Conservation of the “Book of the Constellations of the Fixed Stars” by ‘Abd al-Rahmān al-Sūfī
from Robert Minte, Bodleian Libraries Conservation & Collection Care
A project to conserve and digitise a 6th-Century AH/12th-Century CE Arabic manuscript is nearing completion, enabled by a generous grant from The National Manuscripts Conservation Trust and private donations.
The manuscript, believed to be the fourth oldest extant copy of this important and popular astronomical treatise, is particularly significant to scholars as not many examples of book art survive from the period, and it contains unique illustrations of Bedouin constellations superimposed over Ptolemaic ones.
The manuscript’s fragile condition had necessitated restricted access for study and display, the priority for conservation being the stabilisation of its fragile paint layers and repair of the paper support corroded by green copper-based pigment used to illuminate chapter headings.
After detailed examination and assessment of the manuscript’s condition, the delicate and time-consuming task of repair was carried out with careful consideration of appropriate materials to be used in its treatment. A number of materials for consolidation of powdery paint layers were investigated, bearing in mind the need to minimise any introduction of moisture, which acts as a catalyst to copper-green degradation. This also informed the choice of a suitable adhesive for the repair of the fragile, copper-corroded areas and infilling of losses, using Japanese papers dyed to match the tone of the original paper: a very light-weight tissue to repair and support fragile areas, and a heavier paper to infill areas of loss.
The conservation and digitisation of this highly important manuscript will once again enable it to be safely studied and displayed.
With the end of the annual RHS Chelsea Flower show on Saturday, and the masses returning to their own English gardens inspired, it’s worth looking back to the 18th century, to the golden age of botanical exploration and to an artist who was arguably the finest botanical painter in history, Ferdinand Bauer. Now the Bodleian’s Conservation Research department are helping to unravel his meticulous and unusual painting technique.
Outside of the natural sciences, Bauer (1760-1826), is little known. However, along with his equally talented brother Franz, he is certainly known to botanists. He has been called ‘the Leonardo of botanical illustration’, and is known in particular for the beauty and accuracy of his illustrations of flowers. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the paintings he made for the exquisite Flora Graeca, one of the most rare and expensive publications of the 18th century, and certainly one of the greatest botanical works ever produced.
Unprecedented in the quality of its illustrations, its printing and its attention to naturalistic detail, the Flora Graeca described the flowers of Greece and the Levant, and was published in ten lavishly-printed volumes between 1806 and 1840, purchased by an elite list of only 25 subscribers. It was the legacy of the third Professor of Botany at Oxford University, John Sibthorp (1758-1796) who funded much of the endeavour out of his own funds. Sibthorp met Bauer in Vienna in 1786, and immediately engaged him to join his expedition to collect and record specimens, and ultimately to paint the almost 1500 watercolours of plants and animals he sketched on his return to Oxford in 1787.
What is of interest to us however is that Bauer used a particularly unusual technique to record his specimens in the field.
Bauer is exceptional among travelling botanical artists for the unusual techniques he employed for recording colour. He certainly observed and sketched live specimens, but he did not annotate these sketches with colour in the field as other artists did. Rather, subject to the limitations of working in the field – moving from place to place quickly in often difficult territory, and unable to carry large amounts of painting materials with him, he made only very basic outline sketches in pencil on thin paper.
He recorded the vital colour information, lost almost immediately after a specimen had been picked by annotating these with a series of numerical colour codes which likely referred directly to a painted colour chart, now lost. That Bauer’s paintings were created using only this colour reference system during his 6 years in Oxford, painting them sometimes up to five years after seeing the original plants, and that they are highly regarded even today for their botanical accuracy, speaks to his expertise as an artist and his astonishing memory for colour.
More pertinently, Ferdinand Bauer (and to a lesser extent his brother Franz) appear to be the only significant natural history artists to have used this kind of colour code in a practical way. Numerical codes of up to 140 different colour tones are found on early drawings by both Bauers from the 1770s. However, where Ferdinand seems to have continued to develop this initial system of some 140 colours into one of at least 273 colours for the Flora Graeca (and from then into a considerably more complex system of 1000 colours for a later expedition to Australia in 1801-5 – though how he could have used this practically is anybody’s guess), Franz Bauer, who was by then official botanical painter to Joseph Banks at the Botanical gardens at Kew, did not did not appear to use the system after he came to London in the late 1780s. Ferdinand of course, spent a significant amount of his time working in the field, and therefore much more in need of a system of shorthand than his brother. However, it’s interesting to note that no other travelling botanical artist used such a system to the extent that Bauer did.
