuscripts in varying states of preservation and size, ranging from 10 centimetres to almost 14 meters in length, they have very different housing needs. Addressing these various housing requirements is part of our conservation work. We take into account our existing storage facilities, and come up with solutions that are best suited for long-term preservation of the collection but are also feasible within the time and budget of a digitisation project. This poses an interesting challenge to us as conservators.

The storage facility for scrolls at the British Library consists of white open shelving or glass enclosed wooden cabinets holding individually boxed scrolls.

Picture 1: Our storage.

Here a conservator is placing a scroll into a pigeon hole. Some of the cabinets have individual pigeon holes for each scroll with the shelfmark noted.

Picture 2: Close-up of the pigeon holes where the scrolls are stored.

The majority of scrolls that arrive in our conservation studio have never been treated before. They are usually tightly rolled on their own or around a thin wooden roller attached to the last panel. This causes tensions and leaves the scroll unsupported where it then becomes prone to distortions, creasing and further mechanical damage when handled. Research and practice show that the larger the rolling diameter, the less likely the scroll is to develop creases and cracks. In order to address this, we always place the scrolls on increased diameter cores after treatment has been completed. These cores are made from acid free cardboard tubes with a 5.5cm diameter, that we cover with a layer of xuan paper 宣纸 using wheat starch paste as an adhesive. The cores help reduce the tensions caused by a scroll being rolled too tightly and also provide it with proper support during handling and storage, minimising the risk of further damage. In addition, each scroll is wrapped in a protective layer of xuan paper, which prevents dust accumulation and surface abrasion.

Here a conservator is unravelling a scroll on a red desk with the aid of a scroll core.

Picture 3: A scroll being handled with the help of a core.

When rolled onto the 5.5cm cores, some of the longer scrolls in the project (typically those over 10 metres long) no longer fit into the pigeon holes of our existing storage. In order to enable the scrolls to still be stored in the existing storage facilities on an increased diameter core, whilst having enough space for safe handling, we have successfully developed a technique of hand-making cores with a smaller diameter of 3.5cm, composed of archival grade kraft paper and wheat starch paste.

A comparison of two scroll cores: the core on the left is wider at 5.5cm while the core on the right is 3.5cm.

Picture 4: Left, the 5.5cm core and right, the 3.5cm core which we hand-make for very long scrolls.

And what about the shortest surviving fragments? They are usually severely damaged. To prevent possible dissociation and further weakening of the paper, we encapsulate them in Melinex pockets. Melinex is an archival grade, glass-clear, thin polyester sheet, which not only helps us protect such delicate fragments but also allows them to be stored flat within custom made folders. Scroll fragments in Melinex are safe and easy to handle as both sides can be easily accessed, whether by our imaging staff during digitisation, or researchers wishing to examine the manuscripts in the reading rooms.

A conservator is encapsulating a scroll fragment between two Melinex sleeves so the scroll lays flat.

Picture 5:  Encapsulation of a scroll fragment in Melinex.

We are lucky that a large number of scrolls in our collection survive with their original wooden rollers still in place. In order to house the rod safely, whilst simultaneously providing appropriate support for the scroll, we have modified our standard core to create a custom-made clamp which fits the original roller inside and increases the rolling diameter. The cardboard core is cut in half; an intricate system of Japanese paper tabs is then pasted down to allow it to open and close smoothly; and, finally, a small groove is cut out to facilitate accommodating the scroll and rolling it onto the core. This clasp core design is adapted from the traditional Japanese wooden roller clamp, known as futomaki 太巻 or futomaki jiku 太卷轴, used for hanging scrolls, but is much more lightweight and economical!

The clasp core design, which safely houses scrolls with the original rod still attached. The clasp core design, which safely houses scrolls with the original rod still attached.

The clasp core design, which safely houses scrolls with the original rod still attached. Pictures 6, 7 & 8: The clasp core design, which safely houses scrolls with the original rods still attached.

In some instances, the original wooden rod is detached from the scroll, which creates another storage challenge. To avoid any dissociation, we always aim to store the rod together with the scroll. In order to achieve this, we have created small foam inserts that fit the roller in them and placed them inside standard cores. We found that polyethylene pipe insulation tubes are well-fitted for the purpose! Thanks to the Oddy tests carried by our conservation scientist Paul Garside, we know they can be safely used with our collection. The tube is cut in half and hinged on one side with Filmoplast SH cotton tape to allow for smooth opening and closing. The rod, wrapped in a protective layer of xuan paper, is placed inside and secured in place with pieces of cotton tying tape, threaded through small slits cut in the tube. The insert fits inside the core quite snugly, so we place a small tab on the bottom of the tube to facilitate access.

