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

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

01 July 2014

Books depicted in art

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After a glorious week of studying European Bookbinding (1450-1820) at the London Rare Books School with Director of the Ligatus Research Centre, Professor Nicholas Pickwoad,  it quickly became apparent that works of art have been one of the best methods of recording details of techniques used in bookbinding.

The majority of books throughout history are not the heavily decorated and spectacular versions we tend to hear most about, but instead are plain, and fairly ordinary book blocks (which some people still find quite exciting - author included!). For this reason, the techniques are perhaps not as well understood or documented. Luckily the keen eye of the artist has captured precise details when depicting books throughout history, showing sewing structures, stitch types, supports, covers and even how they were stored. In this post we will look at some examples of books depicted in art.


While we now consider spine outwards as ‘the right way around’ to display books, this was not always the case. In the oil on canvas painting ‘Portrait of Lawyer Francesco Righetti’ by Guercino (1626- 28) we see doctor of laws Fracesco Righetti depicted in his library. His law books are tail-edge outwards showing endband detail with titles written on the volume.

Portrait of Lawyer Francesco Righetti

CC zero Guercino’s ‘Portrait of Lawyer Francesco Righetti’.

The engraved ‘Portrait of William Cartwright’ (from ‘Comedies, tragi-comedies, with other poems’) was printed in London for Humphrey Moseley in 1651. Cartwright is shown wearing a collar and gown leaning on an open book. The books on the wall behind him are shelved fore-edge out; a common practice in the 16th and early 17th century. Gilded-edge books stored spine away would gleam off the shelves quite spectacularly. Many medieval books have their title written in several places such as the spine, tail-edge or fore-edge as storage locations changed over time.

Portrait of William Cartwright

CC by ‘Portrait of William Cartwright’. See the full engraving digitised on the British Museum's Image Gallery.

How binderies operated

Hendrik de Haas’s print ‘De Boekbinder’ (1806) shows a bookbinder's workshop. On the left is the beating stone where gatherings were pounded with a mallet for compaction. Second from the left a man is shown bent over a special shaving knife which is drawn along the text block to trim the pages. The shavings are shown on the floor. In the centre on a stool a binder is sewing the gatherings next to a young boy taking a book to a client. The master of the workshop (as determined by his smart attire and rather dashing wig) burnishes the leather by working and smoothing it. The finisher, working for the aristocracy, made more money than the binder – it is unusual to see him wearing Hessian boots. (With tassels! On a binder! The outrage!)

De Boekbinder

Beating the gatherings Shaving the book block Wood press
CC by Bookbinder’s workshop in print by Hendrik de Haas, ‘De Boekbinder’, Dordrect, 1806. Lower left: Beating the gatherings. Lower centre: Shaving the book block. Lower right: Pressing the books.

Leaning against the shelving unit in the far right is a wooden book press where several books are packed tightly. It was possible to apply guilt edges to several books at a time when stored in this way.

Life and social status

Dutch painter Marinus van Reymerswale’s early 16th century oil on canvas painting ‘St Jerome in his Study’ shows St Jerome surrounded by curious objects which represent attributes referring to his life and status. St Jerome was famed for translating the Bible into Latin from Greek and Hebrew. The Vulgate, as his translation was known, became the official Latin version of the Holy Script in the Roman Catholic Church. For this reason he is nearly always depicted around books and in his study.

An expensively bound volume with clasps is shelved behind St Jerome, while on his table are several working copies with various sewing structures and tacketed bindings. A sewn book block is apparent which never had covers, adhesive, or a spine lining. The gatherings are visible with long stitch through separate supports rather than covering the whole spine. There is no adhesive used in long stitch bindings, making them very useful for music manuscripts as the book stays open easily and is very flexible. Long stitch was rare in England but common in the Low Countries as a cheap and quick way to produce almanacs. The variety of books in his study suggest St Jerome was highly-literate with a great depth of knowledge.

St Jerome in his Study

St Jerome

CC zero Marinus van Reymerswale’s ‘St Jerome in his Study’, 16th century. Lower left: Leather bound volume with metal clasps. Lower right: Visible sewing structures, long stitch and tacketed binding.

Textblocks could be sold without significant covers, just held together with an "endless cover". Jean Antoinette Poisson (Madame de Pompadour) was the mistress of King Louis XV, as well as a prominent patron of Francois Boucher. In Francois Boucher’s 1756 oil on canvas portrait ‘Madame de Pompadour’ the lady is sumptuously dressed and surrounded by opulent things - apart from the book she holds in her hand. The book has a drawn-on cover – a piece of paper or parchment put around the book-block. It was a cheap and quick way to bind books and there are a lot of French books bound in this way. Madame de Pompadour is displaying a casual relationship with literature, in a sense saying to the viewer ‘Look at me, I read books because they are interesting. If I like it, I will keep it” (and pay more money for the binding!).

