Tag Archives: Conservation

Letterlocking: keeping post from prying eyes

by Emily Mayne (St Hilda’s College) and Callum Seddon (Merton College)

Jana Dambrogio at the workshop in the Weston Library, Bodleian Libraries

Jana Dambrogio at the workshop in the Weston Library, Bodleian Libraries

How did men and women secure their letters before the introduction of gummed envelopes? Why should the materiality of letters as folded packets interest scholars and conservators as much as their contents? Jana Dambrogio (Thomas F. Peterson (1957) Conservator at Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and Daniel Starza Smith (British Academy postdoctoral research fellow, Lincoln College) led a workshop to explore these and related questions through a series of hands-on case studies.

When we send letters today, the envelope acts as a security, protecting the content from prying eyes. But envelopes as we think of them now were not invented until the mid-nineteenth century. Prior to this letters were secured by folding and various combinations of sealing, tying, cutting, and sewing, making the letter its own security device. ‘Letterlocking’, as Jana Dambrogio calls it, is a social and textual practice of document security that stretches back thousands of years, but the workshop focused particularly on techniques dating from the late sixteenth to the mid-twentieth century. Participants were able to open pre-sealed examples, and, throughout the workshop, learn to fold and lock their own.
letterlockingFig 2_sm
We began by opening a folded packet, sealed with a strip of paper and wax seal. Upon opening, a number of slits were visible, running vertically down each side of the paper; a triangular section of paper was also missing from the lower, right-hand corner of the unfolded letter. Many early modern letters currently survive in this state today, and it is only by thinking of letters as folded and sealed packets, rather than simply flattened objects, that we can begin to piece together why these material signs – vertical or horizontal slits, and missing triangular pieces – matter. In this example, the triangular piece of paper has been cut from the end of the letter and used as a sealing device to authenticate the packet. Anyone receiving this packet would know if its contents had already been read, because both wax seal and paper strip would be broken. It would take someone with access to an identical seal and paper-stock to replicate this security measure once opening it. This format of letterlocking is, therefore, a more secure method than the ‘tuck and seal’ method (also demonstrated in the workshop) in which one side of the packet is tucked into the other prior to sealing.

We then looked at a series of case studies of alternative letterlocking formats, each of which demonstrated the importance of bringing an analysis of a letter’s material form to bear on understanding the circumstances of its production, exchange, and reception. Wax is by no means a necessary part of letterlocking, as we learned by studying correspondence sent from the front line by a Russian soldier in the Second World War. This soldier secured his letter (into a triangular format) with the expectation that it would be opened and read by army censors, who would examine the post sent by troops to safeguard against the risk of military intelligence coming into the wrong hands. Similarly, a letter sent by Marie Antoinette to Cardinal Ignazio Boncompagni Ludovisi showed the importance of being able to open, but re-secure the letter with a removable paper lock and elaborate papered-seal. Other examples included a format often used by Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex in his correspondence with Elizabeth I: the letter is pleated, folded into a small packet and a length of thread is wound around the ends of the folded letter, and warm sealing wax is placed over the thread on one (and often both) of the exposed panels and impressed with a signet. Folding a letter in this way produces a thin rectangular packet easily concealed in the hand or sleeve, and choosing this letter format might then serve to communicate intimacy or a wish for intimacy between letter-writer and recipient, in addition to the written contents of the letter. John Donne’s letters were arguably the ‘show-stoppers’ of the workshop, if only for his spectacular seals: a sheaf of snakes, and Christ crucified on an anchor. Participants sealed their own versions of the letter formats demonstrated in the workshop using replicas of Donne’s own sealing devices that Dambrogio and Smith had specially made. Donne used many of the formats explored in the workshop, but perhaps unsurprisingly also took care to make more extravagant paper locks.

letterlockingFig 3_sm

The session ended with the chance to apply this knowledge to actual examples in the Bodleian’s Special Collections. We were able to materially ‘read’ surviving autograph Donne letters, besides other examples of letterlocking in some of the Bodleian’s manuscript letter collections. This final stage of the session served to illustrate an important point: letterlocking is useful for both researchers and conservators. After working through the examples, we could appreciate that letters were neither ‘flat’ objects (they only seem to be once they are bound into a composite volume), and that they conveyed a number of social signs through their material features. If scholars are repeatedly called upon to recognize the importance of the material text, letters are a useful place to begin exploring the connections between material form, content, and meaning.

“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? (http://www.facebook.com/#!/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 http://www.icon.org.uk/images/stories/cf10_programme-110310.pdf

– From Jennifer Varallo (jennifer.varallo@bodleian.ox.ac.uk)

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.

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.