An early colour chart (below) that appears likely to have been used by the brothers was found in 1999 at the Madrid Botanical Gardens, but Ferdinand Bauer’s 273 colour chart from the Sibthorp expedition and the 999 colour chart he may have used for the Matthew Flinders expedition to Australia, if they ever existed, have never been discovered.
This fact, however, presents a unique opportunity for us to carry out technical research into Bauer’s materials. The Conservation Research department at the Bodleian Libraries together with the Plant Sciences Department at the University are working on a three year Research project on Bauer’s techniques, funded by a Leverhulme Trust Research Project Grant. Collaborating with the V&A, Durham University and the University of Northumbria the project aims to understand what the Flora Graeca colour chart may have looked like, and how Bauer might have used it. A large part of the project involves identifying the pigments used by Bauer in his magnificent Flora Graeca watercolours, cross reference these results with the numerical codes in his field sketches, and ultimately create a historically-accurate reconstruction of the lost colour chart.
How will we do this? Often it is permitted to remove a minute sample of paint from a work of art in order to identify the material components. However this is rarely possible with works of art on paper, and is most certainly not possible for one of the treasures of the Bodleian’s collection! The work therefore is carried out in situ, bringing portable instruments to the object itself, rather than the other way around. For this we currently use three analytical techniques at Oxford: Raman spectroscopy, X-ray Fluoresce spectroscopy (XRF) and Hyperspectral imaging (Imaging spectroscopy).
Durham and Northumbria Universities have particular expertise in Raman Spectroscopy of cultural heritage objects, and Durham has built a portable instrument that is capable of positively identifying many of the pigments that Bauer used. The V&A Conservation Science section has a long history of collaborating with universities on technical research, and also has a great deal of expertise in Raman spectroscopy and its use in identifying pigments on artists’ watercolours.
In addition to the excitement of recreating Bauer’s lost colour chart, the project showcases the value of technical art history, a relatively new field that encompasses both scientific analysis and historical research into the materials and methods of the artist. It will go some way toward an understanding of Bauer’s extraordinary feel for colour and pigment, how he utilised his colour code, and ultimately how he was able to achieve such an impressive degree of colour fidelity in his work.
As we progress with the project, and as we learn more about Bauer’s materials and techniques, I’ll post again with more results. But should you find yourself in Oxford before September, a copy of both the Flora Graeca, and Bauer’s original illustrations for it are on display in the Marks of Genius exhibition at Bodleian’s Weston Library.
Claire Audelan, Rare Books Department Intern, writes:
A gift to the Bodleian has led to the recognition of further provenance history, as another book from the 17th-century Prince Henry’s dispersed travelling library has been discovered in the Bodleian stacks.
Careful study of the travelling library of Prince Charles, later King Charles I, donated to the Bodleian Library before Christmas, has enabled staff in the Rare Books Department at the Bodleian to track down one of the remarkable gold-tooled green morocco bindings bearing the recognizable monogram ‘HP’ with a coronet on top that belonged to his elder brother Henry, Prince of Wales (d.1612). The binding is one which seems to be from the travelling library made for Prince Henry. Others with the same binding are known to survive in the British Library.
This is an amazing step towards reconstructing the still mysterious history of these two outstanding libraries made for the 15 and 9 year-old princes since it brings the number of volumes known to have belonged to Henry Prince of Wales to 23.
One of the most visually appealing products of the Aldine press, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, will be the subject of a lecture by Dr Oren Margolis (Somerville College, Oxford), who will discuss the artistic and business background to the production of this exquisitely illustrated and mysterious Renaissance book. Dr Margolis will speak on 6 February in the Convocation House of the Bodleian Library, at 5:30 pm. The lecture is free to attend but please register online:
Stuart Barnard (University of Calgary), RBC-Bodleian Visiting Fellow, writes:
The papers of the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG), an Anglican missionary organization formed in 1701, is a vast collection comprising items from the organization’s origins until the 1960s. The SPG was active around the world, and its network of missionaries and clergymen left a wonderful trove of correspondence and diaries of their work overseas. The records include executive minutes, financial records, books and catalogues, periodicals, and maps, representing a wide variety of historical materials. The collection provides an important lens into the Anglican Church’s global expansion and colonial encounters in the British Empire.