Madame de Pompadour

Madame de Pompadour's book

CC zero Francois Boucher’s ‘Madame de Pompadour’, 1756, oil on canvas portrait.

Street vendors/book peddlers

'Bealux abc belles heures’ is part of the ‘le Cris de Paris’ genre illustrating Parisian street vendors. It is a woodcut engraving ca 1500 showing a moment in time when prayer books, once restricted to the wealthy aristocracy, became affordable to the bourgeois with the advent of the printing press. Thin, printed copies were sold on the streets. In the vendor’s right hand is a Book of Hours showing a limp cover. Underneath his left hand we can see detail of a leather binding.

Beaulx abc belles heures Tavolette
CC by Left: Beaulx abc belles heures. Right: Tavolette, e Libri per li putti.

Similarly in Annibale Carracci’s 1646 print ‘Tavolette, e Libri per li putti’ a man is depicted selling books from a basket that he carries over his shoulder. The book in his right hand has a cover which follows the spine when open and is bound using long-stitch.

Evidence-based research

While written documentation of binding styles and techniques is not always available, we can gather a lot of information from paintings, prints, engravings and illuminations. Sometimes they can tell us more than current literature on a subject – for example in Lorenzo Lotto’s oil on canvas ‘Portrait of a Young Man in his Study’ (c. 1530), the sitter is more likely to be a merchant than a student as the volume he is perusing is bound with a fore-edge flap – this style was used for account books and book-keeping, not for great works of literature.

Portrait of a Young Man in his Study  Fore-edge flap
CC zero Lorenzo Lotto, ‘Portrait of a Young Man in his Study’ (c. 1530), oil on canvas.

Visual depictions can also be useful in filling in missing parts of our understanding. Folio 291v of the great 9th century illuminated gospel manuscript, the Book of Kells, shows Christ holding a red binding decorated with blind twilling. With the original binding of the manuscript now lost, it is possible that this is what it may have originally looked like.

The Book of Kells

CC zero The Book of Kells, f. 291v; a 9th century gospel manuscript containing the four Gospels in Latin based on the Vulgate text which St Jerome completed in 384AD. It has been fully digitised by Trinity College Dublin.

While bookbinding may be considered the Cinderella of the bibliographical trade (i.e. given little care or attention) it is a fascinating area of research, based on the logic of commerce – techniques and styles were not varied unless they needed to be. For more information on bookbindings see the British Library Database of Bookbindings or the Ligatus website.

Christina Duffy (@DuffyChristina)

23 June 2014

A book binder for Mr Taylor

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Lieutenant Colonel Robert Taylor, the Political Resident in Bussorah (Basra) in 1819 and in Baghdad in 1821, was well known for his personal interest in Arabic culture and for his remarkable collection of Arabic manuscripts and art pieces. Between 1850 and 1860, the British Museum acquired 355 books from his widow.

So far, 129 manuscripts from the British Library collection have been scoped and condition assessed by conservators working for the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership. This is so they can be digitised for a new digital portal that will be launched at the end of this year as part of the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership.

AnnotationAmongst those manuscripts, there was a group of eight that particularly attracted my attention. The content of these manuscripts, all part of the Taylor collection, date from between 1248 to 1605, and have probably been bound or rebound after being acquired by him. Certain features of the bindings point to the same binder having been used, but some of the differences between their constructions are intriguing too. The following is a collection of observations I have made during my assessment of these fascinating items.  This printed annotation was added by the British Museum on each of the manuscripts recording the provenance and the date of the acquisition.


Starting with the most obvious similarity between these eight items, we shall look at the covers, which are all bound in full red goat leather (see images below). The boards have also been decorated with blind tooling. The tools used are often the same and used in similar patterns, for example, single tools repeated and combined to create the patterns that make the central decorations and the frames that you can see in the following images.

Add Ms 23393  Add Ms 23391
CC by Left board Add. Ms 23393                 CC by Left board Add. Ms 23391

Add Ms 23390  Add Ms 23430
CC by Left board Add Ms. 23390                       CC by Left board Add. Ms 23430

Add Ms 1523  Add Ms 23407
CC by Central decoration on left board of Add. Ms 1523 vs decoration of Add Ms 23393

Right board of Add Ms 1523  Right board of Add Ms 23407
CC by Decorated frame on right board of Add Ms 1523 vs decoration on right board of Add Ms 23407

The bindings also present other similarities within the structural features such as end band style and the style of sewing which I will discuss in the following sections.


