Many uses of a piece of parchment

Bodleian Library Broxb. 97.40
Bodleian Library Broxb. 97.40, a frisket made from a recycled manuscript leaf.

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

Conserving 17th-century university records

Housed in the Tower of the Five Orders in the Old Schools Quad since the seventeenth century, the records of Oxford University Archives include papers from the Chancellor’s Court dating from the sixteenth century.

Over the past year a conservator has been working on the papers dating from 1634 to 1665. Amounting to just over 3000 items, these consist of single sheets and bifolia mostly on paper and occasionally parchment.

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One manuscript may consist of several pages pinned together or tied with a twist of parchment. Some feature wax seals which interestingly have leaf fragments pressed into the surfaces. (Fig. 1)

The condition of the papers was mixed. Dirt, mould damage, tears, dog-eared corners and brittle seals being the main concerns regarding safe handling. Each item has now been surface cleaned to remove dirt. (Fig. 2)

In the past the papers were probably subjected to a damp environment and high levels of relative humidity.

Mould thrives in these conditions and organic materials such as paper are a good food source for mould. The mould weakens the paper by drawing water and nutriments from it. (Fig. 3)

Fragile papers previously affected by mould were sized with a non-aqueous solution to strengthen them (Fig. 4)

Japanese papers, shaped using a water brush, were adhered to vulnerable areas to lend support. More Japanese paper was then shaped with a needle and pasted into place to fill loses. (Fig. 5 & 6)

To reduce handling, small groups of papers were re-housed together in labeled, archival quality paper folders before being returned to archival boxes. (Fig.7)

Conserving a 17th-century map of China’s trade routes

The ‘Selden Map of China’ arrived at the Bodleian Library in 1659 as part of John Selden’s bequest. It was long considered a rare curiosity until 2008, when an American scholar, Robert Batchelor of Georgia Southern University, noted that it records coastal trading routes linking the port of Quanzhou in Fujian Province with other parts of South East Asia. The map is now recognised not only as a beautiful and colourful representation of China and South East Asia, but also as a unique historical record of China’s trading activities in the early 17th century.

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Through this renewed interest, the map’s fragile condition was highlighted, initiating a detailed technical examination and major collaborative conservation and research project. The map’s vulnerable condition was already noted in conservation records from 1977, being described as “crudely mounted on paper and linen in 1919 as a hanging scroll, though not originally intended as such. The linen has stiffened, and is severely cracked in many places.”

At the time no treatment was attempted, but now circumstances allow this challenging conservation project to go ahead with the combined expertise of conservators Robert Minte and Marinita Stiglitz (Bodleian Library) Keisuke Sugiyama (British Museum) and Mark Barnard (British Library).

The extensive treatment of the 1m. x 1.5m map, using Western and Far Eastern techniques and materials, aims to stabilize the map’s paint layer and strengthen its thin Chinese paper support.

During the first stage, the map was gradually humidified by spraying purified water onto the surface from both sides using dahlia sprayers. This drew out discolouration, flattened distortions, and enabled the textile lining to be removed.

Next a temporary facing, consisting of several layers of rayon and sammoa paper, was applied on the front with funori, adhesive extracted from Japanese red seaweed, using noribake, Japanese paste brushes. The map was left to dry flat on a karibari, Japanese drying board, for a few days…

The facing protects the fragile surface whilst paper patches and adhesive layers are removed from the back. Loose fragments will be secured, missing areas infilled and new paper linings applied, restoring the map’s original flexibility and appearance.

This project will continue until next spring. Funding for the conservation work has been generously provided by The Pilgrim Trust, The Radcliffe Trust, Sir Robert Horton, The Mercers’ Company and Merton College.
History & image of the Selden Map.
For more information about John Selden’s collections, visit the Bodleian Library website.