A unique item within the collection is an assortment of lantern slides that date from around the turn of the twentieth century. There are 75 boxes of varying sizes, many of which hold dozens of slides each. The square panes of glass typically measure roughly three inches on each side, and feature both black and white and colour images from around the world highlighting locations in which the Society was at work and the groups to whom they ministered. Several boxes contain slides showing Biblical scenes that may have been useful for teaching in schools established by SPG missionaries.
My particular interest lies in the SPG’s work in Canada in the nineteenth century, and the collection includes fascinating pictures of popular Canadian landmarks. Striking images of Niagara Falls, the Banff Springs Hotel, wildlife, and mountain scenes are all featured on the Canadian slides. Unlike many of the other sets of slides in the SPG’s collection which highlight the day-to-day work of missionaries in schools and churches around the world, most of these Canadian slides were likely used to highlight the famous places and familiar themes in order to pique the interest of British members and donors whose contributions sustained overseas missions. Nonetheless, the images are stunning and represent a wonderful treasure within the SPG’s collection at the Bodleian.
Georg Bartisch was a surgeon and an inventor, but he is remembered primarily for his Ophthamoduleia (literally ”eye-service”), a treatise on diseases and disorders of the eye. The 1583 text is notable for several reasons. First, it is widely considered the first Renaissance treatise on eye disorders and surgery. Secondly, though most serious texts were written in Latin at the time, the Ophthalmodouleia was published in the vernacular, German. Finally, the book, which Bartisch published at his own expense, included ninety one full-page woodcuts, several of which were layered to act as flaps. As a result, the reader could examine different layers of the human brain (for example) by flipping through the woodcuts. This experience simulated the process of dissection for students, professionals, and the general public.
Bartisch was not the only one – nor the first – to include interactive flaps in his text. Heinrich Vogtherr the Elder introduced the layered flaps to anatomical prints in 1538 when he used 24 woodblocks to create an anatomical print of the female body. Vesalius’ Fabrica, which marks the beginning of modern anatomy, included flaps; and in 1619, Johann Remmelin included 120 flaps in the anatomical illustrations for the Catoptrum Microscopicum, which has been digitised by the University of Iowa. This technique was still used long after the seventeenth century: E.J. Stanley created layered illustrations for an anatomical textbook in 1901. Read more and watch anatomical flap books in action here.
As useful as they were for simulating dissection, paper flaps were used in more than just anatomical texts. Indeed, the 1570 English edition of Euclid’s Elements uses flaps to illustrate geometric concepts. And as explored in an earlier post by Sarah Wheale, harlequinades used flaps to create ‘a surprise unfolding of the story.’
The Conservation Section is currently devising a new mount for a parchment frisket cover from the Broxbourne collection. A frisket is the part of a printing press that holds the paper in place during printing. Often covered with parchment, a frisket also acted as a mask to keep inky parts of the press bed from marking the printed paper.
The frisket cover (Broxb. 97.40), which is made from a recycled manuscript leaf, was framed behind glass when it came to the library and only one side could be seen. The library’s Rare Books curators asked whether it could be unframed and mounted so that both sides could be seen, and to make it more readily available for study. Once the Broxbourne frisket was released from its frame far more information about its early use and subsequent history could be seen.
A page of a manuscript
Manuscript writing can be seen on this piece of parchment, which has been identified as a page of an Italian fourteenth-century Canon Law text.
A “mask” for printing in colour
Two centuries later, this discarded piece of parchment from a law manuscript was used to make the frisket. The frisket was used to print the red portion of an octavo-format book in the early sixteenth century, and offers early evidence of two-colour printing processes. Here, areas of parchment were cut away to allow the red-inked type to print initials and so on, while the remaining parchment masked off the text which was to be printed in black. The attached photograph shows the upper side of the frisket cover and a detail of one page in raking light, which clearly shows impressions of type.
A lining for a bookbinding
Now that the frisket cover is out of its frame it can be seen that it was subsequently used as a board lining for a large folio bookbinding.
The final question remains – what was it used to print?
– Andrew Honey, Conservation, Bodleian Libraries. 2011.