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

19 August 2014

Eighteenth-century Country-house Guidebooks: Tools for Interpretation and Souvenirs

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Wilton House

J. Buckler, South East View of Wilton House, 1810. (Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection)

During the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, country houses in Britain emerged as significant tourist attractions. There was already a long tradition of expecting country houses to offer travellers hospitality, and by the middle of the eighteenth century, part of being a polite landowner was allowing tourists to visit your house and grounds. In theory, this standard applied to all houses, but only a handful, such as Wilton House (Wiltshire), were sites which routinely attracted hundreds of visitors. At houses like these, the huge increase in visitor numbers led to formal opening hours, standardized tours (typically given by housekeepers), inns which catered to tourists and the publication of guidebooks. The guidebooks published during this period are the best records of what an ideal visit to a house was intended to be like: they indicate what you were expected to appreciate and to ignore. Guidebooks were typically published only after a house had established itself as a popular site, and so in effect, they codified visiting practices that were already in place.

A Guide to Burghley
Illustration from Thomas Blore, A Guide to Burghley [abridged version], Stamford: John Drakard, 1815. (British Library, 10358.ccc.3)

Guidebooks’ content was typically organized to maximize convenience for visitors as they toured a property. This is a set of schematic plans which was bound near the beginning of one of the Burghley House (Lincolnshire) guidebooks, and these plans are numbered according to the order tourists typically viewed rooms in – beginning with the great hall, room 1, then the saloon, room 2, and so on – they are linked to a key, but the numbering is also linked to the subheadings in the text itself. Not all guidebooks were illustrated in this way, but a room-by-room organization was common, presumably because this made it easier to carry, read and view at the same time.

John Emes The Lake
John Emes, The Lake, Hawkstone Park, Shropshire, 1790. (Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection)

Guidebooks had tremendous potential as interpretive tools in that they could make a site more accessible and legible to its visitors. One of the main reasons people published guidebooks was to catalogue the art collections: this was not only a gracious gesture towards tourists, it was a clear signal that visitors were expected to carefully examine the individual works on display – many guidebooks, such as those describing Wilton, include entries about each painting and/or sculpture, directing readers to appreciate specific qualities. Outside the house, guidebooks were no less instructive: the guidebook to Hawkstone (Shropshire), for example, a house famous for its garden (and well-known for the comfort of its inn), provided information about the various views and spaces tourists would encounter as they toured the site and indicated what was to be admired at each stage.

As objects, guidebooks were designed to be functional, and book reviewers were very invested in how they were convenient for tourists. To that end, guidebooks are usually small, octavo volumes; and, while many of them are quite long, they are usually bound in paper covers, making them lightweight and inexpensive. Many, in fact, might reasonably be labelled pamphlets rather than books. Yet at the same time, guidebooks could function as mementos for tourists as well as practical aides.

Corsham House
Illustration of the frontispiece from John Britton, An Historical Account of Corsham House, London: Printed for the Author, 1806. (British Library, 796.e.19)

A guidebook’s appeal as a souvenir could be heightened by the addition of an illustrated frontispiece. The most common type of image was a view of the house itself, surrounded by the landscaped grounds, but it also depended on the particular attractions of the property. A number of the guides to Wilton, for example, illustrated one of the house’s sculptures on the frontispiece; that of Duncombe Park (North Yorkshire) displayed the ruins of Rievaulx Abbey, a site visible from the estate’s terraces.

New Description of Blenheim
Illustration from William Mavor, New Description of Blenheim, 8th edn, Oxford: J. Munday, 1810. (British Library, 10351.f.6)

The most elaborate guidebooks included series of illustrations. Some editions of the guide to Blenheim Palace (Oxfordshire), for example, incorporated a fold-out map of the gardens (often with hand-coloured details) and a set of views of the house, one each from the north, south, east and west.

Considered as a group, these guidebooks, many of which were available in London bookstores as well as near the houses themselves, might be said to be appealing to readers as texts which might be read for their own sake, after the visit to the house was over. In doing so, they were in effect claiming a greater relevance for their content, and for the cultural significance of information about country houses, their art collections and their gardens.

