Warriors, Weapons and Horses: conserving folios from a Mamluk manuscript

19 October, 2018

The Mamluks ruled Syria and Egypt from 1250 until they were defeated by the Ottoman’s in 1517. Very few illustrated manuscripts from this era have survived, but one of them is held at the Chester Beatty. This bound manuscript (CBL Ar 5655), dating from the mid-14th century, is a Compendium of Military Arts featuring warfare, weaponry and horsemanship. Twelve separate folios from the manuscript have recently been conserved in preparation for our upcoming temporary exhibition, Gift of a Lifetime (opening on 19th October 2018).

CBL Ar 5655.134 before treatment.

CBL Ar 5655.159 in transmitted light, showing the historic repairs

The thickly applied white pigment (probably lead white) on the faces and turbans of the warriors had suffered serious cracking and in some cases small losses. In other more localised areas there was cracking and slight flaking/powdering of some pigments, particularly in association with creases in the paper. It is also likely that the smooth surface of the highly burnished paper support had contributed to the loss of media.

Cracking of media associated with creases in the paper (CBL Ar 5655.134)
Flaking white pigment (CBL Ar 5655.134)

All of the pigments were checked under magnification and consolidated as needed using Bermocoll, a synthetic cellulose-based adhesive. Isopropanol was applied to the edge of the flaking areas using a very fine brush, directly followed by the adhesive applied with a second brush. The alcohol acts as a wetting agent, reducing the surface tension of the adhesive so it is drawn underneath the flaking pigment layer by capillary action. On drying, the adhesive secures the fragile pigment layer to the paper below.

On a number of folios the paper along the spine edge was fragile and torn with paper fibres at risk of being lost. A small number of tears along the creases in the paper were also apparent. The folios had been repaired in the past and although these historic repairs were indiscreet it was decided that they should be left intact because they had not caused any damage to the folios and can now be considered to be part of the object’s history.

Repairs were carried out to stabilise the damaged areas of paper and ensure that no further damage would occur through handling. As the thin Islamic paper was particularly susceptible to distortion with the addition of moisture, the repair methods were chosen carefully to ensure that only a very small amount of moisture was introduced. The tears were repaired using remoistenable tissue, a very thin Japanese tengujo paper pre-prepared with 1% methyl cellulose adhesive. Along the spine edge the loose fibres were secured with thick wheat starch paste. In some areas bridge repairs were added to support small parts of the paper that were at risk of detaching.

Repairing a tear on CBL Ar 5655.161 using remoistenable tissue
Applying small bridge repairs to the spine edge of CBL Ar 5655.162

For the bridge repairs, Japanese paper fibres were teased out from the torn edge of a long-fibred kozo paper and rolled together between finger and thumb to create tiny bridges. The repair fibres were then pasted with wheat starch paste and positioned carefully across the damaged areas.

Detail of the spine edge of CBL Ar 5655.134, before treatment in transmitted light
After Treatment

Whilst working on these charming miniatures I had the chance to observe some of the techniques used by the artist(s). Scoring lines (visible in raking light) had been used to plan out the symmetrical designs and under-drawing was visible where the pigments had been lost from the faces and turbans. Interestingly, the pigment on the back of the black horses had a shiny finish and there was slight cupping of the painted surface. This suggests that a surface coating was applied locally over the black pigment before burnishing to create this lustrous finish. The undersides of the black horses were left without this additional surface treatment leaving the pigment more matte, possibly to give the effect of shading.

Ar 5655.167 in raking light, showing the scoring lines used to map out the design
Ar 5655.156, showing both shiny and matte media on the black horse
Mounting the Ar 5655 folios

After treatment, the Mamluk folios were secured in window mounts using T-hinges made from Japanese sekishu paper adhered with wheat starch paste. The folios will be on display alongside other treasures from the Chester Beatty collection, in the exhibition ‘Gift of a Lifetime’ (19th October 2018—28th April 2019). We do hope you’ll come and see it!

Alice Derham, Heritage Council Intern in Conservation

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of Sir Alfred Chester Beatty’s magnificent bequest, Gift of a Lifetime (19 October 2018 – 28 April 2019) presents a choice selection of masterpieces from this unique collection.

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