“The Technical Examination of Old Master Drawings: a symposium in conservation science”, Clore Centre, British Museum, 20th May 2010

For about a year, I was looking forward to attending this symposium, which was organised by the Department of Scientific Research at the British Museum, with support from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. This was an unprecedented effort to gather conservators, conservation scientists and curators to present and discuss one of the most fascinating aspects of our work: the understanding of materials and techniques used by artists. It brought an opportunity to discuss conservation-related issues and the curatorial implications raised by scientific studies. The results from the work presented at the conference can most definitely be applied in the library context, and thus I found this conference most relevant when one considers current and future collaborations between different departments in The Bodleian Libraries, Oxford University and beyond.

The main subject of discussion were the extensive scientific studies of drawings from the British Museum and the Gabinetto dei Disegni e delle Stampe at the Uffizi, Florence, carried out in preparation for the exhibition Fra Angelico to Leonardo: Italian Renaissance drawings (22 April – 25 July 2010).

Most of the talks were tailored around a methodology of work often used collaboratively by curators, conservators and scientists to develop a conservation approach: 1. Historical understanding of the provenance of items or collections, 2. Visual examination and technical imaging, 3. Chemical analysis, and 4. Conservation treatment.

A wide range of fascinating and well presented papers on the examination and characterisation of master drawings’ materials helped the audience to learn about the latest imaging techniques, such as the recently developed near infra-red multi-band scanner (“NIR”), which is currently being used for the study of Caravaggio’s paintings at the Opificio delle Pietre Dure e Laboratorio di Restauro Firenze. With regard to new imaging techniques, I particularly enjoyed Margaret Holben-Ellis talk “Reflecting Raphael: a closer look at the Morgan’s Agony in the Garden”, an enthralling presentation of the characterisation of the media used to depict the underdrawing in this cartoon. Visualising the morphology of the pricking in Raphael’s cartoon with the HIROX 3-D microscope was a compelling new experience for most of the audience. We were unanimously mesmerised by the wealth of information obtained with this imaging technique, which will contribute to a more comprehensive art historical understanding of Rafael’s cartoons.

I was intrigued by Lara Broeke’s current work on the translation into modern English of Cennino Cennini’s “Libro dell’Arte”, the 15th century “how to” book on Renaissance Art, which, amongst many others, includes techniques and recipes for underdrawing and miniatures for the illumination of manuscripts. Lara’s work is an update after Daniel V. Thompson’s translation, and includes the acknowledgements of ambiguities in Ceninni’s text, alongside with some corrections to Thompson’s translation. These corrections are based on empirical evidence after systematic reconstructions of the recipes, such as the preparation of ultramarine pigment and bistre ink, which are both used in the illumination of manuscripts as well as in master drawings. After this talk, I enjoyed the discussions on the use of bistre and iron gall ink by artists. Bistre was a common ink in the Renaissance, but with poorer flow properties than iron gall ink (used in Europe since the 12th century). Additionally, bistre is more transparent than iron gall, making it a better option to apply washes, rather than to produce lines fluently. Non-destructive instrumental analysis carried out on a large number of drawings suggests artists constantly used both inks in combination to achieve diverse effects in their drawings.

Well known, non-contact and non-invasive (non-destructive) analytical techniques were also highlighted by several talks during the day. I was impressed with the combined use of micro-Raman spectroscopy, micro-FTIR, XRF and vis-RF to study Andrea Mantegna paintings. This study involved the characterisation of iron gall ink and other materials used in works long attributed to this artist (“Madonna della Tenerezza” and “The Virgin Mary with a Child”), confirming that areas of the backgrounds were not painted by him.

Overall, this was an extremely useful and well attended symposium, which significantly contributed to acknowledge the need to continue pioneering the study of artists’ (and makers’) techniques in the museums, libraries and archives context.

