THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Collection Care blog

Behind the scenes with our conservators and scientists

Introduction

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

24 November 2014

‘The Salmon Book’: Conservation in Reverse

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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!

A Gorging Chronicle

Spine  Back cover

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. 

Rounding

Book block

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. 

Attaching 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. 

Sawing

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.

Cutting the leather

Toning the leather

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.

Candle burning      Candle burns

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.

Staining

Marble paper

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

12 November 2014

The conservation of two late medieval Hebrew manuscripts

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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).

Or 10721 right board  Or 10721 left board

CC by Right and left boards of Or 10721.

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.

Or 10538 right board  Or 10538 left board

CC by Right and left board of Or 10538.

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.

Or 10721 pastedown

CC by Left pastedown before conservation showing alum-tawed supports laced into boards and torn vellum.

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.

Or 10721 endband damage  Or 10721 endband

Or 10721 spine

CC by Damage to leather spine: Thread remnants from the tail and head endbands showing damage from use and original lacing into boards.

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.

Or 10721 spine after conservation

CC by Or 10721 spine after conservation.

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 right board pastedown

Or 10538 inside left board

CC by Top: Inside of right board showing alum-tawed supports which have been knotted together. Bottom: Inside of left board showing flap.

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.

Or 10538 spine

Or 10538 spine with supports released

CC by Top: Damage at the spine. Bottom: Spine after releasing the supports from the left cover.

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.

Or 10538 right board after treatment

Or 10538 spine after treatment

CC by Right board and spine after treatment.

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

26 October 2014

Bookbinder Bernard Middleton celebrates 90th birthday

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Born on 29 October 1924, legendary bookbinder Bernard Middleton celebrates his 90th birthday this week. Bernard spent much of his life working with British Library collection items at the Library’s bindery, then known as the British Museum Bindery, following his apprenticeship there.

Bernard Middleton
CC by Bookbinder Bernard Middleton at work. Photo courtesy of Bernard Middleton.

Bernard Middleton was interviewed in 2007 for Crafts Lives* by oral historian Hawksmoor Hughes. Crafts Lives is one of the oral history interview programmes run by National Life Stories, the oral history charitable trust based at the British Library. Bernard spoke about his time at the Central School of Arts & Crafts where he gained a general education and a grounding in bookbinding.

Listen to Bernard Middleton on the Central School of Arts and Crafts

“I was very happy there, I liked it.” recalls Bernard, “I liked the fact that my father had been taught in the same room, 25-26 years previously. And I was taught by his fellow student. It was a very good school – it was regarded really as the sort of Oxbridge of the craft world.”

The Central School of Art and Design was established in 1896 and became part of the London Institute almost a hundred years later in 1986. In 1989 it merged with Saint Martin’s School of Art forming Central Saint Martin’s College of Arts and Design, which today has its campus at King’s Cross, just a ten minute walk from the British Library.

The first thing Bernard was taught was how to fold paper, followed by instruction on how to sew a pamphlet , which he describes as “about the simplest thing one can possibly do in bookbinding”. The class learned the history of the way books developed from the scroll to the codex, and gradually took on more complicated bindings including cloth, leather (half-leather, full-leather), and gold-tooling.

Describing himself as “shy” and “well-behaved”, Bernard recalls the odd mischievous day which included throwing balls of wet cotton wool at the ceiling. “I remember throwing one and it hit the teacher in the middle of the back and stuck on his round coat. I was rather embarrassed when he turned around and saw me.”

When Bernard first came to the Bindery there were about eighty workers there and most of his time was spent making end papers. He quickly gained proficiency by working next to journeymen who taught the apprentices their skills. Bernard learned how to bind both old and new books acquired by the Museum’s Library.

Listen to Bernard Middleton on the British Museum Bindery

It was a hard life, with an initial salary of £1 a week and only a seven minute tea break each day: “We had to stand all day and that was hard work when I first went there. We were allowed to sit down for seven minutes at four o’clock to have tea, not in the morning – you had to stand up to have it then…I think it had been five minutes and then two more minutes were negotiated, and then the deputy foreman would bang with a stick on his press to indicate that we should stand up and get on with our work again.”

Bernard’s subsequent career has included managing Zaehnsdorfs, a large and successful binding firm; establishing his own business; researching and writing on the history of bookbinding and restoration; designing and producing approximately 100 original bindings; as well as receiving many commissions from noted collectors, academic institutions and libraries. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in 1951 and received an MBE in 1986.

A History of English Craft Bookbinding Technique

CC by Bernard Middleton’s 1965 binding on his book A History of English Craft Bookbinding Technique New York & London, 1963. C.108.d.39

Some examples of his bindings are below:

BL shelfmark C.160.c.17  BL shelfmark C.160.c.17
CC by A 1964 binding on Howard M. Nixon, Twelve Books in Fine Bindings from the Library of J. W. Hely-Hutchinson Oxford, 1953. C.160.c.17

BL shelfmark C.188.b.43  BL shelfmark C.188.b.43
CC by A 2004 binding on Marianne Tidcombe, The bookbindings of T.J. Cobden-Sanderson London, c1984. C.188.b.43

More examples of Bernard’s bindings can be seen at the St Bride Library off Fleet Street in London from 27 October to 14 November, 2014.

“My designs are intended to please the eye, not engage the intellect, principally by the employment of textures, strongly defined shapes and contrasts, and by the play of light on gold, preferably in combination and in a manner which complements the book." Bernard Middleton, Recollections (London, 2000), p.85.

With thanks to Philippa Marks (Curator, Bookbindings) and to Mary Stewart (Curator, Oral History) who edited the audio clips.

*Since the Crafts Lives project started in 1999, over 130 in-depth life stories have been recorded with British craftspeople, exploring both their personal lives and their work in the fields of pottery, glass, metalwork, jewellery, textiles and book arts. In August 2014 over 80 of these interviews were made available to listen to online in their entirety – including 13 craftspeople that work in the area of book arts, bookbinding and letter cutting. Visit http://sounds.bl.uk/Oral-history/Crafts to find out more.