Collection Care blog

Behind the scenes with our conservators and scientists


Discover how we care for the British Library’s Collections by following our expert team of conservators and scientists. We take you behind the scenes into the Centre for Conservation and the Scientific Research Lab to share some of the projects we are working on. Read more

27 July 2014

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

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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. 

Two cross sections of cork

CC zero Two cross sections of cork and a ‘sensible’ plant. In his description of cork, Hooke coined the term ‘cell’ for biological contexts. Image source.

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.  

Illustration of a flea

CC by 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.

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

CC zero Engraved image of a head or body louse, roughly two hundred times actual size. 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’.  

The 'Scotoscope'

CC zero The microscope, featuring an improved light source. 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 

‘Blue mould’

CC zero The microfungus Mucor (‘blue mould’). 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).

19 July 2014

Secret underdrawings & cover-ups in the Mewar Ramayana

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The Ramayana – “Rama’s journey” – is one of India’s oldest stories having first being written some two and a half thousand years ago. It follows the hero Rama from his birth and childhood in Ayodhya to his exile in the forest where his wife Sita is kidnapped by the wicked (and ten-headed!) demon king Ravana. With his valorous brother Lakshmana and helped by an army of monkeys and bears he leads the search for Sita, finally rescuing her from Ravana’s stronghold in Lanka. It is an epic story embodying the Hindu idea of dharma (duty). There are several thousand known surviving manuscripts and many different versions of the story across Asia. The Mewar Ramayana is one of the finest copies of the work, lavishly illustrated with over 450 paintings in large format. Recent digitisation by the British Library in partnership with leading Indian institutions has reunited the long-separated text and it can be viewed online featuring an introduction including links to contextual documents and high resolution images in ‘Turning the Pages’ with descriptive text and audio.

Multispectral imaging

We recently examined two paintings from the Mewar Ramayana using multispectral imaging to investigate the methods and workflow of the artist. Images are captured over fourteen spectral bands from the ultraviolet (UV: 365 nm) to the infrared (IR: 1050 nm) revealing information about underdrawings and techniques that can’t be seen under normal light. The two full page paintings are illustrations from Book 6 (Yuddhakanda, Book of war) of the Mewar Ramayana manuscript.

Book 6 fol. 27r (Add. MS 15297(1), f.27r)

Book 6 fol. 27r depicting the siege of Lanka in colour, ultraviolet, infrared, and blue light with an orange filter. Rama’s army of monkeys takes control of the four gates of the city as the ten-headed Ravana leads the defence after consulting his ministers.

Book 6 fol. 27r: Rama’s army of monkeys and bears hurl stones at their enemies. White pigment, possibly added as a later touch up, is observed under ultraviolet light on the elbows, arms and tails of the attacking monkeys.

Book 6 fol. 27r: Colour, ultraviolet, infrared sequence. In front of the gates to Lanka, a man struggles with a monkey. Under ultraviolet light the rough application of paint is evident on the man's hand where no attempt is made to stay within the lines. In the infrared image, the guidelines used to initially draw the figure (chest, back, elbow) are observed.

Book 6 fol. 27r: An archer fends off the monkey army. Incorporating high levels of detail in these paintings often led to a change in design layout. In the painting the archer is shown to be sitting cross-legged on the cart, but in the infrared image he is standing. The late addition of the cart is evident by the over painting of the wheel in order to indicate its attachment to the main frame of the cart. Other alterations were made such as the size of the soldier's orange foot in the top left, and the painting over of an isolated monkey tail on the horse's body in the bottom left.

Book 6 fol. 142r (Add. MS 15297(1), f.142r)

As the battle escalates Rama’s brother Lakshmana is seriously wounded by a spear. Hanuman the monkeys’ army general is sent to the Himalayas to pick up medicinal herbs.

Book 6 fol. 142r: Colour, ultraviolet, infrared, and blue light with an orange filter sequence of the painting.

Book 6 fol. 142r: Colour, ultraviolet, infrared sequence. Rama’s loyal brother Lakshmana is seriously wounded by a spear. In the ultraviolet image we can see touch-ups on the hands, arms and legs of the two monkeys trying to take the spear off Lakshmana. Under infrared light we can see underdrawings of the far left monkey who was originally positioned higher up.

Book 6 fol. 142r: Colour, ultraviolet, infrared sequence. In the ultraviolet image alterations to Rama’s clothing and the direction of arrows is observed. Under infrared light, the boat at the top of the painting with the three figures is shown to have been altered. It may have started out as a representation of deities in the sky similar to those seen in Mughal Mahabharata (Razmnamah) Or. 12076 f.76r. Other arrow positions have also changed.

Book 6 fol. 142r: In the infrared image, a different position for the ten-headed Ravana is shown to the right, where a single face in profile is revealed adjacent to a vertical line. This is completely obscured by the green pigment which we now see.

