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

08 October 2019

Conservation and Storage of the Panorama of Lahore

Panoramic Depiction of the Fort and Old City Walls of Lahore’ is a rare scroll painting of the city walls by an unknown artist and dated broadly between the late 18th and early 19th century. The panorama of the city of Lahore arrived into the conservation studio tightly packed into a small custom made box measuring 71 mm x 193 mm x 71 mm.

Scroll housed in the original box

Picture 1. The scroll in its original box.

The box and the item looked unexciting until taken out of the box and opened up. But even then the tight storage made it difficult to appreciate fully the exquisite detail of the painting without damaging the scroll and risking the loss of pigments. The panorama could only be seen in small sections. The scroll did not lie flat, had a cracked surface and a tendency to curl with pigmented areas detaching, particularly in areas where panels of the scroll were joined or cracked.

Damaged area before conservation Scroll panel with joint damage
Pictures 2 and 3: showing a damaged area of the scroll along panel joints before and after conservation.

Once the conservation was carried out to consolidate the pigments and the paper support, and to relax and flatten the tightly rolled scroll, it became obvious that the old box was no longer fit for purpose. In consultation with the lead curator, Nur Sobers-Khan, it was agreed that a Perspex mount (holder) with moving rollers needed to be designed, to enable viewing of larger sections of the scroll without handling the object.

The scroll is often requested by readers, researchers, scholars and historians, interested in studying the painting for its historical, artistic and cultural aspects. The whole panorama of the city measures 2.5 metres, therefore, a larger opening of 55 cm in length of the scroll was considered adequate for viewing and studying it at one time. The construction of the Perspex mount with moving parts and the diameter of the rollers were agreed with the maker, Jonathan Hoskins, who has constructed a similar mount previously for a scroll shown below. He also regularly designs and makes mounts for 3D object for our exhibitions..

The scroll showing Bhagavata Purana

Picture 4, showing ‘Bhagavata Purana’ - Hindu religious text, Sanskrit on silk paper (18th century).

The scroll above, although a lot longer than the panorama, is narrow and attached to thinner rollers while the Panorama of Lahore can be taken off the rollers and displayed in its full length, if needed. Due to the previous damage to the painting which restricted its viewing, the rollers were designed to be larger in diameter. This ensured that the panorama is no longer rolled as tightly as before and that the panel joints lie flat when viewed.

Conservation staff testing the mount

Picture 5, showing a colleague viewing the scroll and testing the mount.

The painting of the walled city of Lahore was much appreciated while in the studio by the public visiting the conservation studio. When viewed from a distance, its beautiful turquoise surroundings often mistaken for the sea until an entourage of people and elephants was spotted when further unrolling the scroll!

The scroll in the new roller open on an image of an entourage of people and elephants

Picture 6: Entourage of people and elephants.

The painting of the city of Lahore can be viewed and appreciated for its artistic value, but it also is a capsule in time showing the city with its walls intact during the Sikh rule. The walls were later pulled down and the course of the river Ravi altered. The river no longer sweeps by the city walls, as shown in the painting.

Part of the scroll showing the River Ravi flowing by the city walls

Picture 7, showing the river Ravi flowing by the city walls.

Annotations marking the location of Maharaja Ranjit Singhs cremation

Picture 8: Annotations marking the location of the Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s cremation spot.

The present conservation of the Lahore scroll and the new mount for the scroll would enable easier and safer access to the scroll in the future, which in turn would add to the research and knowledge of South Asian history and culture, and perhaps …. solve the dating conundrum!

Iwona Jurkiewicz-Gotch

I would like to thank everybody involved in this project, in particular – curators - Nur Sobers-Khan, Manzo Pasquale and Saqib Baburi for information about the items discussed in this blog as well as Jonathan Hoskins for making the mount and Rick Brown for helping me construct the box and gold-tooling it.

06 September 2019

From Tackling Digitisation to Preserving Historic Photos - Autumn One Day Courses at British Library

By West Dean College of Arts and Conservation

A woman inspects two historic photographs using a microscope.

British Library and West Dean College of Arts and Conservation collaborate to deliver Continued Professional Development for those involved with, or with responsibility for care of libraries, archives and collections, and for conservation students. Autumn 2019 courses include:

Writing and Using a Preservation Policy – 28 October 2019

A preservation policy provides the opportunity for your organisation to develop a framework for thinking about the role of collections management and care. This training day equips you with the insights, understanding and practical guidance to review or draft a policy for your organisation.

Tutor Jennifer Dinsmore has 40 years of experience working with heritage organisations to evaluate and develop conservation provision, strategies and policies in museums, libraries and archives.

Preserving Historic Photographs – 14 November 2019

The sensitivity of the photographic collections in libraries, archives and museums to environmental conditions and the speed with which images can deteriorate present special challenges. This one day course is led by Susie Clark, an accredited paper and photographic conservator, formerly responsible for a collection of 20 million photographs at the BBC Hulton Picture Library (now Getty Images).

Digitisation: Planning and Processes – 10 December 2019

Digitisation can increase access to collections, provide surrogates for vulnerable originals and enable virtual reunification of collections.  But do you know where to start?

This training day offers you guidance on image specification, file formats, condition assessments, choosing equipment and planning for online access. It focuses on the digitisation of library and archive materials, though the principles are transferable. The day is led by British Library’s team including the Digitisation Conservation Team Manager, Digital Curator for Collections and the Photographic Studio Manager.

Courses are £147 each and take place at British Library.