The foam tube which houses the detached original rod with the scroll. This tube is split open showing how the tape is threaded through small slits in the tube.

The foam tube which houses the detached original rod with the scroll. This foam tube is split open to reveal the inside.

The foam tube which houses the detached original rod with the scroll. 

Pictures 9, 10, 11 & 12: The foam tube which houses the detached original rod with the scroll. 

These storage solutions show how our work doesn’t end in the conservation studio. To ensure that the collection is well-preserved for future generations, we have to think beyond just the treatment of the object. This project has enabled us to challenge ourselves in thinking outside the box and approach the various storage issues with innovative solutions. 

25 November 2020

Lotus Sutra Project: Scroll with Blue Cover

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Marya Muzart, Digitisation Conservator, International Dunhuang Project

Digitised scroll after treatment showing a blue cover on the scroll.

Picture 1: Close up of digitised scroll after treatment.

The Lotus Sutra Manuscripts Digitisation Project at The British Library, is a multi-year project aiming to conserve and digitise almost 800 copies of the Lotus Sutra scrolls in Chinese, with a view to make images and information freely accessible on the International Dunhuang Project (IDP) website. These manuscripts come from a small cave in a Buddhist Cave complex near Dunhuang, in Northwest China, where tens of thousands of documents, paintings and artefacts dating from the late 4th to the beginning of the 11th centuries were discovered in 1900. Out of the 800 manuscripts included in this project, a large portion of them need conservation work. This blog post covers the treatment of Or.8210/S.3796 which measures over 10 metres long.  

What is particularly striking about this item is the blue cover or protective flap at the beginning. Whilst it bears a few stains from water damage, the colour is incredibly vivid considering the age of the item. It is unusual in this project to see scrolls which are 100% complete, from the front cover to the very last panel, so having the front cover present, in addition to its striking colour, makes this item quite special. In addition, part of the thin wooden stave on the cover is still present, a silk tie would once have been attached to this, however it is now gone. 

The use of blue paper (typically dyed using indigo) for sutras grew in popularity in China from the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) onwards, it flourished in Korea and Japan around the same time and can also be found in other cultural traditions beyond East Asia. By the end of the Dunhuang period, and in later Chinese tradition it became common to use silver or gold ink on dark blue paper for the finest manuscripts [1]. See this fragment of scroll Or.8210/S.5720, which is part of our wider collection, as an example. 

Re-use and recycling of paper was a common practice carried out by the monks in Dunhuang [2]. It is possible that the cover of Or.8210/S.3796 was sourced from some left-over paper which had previously been used for one of the finer sutras written on blue paper. 

Recto before treatment showing a torn scroll with Lotus Sutra characters

Picture 2: Recto before treatment.

Verso before treatment showing a damaged and torn scroll laid out on a red table.

Picture 3: Verso Before Treatment.

The losses which you can see in the before images were a result of historical rodent damage, when the scroll was examined closely small teeth marks could be seen. As the damage occurred when the scroll was rolled, there is a repetitive nature to the losses which get smaller as we move away from the beginning of the scroll. Due to the presence of these numerous large losses conservation treatment had to be carried out in order to stabilise the scroll for digitisation.  

The first step to treatment was creating a blue repair paper to match the cover. At the IDP conservation studio our usual repair papers are hand dyed in relatively large batches using fabric dye, this is so that we always have lots of different tones and colours at hand. However as blue isn’t a typical colour we come across in this project, some experimentation had to be carried out in order to get the correct blue shade for the repair paper.  Dyeing was tried at first using the usual fabric dye, however the right blue hue still wasn’t accomplished after a few attempts, so I decided to tone the paper using a diluted acrylic paint instead, which was more successful and efficient. 

Some repair samples from experimentation laid out on a table.

Picture 4: Some repair paper samples from experimentation.

Finding the correct colour when custom toning repair paper is typically a matter of trial and error. Once I had found the correct combination of colours, I used a Japanese paper which had previously been dyed a yellow tone and this created the perfect base for applying the diluted blue acrylic wash. As the verso of the cover is lighter, once dry, the blue repair paper was then lined onto a lighter, yellow toned paper using diluted wheat starch paste. My custom toned repair paper was then used to infill the losses present on the cover of the scroll. For the remaining losses throughout the scroll, a yellow toned paper was used, this was a much easier source out of our existing repair paper collection!  

