Image of A detail of creased interleaving in CBL In 12 before conservation.

Part 1: Conservation quandaries-treating an 18th century interleaved Indian manuscript

13 August, 2020

I have recently been working on the conservation of Chester Beatty’s Dastur-e Himmat or Model of Resolution (CBL In 12), produced c. 1750-1775 in Murshidabad, Bengal. The story is a Hindu romance, a less well-known version of Qissa-I-Kamrup retelling the tale of Prince Kamrup of Advadh and Princess Kamalata of Serendip in Persian verse. The manuscript is written in beautiful Nastaliq script with the text enclosed in cloud bands and interlinear gilding. This copy is notable for its large number of paintings and quality of the full-page illustrations (1). There are also many smaller decorative scenes of animals and flowers.

Condition

When the manuscript came to conservation at the beginning of this year, the textblock was fully detached from the cover and the sewing structure had failed over time. In this condition, it was not stable enough for access by readers or digitisation, and it would be difficult to display the manuscript safely. The spine leather was shrunken and desiccated, and this was likely the reason the textblock no longer fit within the binding. Dastur-e Himmat has an Islamic-style binding made up of two lacquered boards and a decorated leather spine piece with a fragmented textile (cotton) spine lining.

At first glance I thought the boards were pasteboard, but the heavier weight and areas where the lacquer was chipped quickly gave away that they were made of wood. Both the outer and inner faces of the covering boards are intricately decorated with a gold, red and brown floral pattern, central medallion, two flanking medallions and four corner pieces. The floral pattern on the inner face slightly differs in design from that of the outer and has an additional green colour used for the border decoration.

Image of CBL In 12 exterior of binding (left) and a detail of the lacquer on the inner face of the boards (right).
CBL In 12 exterior of binding (left) and a detail of the lacquer on the inner face of the boards (right).

The manuscript was sewn on two leather supports. The endbands consist of a rolled leather core with a neutral primary thread and a decorative secondary twined chevron pattern in blue and silver. Kristine taught a course based in part on this structure during the Montefiascone Project in 2018. You can read a review here.

Image of detail of the spine of CBL In 12 before conservation.
Detail of the spine of CBL In 12 before conservation.

The textblock consists of 187 folios of burnished Islamic handmade paper. Wavy laid lines are visible with transmitted light, as is the fact that several of the bifolia consist of two separate sheets of paper that have been tipped together. There is also evidence of historic paper repairs which appear as if they were done at or near the time of the manuscript’s creation. Interestingly, the first two sections are made up of thinner paper with a thickness of 0.06 mm while the rest of the manuscript is written on paper that is 0.11 mm thick.

There are 211 paintings in the manuscript, ranging from full page illustrations to small decorative panels. These are in excellent condition, perhaps in part due to the protection offered by 175 sheets of thin animal skin interleaving tipped-in throughout the textblock.

Image of CBL In 12: Islamic paper on the lightbox (left); bifolia consisting of two separate overlapped sheets tipped together (centre); and an historic paper repair (right).
CBL In 12: Islamic paper on the lightbox (left); bifolia consisting of two separate overlapped sheets tipped together (centre); and an historic paper repair (right).

Treatment planning and disbinding

Documentation is always the first step in any conservation treatment, so I made a condition report and collation diagram to record the damage and structure of the manuscript. There are 27 quires ranging from two to four bifolia in each, and two detached folios with no conjoint folio. Since so little of the sewing structure remained intact, the decision was taken to disbind the manuscript in order to repair and re-sew it.

As mentioned in previous conservation blog posts, disbinding is such an interventive treatment that it is only considered as a last resort. Fortunately, most of the objects we conserve can be repaired in situ, but many of the projects we share with you here are the more unusual sustained projects we work on, including occasional rebindings. In this case the sewing was so fragmentary that the only option was removal. I recorded the position of the sewing thread visible in the centre bifolia of each quire in order to work out the location of the sewing holes before disbinding. The spine lining was no longer adhered, the remainder of both endbands had slipped down the spine and mishapen, and the leather supports had shrunk and distorted. For these reasons, the remaining structure was removed and tacked to mount board to be safely stored with the object after treatment.

Image of Record of sewing thread positions and spine lining, endbands, and leather supports tacked to mountboard (left); Sophie disbinding CBL In 12 (right).
Record of sewing thread positions and spine lining, endbands, and leather supports tacked to mountboard (left); Sophie disbinding CBL In 12 (right).

Interleaving and spine fold repairs

Of the 175 extant interleaving sheets, six were detached, 92 were damaged, and 77 were in good condition. The damaged sheets were broken up into four categories: partially detached; torn; heavily creased; and slightly creased. This allowed me to get a better idea of the severity of damage and to create more accurate time estimates for my repairs.

Interestingly, it appears as if every folio would have had a sheet of interleaving attached to the recto originally. Based on the placement of the interleaving it is possible that it is original. There is also evidence to support this in the form of original thread running through the interleaving (there is no evidence that the manuscript has been sewn more than once); a large number of patch repairs completed with the same material; and later paper repairs along the spine fold, which hold the interleaving in place. Based on the time period the manuscript was made in and the thickness of interleaving it seems likely the interleaving is made of split sheep skin though protein analysis would be needed to confirm this (2).

Image of CBL In 12: a thread running through the interleaving (left); a skin patch repair (centre); and an old repair used to secure interleaving (right).
CBL In 12: a thread running through the interleaving (left); a skin patch repair (centre); and an old repair used to secure interleaving (right).