Multispectral imaging has proven a wonderful technology in allowing us to study collection items in new and exciting ways. These are just some of the observations made and we hope to share more in the future.

Christina Duffy (Imaging Scientist) and Pasquale Manzo (Curator Sanskrit)

16 July 2014

Selfie as methodology: researching sedilia in English parish churches

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The valedictory symposium of this year’s Material Witness was recently held at the Art Workers' Guild, London. Material Witness is a programme for post-graduate Humanities researchers investigating the place of objects and first-hand experience in scholarship in today’s digital world. One of the papers by James Alexander Cameron, who is completing a PhD at the Courtauld Institute on sedilia in English churches, particularly brought out the importance of embracing both digital and physical study of objects, as we do at the British Library.

Cherry Hinton

CC by Left: Cherry Hinton (Cambridgeshire)

Sedilia are the seats by the altar for the use of the priest, deacon and subdeacon celebrating Mass. In English churches they often take the form of three stone niches, built into the wall of the chancel. My research has shown they seem to be largely, but not exclusively an English phenomenon, becoming common in the thirteenth century and reaching their height of popularity in the early fourteenth century.

I have amassed a database of all the sedilia in England using the Pevsner Architectural Guides, supplemented by hyperlinked images gathered mainly from the website Flickr. There are over 1,300 items in my database, 800 being what I dub the so-called “classic” sedilia: the set of niches set in the thickness of the wall, surmounted by arches and divided by columns or shafts.

So in many ways my thesis is made possible by the new phenomenon of mass public-domain photo sharing, such as the British Library has recently begun. I also try to share my rather pedantic pictures of churches and their furnishings on Flickr as much as my time allows in the hope someone else might find something in them as useful as I found the pictures of sedilia.

Westminster Abbey

CC by Right: Westminster Abbey

But I am quite eager to use not just my hands, but my whole body in my research. Very few sedilia have as luscious sculpture as those of the 1320s in Heckington church (Lincolnshire), microarchitectural canopies as fantastic as Exeter Cathedral or painting as top-whack as Westminster Abbey. The vast majority are just niches in the wall, more common proportionally in ordinary parish churches than cathedrals. There are rarely ever any signs of use in the form of traces of fittings such as hanging fabrics or cushions. It seems that quite simply, clergy sat in them during the points of the service when they weren’t doing anything else.


CC by Left: Morton (Lincolnshire)

So that’s what I do: I sit in them, with a tripod on a timer for three exposures 2 seconds apart. And then I make a montage of the resulting pictures when I get home. I have around 130 of these montages, which means I have sat in around 10% of all the sedilia in England (possibly sounds slightly more impressive than it is).


CC by Right: Castle Hedingham (Essex)  Castle Hedingham

This isn’t just a completist mania, as from the first time I did it (to be quite honest initially as the one-off gag everyone thinks it is) at Castle Hedingham in Essex back in 2011, I realised what an extraordinarily useful way it was of recording the scale of sedilia. Because even though they generally look very similar, sedilia come in such varied shapes and decorative forms, to gather their dimensions in any meaningful way with a tape measure would be nigh-on impossible. And to see at a glance the claustrophobic niches at Castle Hedingham, made me realise that although the current carving is 1873, you can see the traces of the original twelfth-century arches that they were placed inside of, resulting in their uniquely cramped proportions. Since then, unless the sedilia are stuck behind an immovable object, I’ve done this shot.

Kirkstall Abbey

CC by Left: Kirkstall Abbey (West Yorkshire)

Seeing the scale at a glance is important, particularly for some of the earliest sedilia that do not have the demarcated niches, such as the Cistercian Abbey of Kirkstall near Leeds, probably built in the late 1150s. The austere Cistercians were a bit weird among the other great monastic abbeys at this time for just having chancels with blank walls around the altar: most orders would have aisles all the way round: the arches of which would be useful to put a bench between for the ministers of the high altar. When you actually visit Kirkstall, you see that the sedilia niche, one of the earliest in England, is much higher than it needs to be, and that the builders are actually creating a false bay of an arcade for the clergy to sit under, rather than the more identifiable genre of “classic” sedilia that came along later.


CC by Right: Heckington (Lincolnshire)

And then those sedilia at Heckington, often pictured in books on parish churches for their wonderful sculpture of everyday life and extraordinarily well-preserved Coronation of the Virgin, but if you sit in them you can demonstrate how high up this sculpture is, and how the men in the seats were not the primary audience of it. Instead, the Coronation of the Virgin represents Christ’s charge to Mary as Ecclesia, the representation of the Church, and interacts with the bodies below as a visual ensemble of the Church Militant on Earth and the Church Triumphant in Heaven.

See more about my project at my page on the Courtauld website, and how you can help by sending in my missing sedilia.

James Alexander Cameron

The Courtauld Institute of Art