As you can see from the after images, the scroll can now safely be handled and digitised by trained internal staff. It is a unique item in the project, which was a pleasure to work on. All in all, a successful treatment! 

The digitised scroll is available to be viewed via this link thanks to Jon Nicholls.

Close up after treatment showing previously missing areas filled in.
Picture 5: Closeup after treatment.

Scroll after treatment with no tears or missing areas, laid out on a red table.

Picture 6: Scroll after treatment.

[1]https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/chinese-buddhist-sutra-on-indigo-dyed-paper 

[2]   Rong, X. (2013) . Eighteen Lectures On Dunhuang. Trans. by Galambos, I. Boston: Brill, p.123 

08 May 2020

Conservation of 19th century ivory miniature portraits of the two young sons of Wajid Ali Shah

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Patricia Tena, Conservator

In the late 18th century, British and European artists such as John Smart and Ozias Humphrey introduced the concept of painting portrait miniatures on ivory to local artists in northern India. By the mid-19th century, Indian artists also used relatively small ivory discs or sheets to paint topographical views and genre scenes as well. In 2018, the Visual Arts section added to its existing collection of works on ivory, two portrait miniatures reputed to be the infant sons of Wajid Ali Shah (1822-87), the last King of Awadh and date based on stylistic grounds to c. 1840-42.

Portraits of the two young sons of Wajid Ali Shah, the King of Awadh by an unknown Lucknow artist, c. 1840-42. British Library, Add Or 5710-5711

Portraits of the two young sons of Wajid Ali Shah, the King of Awadh by an unknown Lucknow artist, c. 1840-42. British Library, Add Or 5710-5711.

One of the two portraits show a young child of about 12 months old based on the fact he is pictured being supported by a bolster on the ground and cannot sit up properly. The second portrait displays a slightly older child of no more than 2 years old pictured seated in a European style chair. J.P. Losty (formerly the Head of Visual Arts) suggests that these two sitters were most likely to be the second and third sons of Wajid Ali Shah, as the first-born was deaf and mute and hence passed over. The second son being Falak Qadar ‘a fine-looking boy’ who would die prematurely of smallpox at the age of 11[1] and the third son being Hamid Ali (1838-74) would become the prince-apparent. Hamid Ali would later visit Britain in 1857, photographed by Leonida Caldesi at an exhibition In Manchester in July 1857[2].

On acquiring these ivories, the Visual Arts section arranged to have these portraits assessed and obtain proposals for the long-term preservation and storage. The miniatures came to conservation in late 2019 as part of the annual conservation programme.

The objects were both very vulnerable in the present storage box as the ivory substrates were effectively loose in the box and did not come with any ‘accessories’ such as backboards, glass or frame.  Both the watercolour media and the ivory substrate were in a stable condition. However, over time, there was considerable media loss mainly on the edges, probably caused by a change in frame/enclosure and being in close contact with a frame or glass that rubbed against the paint layer. Unsuitable materials such as adhesives and poor quality paper or card used for the framing will have contributed to the discolouration, accretions and staining on the edges.

Close up of one of the miniatures showing loss of media, accretions and discolouration on edges.

Close up of one of the miniatures showing loss of media, accretions and discolouration on edges.

As part of the treatment proposal, the pair of portraits did not require conservation treatment apart from cleaning prior to their rehousing. New enclosures were built in order to accommodate a very hygroscopic material such as ivory. One of the most common damage to ivory miniatures are cracks caused by a combination of restriction of movement to the ivory support and changes is the relative humidity. Ivory needs room to move within its enclosure; if it warps and the frame or support prevents it from doing so, it will inevitably crack.

One of the miniatures prior to being sealed in enclosure.

One of the miniatures prior to being sealed in enclosure.

The miniatures were hinged on top and bottom edges, then the hinges were threaded through a museum quality cream backboard and a Plastazote base. The hinges were secured onto the back of the Plastazote. The rest of the enclosures were built around the base, allowing space around the edges and between the miniature and the Vibac glazing. Mount backboards with Japanese paper flaps were provided to each miniature, these flaps were used to seal the Plastazote enclosures. The Vibac had to be slotted in place with a flush surround made out of mount-board. This allowed for a window mount to be adhered on the top to finish off the miniatures.

A buckram covered tray was made to measure taking care not to exceed the depth of the prints and drawings reading room drawers.  A Plastozote cut out was fitted in the tray to offer extra protection and prevent movement while being accessed by readers. The board with original inscriptions was mounted and rehoused in a Melinex enclosure, all made to fit the tray and to act as a protective ‘lid’ to the miniatures.

