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

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

08 July 2014

A visit to Doha and an exciting new reality

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Flavio Marzo ACR, Conservation Studio Manager for the British Library/Qatar Foundation digitisation project reflects on his visit to the Arab and Islamic Heritage Collection Library:


CC zero Doha, Qatar

During a recent trip to Doha, Qatar, I was invited to speak at the ‘Past to Present: Art Conservation Conference’ at the Museum of Islamic Art, held on 28 November 2013. I was invited to visit the Arab and Islamic Heritage Collection Library by Dr Joachim Gierlichs, Associate Director for Special Collections and Archives at the Qatar National Library, and Mark T. Paul, Head of Partnerships at the Qatar National Library. As I presently manage the conservation studio that has been created for the British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership at the British Library, my trip to Doha was a chance for me to meet some of my colleagues for the first time.

I spent the morning after my arrival visiting one of the Library’s main collections, the private study library of Sheikh Hassan Bin Mohammed Bin Ali Al-Thani, founder of Mathaf, the Arab Museum of Modern Art, and a prominent scholar on the history and culture of Arabia. The collection includes rare and valuable texts and manuscripts relating to Arab-Islamic civilization, as well as books, periodicals and maps from European orientalists, travellers and explorers who were fascinated by Arab-Islamic cultural heritage.

Arab and Islamic Heritage Collection Library

CC by Arab and Islamic Heritage Collection Library.

One of the highlights of the visit for me was the opportunity to meet the three conservators working at the library and to visit the conservation studio. The studio, although limited in space, is well equipped for carrying out full treatments of printed and manuscript items.

Chanaca Perera

Dr Stavroula Golfomitsou and Flavio Marzo

CC by Left: Chanaca Perera, conservator in charge of the studio, with his team. Right: Dr Stavroula Golfomitsou and Flavio Marzo.

The afternoon was spent visiting the new facilities of the UCL Qatar Centre for the Study of Cultural Heritage in Education City, opened in partnership with the Qatar Foundation and the Qatar Museums Authority in 2012.

UCL Qatar Centre

CC by Main studio in the UCL Qatar Centre for the Study of Cultural Heritage.

While there, I visited the classrooms, met some of the students and spent time with Dr Stavroula Golfomitsou, who has developed and led the Conservation Studies Programme at UCL Qatar since its beginning in 2012.

My impression of Doha and the different institutions and people I met there was very positive: while there are difficulties due to bureaucracy and the nature of the sometime unbearably hot local environment in summer, these difficulties have not restrained or threatened the hope for the future and the proactive spirit that I felt. This is in no small part due to the support given by this rich and fast-developing country, which is investing so much in the field of cultural heritage and research – perhaps something we might like to learn?! I really hope so.

Flavio Marzo