Book online

Enquiries +44 (0)1243 818300

10 May 2019

All sewn up: British Library colleagues work together to ensure the survival of 100 embroidered and textile bookbindings

 

 

Mary Horrell, Conservation Support Assistant, and Mark Oxtoby, Collection Care Workflow Coordinator stand in front of the enclosure system they have created.
Mary Horrell, Conservation Support Assistant, and Mark Oxtoby, Collection Care Workflow Coordinator

The Felbrigge Psalter’s decorative 14c covers (pictured below) are the oldest known examples of English embroidery on a book and a prime example of the type of binding this project is working to protect. 

The Felbrigge Psalter cover featuring faded embroidery that illustrates The Annunciation, with the Virgin Mary on the right and another figure, thought to be St. John, on the left.
Felbrigge Psalter

Although faded with areas of lost stitching the design is clearly visible. Luxury bookbindings like this have covers of fragile silk, satin, and velvet and are often decorated with pearls, sequins and gold and silver embroidery threads, all of which may require different approaches to conservation but should all be stored in a similar way.

The project to re-box collection items with ‘at risk’ embroidered and textile bookbindings has been ongoing since 2016 and has involved colleagues from various teams including; Conservation, Western Heritage Collections, Basements, Collection Care North and Reader and Reference Services.

The prayer books cover which features green, white, pink and blue thread. The thread is embroidered in a plaid-like pattern, which each square having an optical illusion giving the impression that the square gets smaller and moves further back in space.
C.108.aa.7: 17c English prayer book.  The design has a stunning trompe l’oeil effect which can still be seen despite the loose threads.  The spine piece has also been lost.

The first step of the project involved Maddy Smith, Curator Printed Heritage Collections, and Philippa Marks, Curator Bookbindings, selecting around 100 bindings which needed attention and preparing a preservation bid. Traditionally these items were boxed to resemble leather bindings on a library shelf, stored in sometimes abrasive slipcases, or in tight drop-back boxes lined with woollen fabric.

Curators Maddy Smith and Philippa Marks look at a book with an embroidered cover featuring imagery of deer and plants.
Maddy Smith (left) and Philippa Marks (right) reviewing some embroidered bindings.

Philippa says: ‘The Library’s collection of textile bookbindings is so rich that the problem regarding selection was not what to include, but what to exclude! An important first step was to identify the books which had been boxed in the past or were not protected at all. Boxing provided an effective and practical solution historically, but we now know some elements of the construction can put bindings at risk. Today conservators have a choice of modern materials, all of which have been tested by Paul Garside, Conservation Scientist, and will remain stable and protect the textile and embroidered surfaces’.

A close up of a 16th century embroidered binding.
C.183.aa.6: enlargement of 16c English binding shows red and green embroidery threads, metallic coils and sequins which have oxidised (blackened).

At this point it was down to the Library’s Textile Conservator Liz Rose to devise storage solutions to protect these fragile bindings. Liz was invited to attend an embroidered books rehousing workshop at the Herzogin Anna Amelia Bibliothek in Weimar, Germany, where conservators from Germany, France and Austria discussed storage and handling solutions for these delicate structures to both prolong their lifecycle and enable access.

Liz says: ‘It was a privilege to be the only textile conservator invited to attend the workshop. The organiser, Jonah Marenlise Hölscher, from the Anna Amelia Bibliothek had visited St Pancras in early 2016.’

A closeup of a 16th century embroidered binding showing pearls, metallic thread and a dark green background.
C.23.a.26: enlargement of late 16c binding design comprising pearls.

Following this workshop Liz pursued her idea of using standard sized phase boxes (these are archival storage boxes) lined with Plastazote®. The new boxes were made by Mark Oxtoby, Collection Care Workflow Coordinator in Boston Spa and then lined with removable Plastazote®, a type of foam. The bookbindings were wrapped in Bondina® (a smooth polyester tissue used for conservation).

A close up featuring a figure's head in profile surrounded by a circular frame of gold thread against a red background.
C.65.k.9; enlargement of centrepiece of 16c Italian embroidered prayer book.

 

During the following period Liz and her colleague Mary Horrell, Conservation Support Assistant, consulted with colleagues from other Library departments to ensure that the change from 18c methods to the new approach was approved by all. Prototype phase boxes and bespoke inserts were constructed.

Peter Roberts, Basement 2 Manager, says: ‘The main consideration from the Operations side was how much extra storage space and what sort of storage would be needed when the items returned in expanded, padded boxes.'

‘We got an estimation of the expected dimensions, numbers and configuration of the new boxes from BLCC. We have begun moving four ranges of Case books (rare printed books) to provide enough shelf space to accommodate the new boxes and to ensure each item can be safely shelved. We recently attended a demonstration of the padded boxes so I will be able to brief my team on how to assemble the boxes and what to look out for if any parts go missing/get damaged with use.’

A Danish embroidered binding from the 17th century featuring 3-D floral motifs embroidered in a silver thread against a red velvet background.
C.130.a.11; note the wear around the edges of the velvet covers of this 17c Danish binding and the raised decoration (called stump work).  The clasps (in the shape of a face) would cause damage to neighbouring books if not boxed.

 

The consultation stage of the project is now almost complete and a collection handling morning has taken place where Liz and Mary demonstrated the new storage solution to colleagues across the Library.

Philippa concludes: ‘I was so impressed by the way colleagues worked together, each using their individual skills and experience to ensure that these items, some of them 400 years old, last another 400 years ... at least!’

A close up of an embroidered binding featuring an image of an angel surrounded by foliage.
G.6319 19c French binding by Louis Janet. Enlargement shows the raised nap on the velvet covers at risk of abrasion.