Finished miniatures and their tray.

Finished miniatures and their tray.

With the pair of ivories in their new housing, it is now possible to make the works available for consultation to registered readers by appointment.

For more on the historical background of these pieces head over to the Asian and African studies blog!

[1] R. Llewelyn-Jones 2014, p. 77

[2] Ibid, illustration no. 3.

23 April 2020

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

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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. 

03 April 2020

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

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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

08 October 2019

Conservation and Storage of the Panorama of Lahore

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Panoramic Depiction of the Fort and Old City Walls of Lahore’ is a rare scroll painting of the city walls by an unknown artist and dated broadly between the late 18th and early 19th century. The panorama of the city of Lahore arrived into the conservation studio tightly packed into a small custom made box measuring 71 mm x 193 mm x 71 mm.

Scroll housed in the original box

Picture 1. The scroll in its original box.

The box and the item looked unexciting until taken out of the box and opened up. But even then the tight storage made it difficult to appreciate fully the exquisite detail of the painting without damaging the scroll and risking the loss of pigments. The panorama could only be seen in small sections. The scroll did not lie flat, had a cracked surface and a tendency to curl with pigmented areas detaching, particularly in areas where panels of the scroll were joined or cracked.

Damaged area before conservation Scroll panel with joint damage
Pictures 2 and 3: showing a damaged area of the scroll along panel joints before and after conservation.

Once the conservation was carried out to consolidate the pigments and the paper support, and to relax and flatten the tightly rolled scroll, it became obvious that the old box was no longer fit for purpose. In consultation with the lead curator, Nur Sobers-Khan, it was agreed that a Perspex mount (holder) with moving rollers needed to be designed, to enable viewing of larger sections of the scroll without handling the object.

The scroll is often requested by readers, researchers, scholars and historians, interested in studying the painting for its historical, artistic and cultural aspects. The whole panorama of the city measures 2.5 metres, therefore, a larger opening of 55 cm in length of the scroll was considered adequate for viewing and studying it at one time. The construction of the Perspex mount with moving parts and the diameter of the rollers were agreed with the maker, Jonathan Hoskins, who has constructed a similar mount previously for a scroll shown below. He also regularly designs and makes mounts for 3D object for our exhibitions..

The scroll showing Bhagavata Purana

Picture 4, showing ‘Bhagavata Purana’ - Hindu religious text, Sanskrit on silk paper (18th century).

The scroll above, although a lot longer than the panorama, is narrow and attached to thinner rollers while the Panorama of Lahore can be taken off the rollers and displayed in its full length, if needed. Due to the previous damage to the painting which restricted its viewing, the rollers were designed to be larger in diameter. This ensured that the panorama is no longer rolled as tightly as before and that the panel joints lie flat when viewed.

Conservation staff testing the mount

Picture 5, showing a colleague viewing the scroll and testing the mount.

The painting of the walled city of Lahore was much appreciated while in the studio by the public visiting the conservation studio. When viewed from a distance, its beautiful turquoise surroundings often mistaken for the sea until an entourage of people and elephants was spotted when further unrolling the scroll!

The scroll in the new roller open on an image of an entourage of people and elephants

Picture 6: Entourage of people and elephants.

The painting of the city of Lahore can be viewed and appreciated for its artistic value, but it also is a capsule in time showing the city with its walls intact during the Sikh rule. The walls were later pulled down and the course of the river Ravi altered. The river no longer sweeps by the city walls, as shown in the painting.

Part of the scroll showing the River Ravi flowing by the city walls

Picture 7, showing the river Ravi flowing by the city walls.

Annotations marking the location of Maharaja Ranjit Singhs cremation

Picture 8: Annotations marking the location of the Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s cremation spot.

The present conservation of the Lahore scroll and the new mount for the scroll would enable easier and safer access to the scroll in the future, which in turn would add to the research and knowledge of South Asian history and culture, and perhaps …. solve the dating conundrum!

Iwona Jurkiewicz-Gotch

I would like to thank everybody involved in this project, in particular – curators - Nur Sobers-Khan, Manzo Pasquale and Saqib Baburi for information about the items discussed in this blog as well as Jonathan Hoskins for making the mount and Rick Brown for helping me construct the box and gold-tooling it.

09 April 2019

Consider the cover: conserving a Chinese book

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The British Library's next major exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark, opens 26 April and runs until 27 August 2019. In preparation for the exhibition, conservator Rebecca D'Ambrosio has been working on the conservation of one of the items which will be on display.