The sewing of Islamic style bindings, the style these bindings largely correlate to, is commonly characterised by the absence of supports. This means that the book block is not sewn around supports, which in Western bindings consist, in the main, of strips of leather or linen cord. The book block is held together with the thread alone. Strangely, in this case, four of these eight manuscripts would appear to be have been sewn on supports as visible on the following image. This does not correspond to the ‘rules’ of binding styles, creating a type of hybrid.

Leather cover
CC by The rows are pointing to the protruding areas on the spine where the supports, possibly strips of leather, bulge under the leather cover

Sewing diagram
Diagram indicating the sewing structures of four of the books, with three sewing stations sewn around supports, a traditionally Western feature.

This diagram, drawn after careful examination of the sewing only accessible from the inside of the book-blocks, shows a possible description of this unusual sewing technique. The head and tail chain-stitches (A) are most certainly supported with the sewing thread passing around the support. The sewing on the central support (B) has been done like it is normally, on tape with the sewing thread passing behind the support.

Cover leather overlapping on the spine

Three of these eight manuscripts exhibit the peculiar feature of overlapped cover leather on the spine. This feature consists of the leather covering the boards left longer at the inner joint. The extending parts of the leather are attached to the spine of the book block by overlapping them. This can be seen clearly in the following image that shows the detail, at the head edge, of the overlapping of the two layers of leather on the spine of manuscript Add.23387.

Cover construction

CC by The following drawing shows the construction of the cover where the two boards are prepared separately and attached to the spine of the book block by overlapping the two extensions of the covering leather.

Overlapping spine

In another manuscript, Add. Ms 23393, this feature initially appears identical, but is in fact the result of a completely different technique. By looking at the book carefully it is possible to see that the two pieces of leather, even if overlapping (see image below) on the spine, are not attached to the spine one on top of the other, but they have been attached together separately to create a fully formed case cover. Once formed, it was attached to the spine of the book-block.

Overlapping spine layers in raking light

CC by In the picture, taken in raking light, the line of the overlapping layers of leather is highlighted by the black arrows.

The shadow, indicated by arrows in the image below, shows that the piece of leather covering the right board is actually extending under the piece of leather covering the left board. The two separate pieces of leather are not only overlapping on the spine as previously recorded for this specific style, but they are used here to form a cover that had to be fully prepared separately before being attached to the book. This is an interesting twist on a well-documented style.

Shadow on overlapping covers

CC by The cover of Add. Ms 23393 was fully prepared before being attached to the book.

Further evidence that the cover was completed separately is that the leather from the left board at head and tail, where it forms the caps, has been turned in on top of the other piece. This can only be done before the cover was attached to the spine of the book because the folded leather is now pinched between the spine of the book and the spine leather of the cover.

Tail cap

CC by The arrow indicates the overlapping of the leather disappearing in the turn to form the tail cap.

End bands

In manuscript Add.Ms 23390 the end band (only the one at the head has survived) is actually made in a western style (see image below) whereas the other 7 manuscripts have end bands executed following techniques and aesthetics of ‘Islamic style’ bindings.

End band

CC by In this image of manuscript Add.Ms 23390 the technique used to make the end band is ‘western’ with the coloured silk threads (Pink, Yellow and Green) passed around a cylindrical core possibly made of cord.

Head band

CC by In this image showing the head of Ms Add. 23407 we can see a detail of a typical Islamic style end band. The secondary, extremely elaborated sewing has been created with cream and blue silk threads.


These manuscripts, all with contents dating from different periods (from 1248 until 1610) appear to have been bound or re-bound when acquired by Mr Taylor. If this is the case it would justify the very striking similarities and the consistency in the materials used for their construction and their appearance.

A systematic assessment of this group of manuscripts to collect more information about their bindings would be necessary to draw a better picture of the collection and of the similarities and unexpected differences between their physical features. This could lead us to identify the binder who executed them, giving an insight into the rich history of bookbinding. Further research about Lieutenant Colonel Taylor’s activity during his work as Political Resident could also be carried out within the India Office Records to find records relating to payments made during the acquisition process and possibly the re-binding of these manuscripts. The digitised images will become available online later this year, along with a short article on Taylor, researched by Jo Wright, Content Development Curator for the Qatar Partnership.

Flavio Marzo