As conservators we want to be minimally interventive, keep all original material, and retain the integrity of the object. Although removing the interleaving and storing it separately would remove any disruption to viewing the folios and possibly reduce the thickness of the textblock enough to enable it to be reintegrated with its binding, removal of original material is considered overly interventive and unethical. The interleaving is not causing any damage to the manuscript, and can be safely rolled back for exhibition. It is relatively transparent so does not significantly impact the viewing experience but does mean an additional level of care is needed when handling the manuscript. The original purpose for the addition of this interleaving was likely to protect the illustrations and extensive use of gold cloud decoration around the text from abrasion, or off-setting of pigment from facing pages.It provides a valuable insight into manuscript production techniques in Murshidabad at the time and therefore all efforts to retain it should be taken.

Image of CBL In 12, f.18 with interleaving on the recto.
CBL In 12, f.18 with interleaving on the recto.

In order to access the spine folds for repair, and ultimately resew the manuscript, the interleaving itself needed flattening and repair to allow it to function as protective sheets as originally intended.

After disbinding the textblock I realized the adhesive used to attach the animal skin interleaving along the spine fold had caused multiple bifolia to become stuck together. Although time consuming, I was able to manually separate the bifolia that were stuck together and could see that extensive repairs were needed to the spine folds before resewing could take place. However, since on the majority of folios the interleaving runs right up to and even over the spine fold, I first had to decide how to approach the interleaving before I could begin to repair the textblock.

Image of CBL In 12, folios adhered together (left); and interleaving running across the spine fold (right).
CBL In 12, folios adhered together (left); and interleaving running across the spine fold (right).

I considered removing the interleaving temporarily, so that I could complete repairs to both the spine and the interleaving before re-adhering the interleaving slightly away from the gutter, but this approach seemed much too interventive. Although it would allow me to repair all of the manuscript material with ease, and avoid bulk on the spine edge by staggering the interleaving and my repairs to the spine fold, it would also change the placement of original material. Considering this, the best option seemed to be to repair the spine folds and interleaving in situ using Japanese paper strips, which slightly overlap the interleaving when necessary.

Image of Sophie completing a spine fold repair with Japanese paper.
Sophie completing a spine fold repair with Japanese paper.

First, I removed accretions of adhesive from the spine folds with a scalpel. Then I used wheat starch paste to apply water-cut strips of 32 gsm Usumino tissue and 9 gsm Tengujo for smaller breaks or areas of skinning. Of the total 27 quires, almost all the outer bifolia needed a full strip repair. Unsurprisingly, the first and last quires required the most repair as several of the bifolia had completely split. I varied the width of the strips between 5mm and 15mm so as not to build up bulk in one place.

The interleaving was flattened with gentle humidification – either overall or localised, depending on the creasing and level of attachment to the manuscript. I used polythene sheets as a barrier layer to protect the paper and paintings below and created a mini-humidity chamber with damp blotter and Gore-Tex. If the interleaving sheet was almost detached then overall humification worked well, whereas if it was still fully or mostly attached to the textblock then localised humidification was better as it avoided incurring uneven tensions in the skin as it expanded and contracted around the area still adhered. In cases where the animal skin interleaving was torn, I repaired it using remoistenable tissue prepared with Isinglass. Any loose or partially detached interleaving was tipped back in using a dry wheat starch paste if the original placement was known.

Image of CBL In 12, f.118 interleaving before flattening (left), and after flattening (centre); torn interleaving (top right), and after repair with remoistenable tissue (bottom right).
CBL In 12, f.118 interleaving before flattening (left), and after flattening (centre); torn interleaving (top right), and after repair with remoistenable tissue (bottom right).

The two detached manuscript folios, 181 and 184, were repaired with extended guards to allow me to reintegrate them in the textblock. Through examination of my foliation diagram and consultation with the curator of Islamic Collections, Dr Moya Carey, it became clear there was a break in the text between folios 178 and 179. This suggested folio 181’s conjoint leaf would originally have gone here. There were no other breaks or missing folios to demonstrate the placement of 184’s conjoint leaf, although it is possible it may have been attached to an additional endpaper which is no longer extant.

Image of CBL In 12, f.184 (left), and with the guard wrapped around the final quire.
CBL In 12, f.184 (left), and with the guard wrapped around the final quire.

Once all repairs were complete, I carefully trimmed them and placed the manuscript under boards to rest before resewing.

This has been a challenging but rewarding treatment so far. Taking a manuscript from its bound state to disbound folios in order to carry out repair before putting it back together can sometimes feel like you are moving backwards! However, this process of deconstruction offers many opportunities for learning and problem solving. While the interleaving has added an extra layer of complexity to the project, it has also given me the opportunity to gain a better understanding of historical interleaving techniques. I have a new appreciation for this material and I am looking forward to the next stage of this conservation treatment, which will focus on resewing and rebinding approaches. I look forward to sharing the results with you here.

Sophie Coulthard, Conservation Intern 2019/20

To hear more about this treatment and Sophie’s conservation internship at the Chester Beatty please sign up to attend her Live Online Talk, Conservation and Craft; Learning through Book Structures, next Thursday at 1:10pm as part of Heritage Week.

Follow this link to register: https://zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_erCNXLUmS7S_GopYvQ9VAA

Image of CBL In 12 textblock after repair (left), and after trimming of the new repairs (right).
CBL In 12 textblock after repair (left), and after trimming of the new repairs (right).
  1. Linda York Leach, Mughal and Other Indian Paintings From the Chester Beatty Library: Volume 2, 1995, p.623.
  2. Amelie Couvrat Desvergnes, ‘Skin Against Paper: Identification of Historical Interleaving Materials in Indo-Iranian Manuscripts,The Book and Paper Group Annual 34, 2015, p.130.

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