The story of a book through its binding

What does the cover and structure tell us about the story, provenance, use and journey of a book? Do they add value to the information it contains? The history of book binding has gone hand in hand with the history of writing. So, what happens if a covering is changed? Has anything been lost or gained? These are some of the questions we ask ourselves as conservators as we try to understand a book and consider how best to repair it.

The front cover of a book, bound in black leather with a design of a gold crown in the centre. The book opened to a page displaying Chinese characters in columns.

The lost original binding: A Chinese and Western book

The book, titled Zi bu ji jie (Explanation of the Radicals of Chinese characters), introduces the concept of how Chinese writing works. It was made in a Chinese style binding in Macao, China in 1840, commissioned by an American man, Issachar Jacox Roberts as a gift for Walter Medhurst who was translating the bible into Chinese at the time.

An inscription page which reads, 'L.J. Roberts Presents this page with his kind regards to Mr. Walter Medhurst. Macau, China, Oct 13th, 1840. The book opened to the first page. The back of the front cover has Chinese characters, and the titled page has an inscription stating, 'Roberts (Issachar Jacox)'

The broken second binding: The British Library style

Many years ago the book was dis-bound from its Chinese-style binding and re-bound into a Western-style binding. The disadvantages of this binding are that it does not respect its original opening direction from right to left, it deforms the structure of the book and new sewing holes were made in the process.

In addition to all this, the western-style binding has become worn around all edges and the back board of the cover is detached.

The back cover of the book, showing the cover has detached from the spine and is now loose.

The new conservation binding: Sympathetic to its origins

Rather than repairing the back board, it was decided with the Curator that this was an opportunity to return the book to a style of binding similar to its original.

Firstly, the spine was removed and the adhesive below was softened with the application of wheat starch paste. The Chinese book was now free of the Western binding but the remaining adhesive residue prevented the separation of the pages.

The book's spine with wheat starch paste applied. The milky adhesive covers the spine in a thick layer to soften the old adhesive. The spine with the wheat starch paste and old adhesive removed.
The original Chinese-style binding, showing a damaged spine.
The tears and losses in the cover were repaired and the spine strengthened with a toned Japanese tissue paper and wheat starch.

The repaired Chinese-style cover with a strip of Japanese tissue adhered down the spine. A close up of the new Chinese-style cover in an off-white cover.

Finally, because of the fragility of the book, new covers of a neutral-coloured Japanese paper were added, folded in the same way as the rest of the textblock pages. The whole was sewn together with linen thread re-using its original sewing holes and following the traditional Chinese binding pattern.

Adding to the story of a book

As conservators, knowledge of the history of the book format inspires every conservation treatment we carry out. We must take into consideration how our decisions will impact aesthetics, use and durability, historical aspect, value and significance. Every treatment will have a certain degree of impact on a book and adds to its story.

It was exciting to return this Chinese book to its original style, and learn more about its story as I added to it. Soon you will be able to see this book for yourself on display in the exhibition ‘Writing: Making your Mark’.

Rebecca D'Ambrosio

16 January 2019

Course on Asian Papers and their Applications in Paper Conservation

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Instructor: Minah Song, independent paper conservator (www.minahsong.com)
Date: 18th, 19th and 20th June (Tue - Thu), 2019- 3 days
Place: The British Library, 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB
Enrollment limit: 12
Registration fee: 480 GBP (materials included)

A group of conservators listens as Minah Song teaches.

This three-day intensive workshop is designed to provide both emerging and established conservation professionals with the theoretical and practical foundation for understanding Asian papers and their applications in paper conservation. The workshop consists primarily of hands-on activities with a lecture, group discussions and examinations of various Asian papers.

Participants will familiarize themselves with history and characteristics of Chinese, Korean and Japanese paper-making, including an overview of contemporary Asian paper production. Each participant will be presented with a set of different paper samples and will study the papers first hand and examine the fibers, sheet formation, alkali content and the results of different manufacturing processes and drying methods. Different Asian paper fibers will be compared with the help of microscopic images.

In a practical session, participants will make small-sized paper samples using simple tools with paper mulberry fibers and formation aid. They will also use cotton fibers as a comparison. Participants will make modern equivalent of drying board (karibari) using a honeycomb board and mulberry paper.

Participants will study and share details of various methods of repair and lining techniques using different Asian papers, depending on their opaqueness, texture, and strength, appropriate for specific objects. For example, participants will try double-sided lining with thin mulberry tissue, drying a lined object on a drying board, and making pre-coated tissue with different adhesives. Useful tips in toning techniques with acrylic paints for mulberry paper will be discussed.

