Since becoming the Heritage Council Intern in Conservation at the Chester Beatty in November 2019, I have had the opportunity to be involved in a wide range of conservation activities, including treating and preparing objects for readers, digitisation, loans and rotations in the galleries. During this process, I have become interested in the mechanics of the codex and the history of bookbinding across different cultures and plan to focus on this during my internship.
Having trained as a paper conservator, working with a collection that has a large number of bound volumes has been both challenging and very rewarding. I have learnt to think in three dimensions and consider the structure and mechanics of the codex as well as the condition of the paper inside. Although many of the volumes in the Chester Beatty collection are beautifully decorated, often by artisans at the height of their craft, it is necessary to consider more than their aesthetic value. Books have a functional purpose and the binding is a key part of the book’s integrity as an object. Although the cover can function as a decorative outer finish and offers a glimpse as to the content of the book, it is also a crucial structure that provides protection, allows for portability, and alters the opening characteristics of the textblock it contains. Although we as conservators employ a policy of minimal intervention whenever possible, damage to a binding demands a certain level of intervention in order to retain the functionality of the structure.
The Persian manuscript Athar al-muzaffar (CBL Per 235), title translates as Exploits of the Victorious, came into the conservation lab as a priority for treatment as it was requested for digitisation. It has an Islamic binding which has been reversed with the envelope flap extending from the upper board, rather than the lower board as was originally intended. It is a full leather binding with previous repairs to the cover, completed with the addition of strips of lower quality black leather along the spine, foredge piece, and around the edge of the upper and lower boards. The brown leather covering is decorated with blind pressure tooled central medallion, two pendants and corner pieces, all with remnants of gilding visible. The beautiful cherry red leather doublure is decorated with a central filigree mandorla and pendants over green, blue and orange painted grounds. The binding was in poor condition and it was not safe to be handled or exhibited as the envelope flap was at risk of becoming detached. There were substantial breaks along the inner and outer joints between the upper board and the envelope flap. The leather remaining along the joints was holding but fragile and fragmentary. Other issues included water damage to the leather on the upper and lower covers, tears to the first and last few folios and three partially loose folios.
The aim of my conservation treatment was to make the book safe for display, digitisation, and use by readers. After going through treatment options and with guidance from Kristine and Julia, I proceeded with treatment. To repair the split joints between the upper board and the envelope flap I used the following process:
- First, I toned 30 gsm Seikishu Japanese paper with acrylics; dark red for the inside of the joint between the board and foredge piece, tan brown for the inside of the joint between the foredge piece and envelope flap, and grey for the exterior of both joints.
I began repairs from the inside of the joins as the leather had broken entirely. Starting with the inner joint which was the most damaged, I lifted 3 mm of leather and pasteboard all the way along the edge of the board and the foredge piece where the joint was broken.
- Then, I inserted a water cut strip of toned tissue, under the lifted leather with tweezers, securing it with wheat starch paste. To repair the joint between the foredge piece and envelope flap I followed the same process, using one strip of toned tissue to repair the break at the tail and another strip to repair the break at the head. The break at the head was not straight and the leather was particularly brittle in this area due to the effect of old adhesive used in a previous old repair.
- On the exterior of both joints I lifted a few millimetres of leather where there were breaks, inserted grey toned Japanese paper, and wrapped them around at head and tail in the place of the original turn-ins. I re-adhered areas of lifting leather on the foredge piece with Lascaux and a small brush.
These repairs successfully re-secured the envelope flap and enabled the binding to function again as a whole. While the repair is visible, it is not visually distracting and blends in with the surrounding leather from a distance. I also polished the leather using a small amount of Museum Wax to improve its condition and appearance. Finally I carried out in-situ tear repairs on the first and last few folios using 10gsm Kozo. The partially loose folios were tipped in to prevent further edge damage, and the conservation of Athar-al-Muffar was complete.
The Chester Beatty contains binding structures from across the world, spanning a wide time range going back as early as third century AD. Close examination and conservation treatment of these manuscripts offers many opportunities for learning and can reveal insights into the bookbinding traditions of different cultures. Helping to care for this collection is a privilege, and working as a conservator here involves learning practical craft skills, employing ethical decision making, an understanding of conservation science, and a large amount of collaboration. The profession of being a book and paper conservator involves a lifetime of learning and I am excited to be at the beginning of that journey.
Sophie Coulthard, Conservation Intern 2019/20