Jocelyn Anderson

Jocelyn Anderson holds a PhD from The Courtauld Institute of Art, where she wrote a dissertation entitled 'Remaking the Country House: Country-House Guidebooks in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries'. She recently completed a postdoctoral fellowship at The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art.

You can see more images from the country-house guidebooks discussed here on the British Library's Flickr page: https://www.flickr.com/photos/britishlibrary/

29 July 2014

Collection Care Top Ten

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The Collection Care blog is a year old this week! It has been a wonderful 12 months for the blog, due largely to you, our loyal readers. Since fluid, food and flames are generally considered our nemeses, we'll hold off on the champagne and birthday cake. Instead, to celebrate, we have compiled a list of the top ten most popular posts. Boy, do we know how to party!

10. A-a-a-choo! Collection Care's Dust Busters: In this post we shared the work of our dust busting team who monitor dust in order to protect our collections. We took a look at what exactly dust is, and how to balance the benefits and risk of dust minimisation programs. Who you gonna call? Collection Care! 

A-a-a-choo! Collection Care's Dust Busters

9. Goldfinisher: He's the man, the man with the Midas Touch: Doug Mitchell is our book conservator and gold finisher extraordinaire. Doug demonstrated the blind tooling technique and showed us the variety of tools involved in the process.

Goldfinisher: He's the man

8. Sea Snails & Purple Parchment: Did you know that the colour purple found in many of our manuscripts comes from sea snails? The snails are essentially "milked" to extract a gland secretion in a very labour intensive process. 

Sea snails & purple parchment

7. A Guide to BL book stamps: You've seen them on our collections and online, but what do they mean? Library stamps are generally divided into four types according to when they were in use, ranging from 1753 to the present day.

A Guide to BL book stamps

6. Digitisation as a preservation tool; some considerations: This post by Qatar Project conservator Flavio Marzo confronted the growing public expectation for online access. Marzo challenged the conservation community to use mass digitisation as an opportunity for the long term preservation of historical items and their features.

Digitisation as a preservation tool

5. The Bookie Monster: attack of the creepy crawlies!: Here we delved into the underworld of pesky pests who seek to eat their way through our collections. We identified some of the primary culprits and showed examples of damage to look out for.

The Bookie Monster: attack of the creepy crawlies!

4. Cleaning and rehanging the Kitaj tapestry: What happens when creepy crawlies do successfully attack? This year we had to don our hard hats to remove the enormous R.B. Kitaj Tapestry If not, not from the St Pancras Entrance Hall for conservation cleaning. The tapestry was hoovered and frozen to remove all pests and surface dust before rehanging in the hall. It was a major operation and a complete success. We even made a time-lapse video!

Cleaning and rehanging the Kitaj tapestry

3. Fail to prepare for digitisation, prepare to fail at digitising!: Digitisation is much more than just taking a picture. With mass digitisation projects being announced every month, we shared what we've learned when it comes to preparation. We listed five main outcomes of pre-digitisation checks, which highlighted the potential risks in each case.

Fail to prepare for digitisation, prepare to fail at digitising!

2. Books depicted in art: Being surrounded by books everyday is all part of the day job for us here in Collection Care. As you can imagine, seeing books in paintings can be quite thrilling. In this lavishly illustrated post we saw that some historical paintings contain a wealth of information about bindings that were not well-documented in the trade.

Books depicted in art

1. Under the Microscope with the Lindisfarne Gospels: Finally, in our most popular post, we shared microscopy images of the Lindisfarne Gospels collected by our team during a condition assessment. At up to 200 times magnification the medieval artistry and attention to detail blew us all away.

Under the Microscope with the Lindisfarne Gospels

Many thanks to all our readers from the Collection Care team. As ever, we are truly grateful for your following and are always keen to hear from you. Do let us know if there are any topics you'd like to read about, and don't forget you can subscribe to the blog at the top of this page, and follow us on Twitter: @BL_CollCare


Christina Duffy (@DuffyChristina)

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).