Virginia M. Lladó-Buisán, Head of Book & Paper Conservation, Bodleian Libraries

CF10: Conservation in Focus. Icon Conference, Cardiff University 24-26 March 2010

The Institute of Conservation’s (Icon) first ever conference “CF10: Conservation in Focus” was recently held in Cardiff, Wales’ vibrant capital city, to consider the broad theme of UK Conservation – past, present and future. The conference aimed to:

  • Advance and share knowledge about conservation issues in and beyond Icon’s members.
  • To have an enjoyable conference where people have time to talk and network
  • To leave Icon stronger as an organisation

The first full day of the conference consisted of a one day plenary session and focused on the two themes – ‘evidence based decision-making in conservation’ and ‘a sustainable future for UK conservation’. Highlights of the first day included an argument from Andy Calver (St. Albans Museum Service) for the use of buffering agents to control environmental conditions rather than large-scale air-conditioning systems. There was also feedback on the success of the recent ‘Conservation in Focus’ exhibition at the British Museum. I saw the exhibition in September 2008 and thought it was a brilliant concept. The display showcased the conservation of objects and allowed visitors the opportunity to meet conservators and ask them questions whilst they worked. The outcome of the exhibition seemed mostly positive allowing the conservation department to have a much greater web presence. Increased interest has led to a number of videos and pod casts of conservation work to be uploaded.

The second day provided an opportunity for the Icon groups to host specialist half day seminars. I attended the conservation science and care of collections group sessions in the morning and afternoon, highlights of which included an update on Oddy materials testing at the British Museum from Julie Phippard. The BM feels that it has a responsibility to share results of material testing and as such will publish all known results in an online database which will clearly state whether materials are safe for use within museums and archives.

The organisers of the conference had also gone to the length of creating a Facebook page for the conference (CF10: are you going? (!/group.php?gid=77317902593&ref=ts). I found this incredibly useful as it allowed me to easily ask any questions about conference organisation and provided me with regular updates or news of last-minute changes.

Overall I thoroughly enjoyed the conference. It offered a perfect opportunity to chat with colleagues and a number of interesting papers were presented. The conference organisers made a particular effort to include evening social events in the main conference attendance cost so that all delegates could attend, creating even more networking opportunities. I eagerly look forward to the next conference which will hopefully have the same friendly atmosphere and flexible theme.

The full conference programme can be found online at

– From Jennifer Varallo (

Early Manuscripts of Anselm: conservation begins

Conservation work has recently started on two manuscripts containing the works of St. Anselm dating from the twelfth century. St. Anselm is arguably the most significant theologian and author ever to hold the office of Archbishop of Canterbury. He died on 21 April 1109, and 900 years later the Bodleian Library held a colloquium on the production and early circulation of manuscripts of Anselm’s works in April 2009.

MS. Bodl. 271 is an important early copy of his collected works from Christ Church, Canterbury; it includes the Monologion, Proslogion (famous for its ‘ontological proof’ of the existence of God), Cur Deus Homo, and other texts, and was probably compiled shortly after Anselm’s death. A second part, also Anselmian, was added in the 15th century, when the manuscript gained its current blind-tooled binding. It was given to the Bodleian in 1616.

MS. Auct. D. 2. 6 is a composite volume, containing three separate 12th-century illuminated texts: a liturgical calendar from St. Albans, a Psalter from Winchester, and a copy of Anselm’s Prayers and Meditations (read today by a wide public in the Penguin Classics translation by Sister Benedicta Ward SLG), with an important series of illustrations. The three parts seem to have been combined by the time the manuscript belonged to the Benedictine nunnery of Littlemore in the later Middle Ages. It was given to the Bodleian in about 1672.

Following the colloquium the Conservation & Collection Care section were approached about two of the manuscripts whose condition and importance indicated the need for conservation. Treatment proposals were drafted and the Bodleian was able to secure funding for the work from generous private donations. Treatment began in January 2010, and is being undertaken jointly by Nicole Gilroy and Andrew Honey.

MS. Bodl. 271 survives in a fifteenth-century Canterbury blind-tooled binding using four as yet unrecorded tools and which incorporated fragments of a fourteenth-century polyphonic music manuscript used as spine linings. Some of the linings were removed in the past, and combined with other damage this has had a detrimental effect on the sewing structure and board attachment. The binding is being repaired in-situ, by consolidation of the weakened sewing and re-attachment of the boards.