Paper conservation tools and equipment including a drying board and rulers.

For further details and online registration see:
www.minahsong.com/workshop

Contact the instructor: minahsongstudio@gmail.com

02 July 2018

Unravelling an archaeological silk bundle

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MPhil student Clara Low is studying Textile Conservation at the University of Glasgow. As part of her course she is completing a placement for six weeks between her first and second year, here at the British Library.

The following images were taken by Clara whilst she worked on the unfolding of a silk bundle. The Tangut silk fragment was excavated in Kharakhoto (western Gobi desert) in 1914 by Aurel Stein. Clara used controlled humidification to enable this process. She worked with Vania Assis, paper conservator for the International Dunhuang Project and Liz Rose, textile conservator. See the amazing results below.

Silk bundle resting on paper. The silk is a mottled brown in colour, and while the item is bundled, small printed designs in dark ink can be seen, and in the middle left of the bundle a glimpse of some stars in dark ink.
Or 12380/3665 before conservation. 

 

The Silk bundle partially unravelled. The brownish colour has taken a lighter hue, and also reveals some small holes and tattered edges.
Or 12380/3665 during conservation – revealing a printed design.

 

Clara is working on the silk bundle, contained in a white tray on a bench. She is using tweezers to gently unravel the bundle.
Or 12380/3665 - Clara working on the fragment.

 

The reverse side of the Silk bundle, now completely unravelled and lying flat, after conservation work. The bundle is longer at the bottom, with most of the left hand side of the fragment missing. There can now be seen some characters superimposed on a series of stars on the bottom left hand side. There are also various holes in the silk.
Or 12380/3665 after conservation – reverse showing characters, (bottom left), seams and stitching.

 

The obverse of the Silk bundle after conservation. The repeated printed pattern can be seen more clearly on this side.
Or 12380/3665 after conservation – obverse showing characters and printed stars (bottom right).

 

a close-up of the Silk fragment, showing the five-pointed stars while a fragment of text in Chinese Characters  written in black ink, is superimposed on top.
Or 12380/3665 after conservation – detail of characters.

 

Can anyone tell us what it says?

 

Update: many thanks to Andrew West for a speedy solution:

A screenshot of the Twitter account of Andrew West, who has provided information on the pictured Silk fragment, identifying the as being from the Song Dynasty around 1214 A.D.

Another Twitter Screenshot from Andrew West's account, with another picture of the Silk fragment identifying the birds depicted amongst the stars, and stating this matches the description of another piece.

22 January 2018

Workshop on Asian Papers and their Applications in Paper Conservation

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Eleven conservators being taught by Minah Song, are gathered round a large square table, making circular Karibari or Japanese drying boards.

Instructor: Minah Song, independent paper conservator
Date: July 3rd - 5th (Tue - Thu) - 3 days
Place: The British Library, 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB
Enrolment limit: 12
Registration fee: 470 GBP (materials included)

This three-day intensive workshop is designed to provide both emerging and established conservation professionals with the theoretical and practical foundation for understanding Asian papers and their applications in paper conservation. The workshop consists primarily of hands-on activities with a lecture, group discussions and examinations of various Asian papers.

Participants will familiarize themselves with history and characteristics of Chinese, Korean and Japanese paper-making, including an overview of contemporary Asian paper production. Each participant will be presented with a set of different paper samples and will study the papers first hand and examine the fibers, sheet formation, alkali content and the results of different manufacturing processes and drying methods. Different Asian paper fibres will be compared with the help of microscopic images.

In a practical session, participants will make small-sized paper samples using simple tools with paper mulberry fibres and formation aid. They will also use cotton fibers as a comparison. Participants will make modern equivalent of drying board (karibari) using a honeycomb board and mulberry paper.

Participants will study friction drying - flattening Western paper objects with mulberry paper support; a process particularly complicated when applied to uneven thickness, short-fibred or moisture-sensitive paper (e.g. tracing paper).

Participants will study and share details of various methods of repair and lining techniques using different Asian papers, depending on their opaqueness, texture, and strength, appropriate for specific objects. For example, participants will try double-sided lining with thin mulberry tissue, drying a lined object on a drying board, and making re-moistenable tissue with different adhesives. Useful tips in toning techniques with acrylic paints for mulberry paper will be discussed.

For further details and online registration see:
www.minahsong.com/workshop
Contact the instructor: minahsongstudio@gmail.com