MS. Auct. D. 2. 6 was rebound for the Bodleian, probably in the early eighteenth century. The earlier binding history of the three texts, and in particular the question of when they were brought together, is of significant scholarly interest. The current binding, which had previously been repaired and rebacked, is entirely broken down and the opportunity to disbind and record all evidence of previous sewing is a valuable one. What is discovered during this process will determine the eventual rebinding of the three texts.

Both manuscripts pose interesting conservation dilemmas, and as work progresses we discover evidence left by craftsmen who worked on these manuscripts in the past and are faced with questions about the production and binding history of these volumes.

See the report of Anselm Day at the Bodleian Library, April 2009, Early Manuscripts of Anselm: a discussion with five manuscripts.

Jane Austen’s Volume the First

MS. Don. e. 7: The conservation of Jane Austen’s Volume the first

MS. Don. e. 7
“Volume the First” before treatment

This manuscript takes its name from the inscription on its upper cover. It contains a compilation of Jane Austen’s early short works, written in Austen’s hand as a fair copy, and includes Henry & Eliza, The Adventures of Mr Harley, and The beautifull Cassandra. Austen wrote in a ready-made bound blank-book and completed the transcript when she was seventeen. The manuscript was bought for the Bodleian Library through the Friends of the Bodleian in 1933 and was first published in an edition by R. W. Chapman (Oxford, 1933).

The conservation of the manuscript was made possible by a grant from the National Manuscript Conservation Trust and was carried out in parallel with an Arts and Humanities Research Council award to digitize the manuscript. The original, though damaged condition of this major literary manuscript required sensitive conservation treatment; a stationer’s binding was not intended to last indefinitely and subsequent use has led to its breakdown. Unfortunately, the damage was at a stage where it threatened safe handling of the volume, and a complete breakdown of the manuscript’s structure was threatened.

The conservation treatment was focussed on the repair of the damaged and broken spine folds of the manuscript as well as the breaking sewing and collapsed spine without dis-binding the manuscript. All repairs were carried out in-situ and the original structure was disturbed as little as possible during treatment. The conservation work was carried out by Andrew Honey of the Bodleian Library’s Conservation & Collection Care department.

Temporary repairs were carried out so that the manuscript could be fully digitized before conservation. The general condition of individual leaves was very good but many of their spine-folds were breaking down and several leaves were completely detached. The original sewing had broken down in places and the text-block was loose although sewing supports were sound and were still attached to the boards. The covering leather had broken down and the boards were not protecting the text-block.

To repair the leaves, Japanese paper patches were fed around the backs of sections, around the remains of the sewing thread, and pasted in place. The manuscript’s loose structure was repaired by re-sewing the text-block through a stiffened spine wrapper made from a laminate of linen and Japanese paper. This spine wrapper was then used to reposition the boards and formed the base for the new spine. The new spine was covered with layers of toned Japanese paper with a surface finish. Finally the repaired manuscript is housed in a new cloth box.

— From Andrew Honey
See more Conservation projects at the Bodleian Library

Resting books


On a visit to Leiden University Library’s Special Collections reading room, I was happy to see these comfortable- looking bookrests.  At the Bodleian our bookrests are all angular grey foam.  Also noted, the view from the window of the Leiden reading room …

canal view
canal view

Collection care is priority

exhibition scissors
exhibition scissors

“Do no harm” is the conservator’s creed.  When books are put on display for exhibition, they are often laid open on a cardboard book cradle. The pages are strapped down, gently, with polypropylene straps. But these need to be cut to remove the book once the exhibition is over. Cut with sharp scissors, so close to the priceless pages of an early printed book or manuscript?!  Now the exhibition officers have found a solution: multi-functional round-headed scissors maintain a smooth rounded surface near to the book allowing the sharp cutting edge to sever the temporary strap without endangering the ancient written treasure.