October 1994 Issue 13
The paper & book group: 'Of making many books there is no end'
A million prints and drawings, five million photographs, at least one million books. The sheer numbers of paper artefacts and books in the V&A dictate one distinguishing approach of the Paper and Book Group, namely towards preservation and preventive conservation. Add to that a very active loans, display and exhibition programme, and the minimal interventive conservation of many objects becomes necessary.
However, balanced against that is the need for the interventive conservation of artefacts identified as high priorities, for maintaining, developing and teaching practical skills and for making objects usable. The accent on accessibility of the two major departments the Group serves, with both the Prints Drawings and Paintings (PDP) Collection maintaining an open access policy in the Print Room and the National Art Library having up to 85 readers at any time consulting books, and the need for handleable, usable objects becomes imperative. Given the many calls on their time, the Paper and Book Sections have responded to the scale of the problem with surveys and condition assessment to identify priorities for both preventive and interventive conservation.
Fig.1. Andrew Norris, ‘Lijepa Nasa Domovina’, 1992-3, X9300043. Contemporary book art made of acrylic, soil, plywood, grass and found objects, on exhibition. (click image for larger version)
In common with the other Groups, the Paper and Book Group serves the needs of several curatorial collections.Consequently, conservators work on a large range of objects from 1960s paper dresses to medieval illuminated leaves to paper chairs. Furthermore, those objects range hugely in size, from the Raphael Cartoons (the smallest is 3.35m x 5.18m), wallpapers and posters to Indian and portrait miniatures. Whilst cellulose is the fundamental unifying material in the Group, nevertheless the diversity of materials is vast, from collodion glass plate negatives to miniatures painted on ivory to newspapers printed on silk; from leather, cloth, vellum, tortoiseshell and silver bindings to contemporary book art made from mud and grass or incorporating abdominal sutures.
Approximately half of the Museum's collecting is currently 20th century material and such artefacts represent an increasing diversity of materials, particularly with plastics, and technology such as faxes and digitisation. In addition preservation options cast up challenges such as microfilming and reformatting. Consequently 'paper' and 'book' have to be taken as quite loose terms.
Of making many books there is no end'
['Bible', Ecclesiastes, ch 12 v 12]
Book Conservation only came under the umbrella of the Conservation Department 11 years ago, when the lone bookbinder was devolved from the Printing Department. A Government report at the time recommended the creation of six new book conservation posts. At present the Book Conservation Section's three conservators work in three different workshops. Jane Rutherston's workshop is located within the National Art Library. She fulfils an in situ or 'barefoot' conservator role, providing advice and working on high usage material from the Library. It has proved vital to have a presence in the collections for the visibility of Conservation, for performing minor repairs and for preventing minor damage becoming major. Jane is also in charge of the phase box-making programme located at Blythe House and from the end of last year took on the exhibition work for books.
Annette Low works from a workshop in Blythe House on a large project to conserve the manuscripts of Charles Dickens. Given the enormous backlog of work to be done in the NAL alone, the Dickens manuscripts were demonstrated to be a priority -by the so-called '100 best' books survey.1 Annette, who had previously worked on contract on the Heals textile sample book project, started research on the Dickens manuscripts in 1993 funded by a Wolfson Foundation grant. We are now looking for funding to help finish the project. The author is based in the book studio next to the Printing Department separate from the main conservation block.
'...thy sheet of paper, although the sheet were big enough for the bed of Ware'
[Shakespeare. 'Twelfth Night'. 1601. Act 3, sc2, 1.]
Within the Group, Paper has been in the Conservation Department the longest, separating from Paintings in 1973 when John Wagstaff was made Head of Paper Section. The Mountcutters moved from the Joiners into Conservation seven years ago. The Paper Conservation Section comprises six senior conservators, two 'barefoot' conservators and four conservation mountcutters.
Apart from proficiency in the full range of paper conservation treatments, each of the six senior conservators has developed an area of specialism. For example, Pauline Webber has a long-established interest in oriental artefacts and John Wagstaff has developed a particular expertise in the conservation of Indian miniatures. Merryl Huxtable has an especial interest in wallpapers, being one of the founders of the Wallpaper History Society. Alan Derbyshire had been studying European portrait miniatures under Jim Murrell in anticipation of Jim's retirement. Under the saddest circumstances, with Jim's recent death, Alan assumes the mantle of portrait miniatures specialist. Alison Richmond has developed the surveying of the collections and is involved with the ethical dilemmas of the profession. Elizabeth Martin's specialism in photographs has evolved such that it now takes up all her time, thereby reflecting both the scale of the conservation problem and acknowledging it as an under-developed discipline.
Pauline Webber is acting Head of Section whilst John Wagstaff concentrates on the conservation of seven Raphael Cartoons on loan from the Queen. This is probably the largest project undertaken by the Paper Section. The Cartoons were last conserved in 1965 and the current project has been occasioned by the necessity for building work in the Cartoon Court. The project entails extensive examination using video microscope, ultra-violet, x-ray photography and infra-red Vidicon. The feasibility of photogrammetry is being investigated in order to measure the Cartoons extremely accurately. The art historical and conservation examinations are very much intertwined in this project. It is anticipated that it will take about a year.
In addition to the six senior paper conservators, the most recent 'acquisitions' in the Group have been the appointment of two in situ or 'barefoot' conservators: Victoria Button and Philippa Hunt. These two paper conservators work physically in the PDP Collection, just off the Print Room. They are reactive to requests for advice in addition to having programmes of work. The method of channelling work to them from their main curatorial collections is being improved; a monthly surgery for all four sections of PDP to funnel work to them is being tested. Another development will be their going into other collections, such as Far Eastern and Indian & South East Asian to carry out condition surveys and in situ preservation work.
'They shall mount up with wings as eagles'
['Bible'. Isaiah. ch 40 v 31]
The four conservation mountcutters spend about 85% of their time on preparing objects for exhibition and storage, mainly two-dimensional artefacts but also recently books. Each person has areas of special interest or research for example Barry Danby has attended courses on gilding and frame conservation, Lynette Crowhurst works especially with Indian artefacts and the mounting of textiles and Danny Norman has been doing a bookbinding course as well as researching methods of displaying parchment fragments.
Fig.3. Photograph of Group on building site of new studios, November 1993. (click image for larger version)
One characteristic of the Group at the moment is its geographical dislocation; the 15 members work in nine different sites, up to two miles apart. However, the situation will be rectified within the next year with new accommodation in the Centre of Research and Conservation. Relocated in new studios on the top floor of the Royal College of Art building, the Paper and Book Group will be the only materials-based group to be housed all together.
'Even while they teach, men learn'
[Seneca, 'Letters', 7.8]
Another trait of the Group is that straight-forward 'paper' and 'book' conservation MAs on the RCA/V&A Conservation Course are not offered, as they already exist at other institutions. Therefore, MAs are offered in aspects of the subject not taught elsewhere and previous experience is usually a prerequisite. To date two wallpaper students have graduated very successfully from Paper Section. The criteria by which MA subjects are offered in the Group reflect the nature and conservation needs of the V&A's. collections (such as Indian artefacts) and the needs of the profession as a whole. A five year plan for the Group's involvement with the RCA Course has been drawn up.
'We haven't the money, so we've got to think'
[Lord Rutherford, 1962 Brunel Lecture.]
Fig.4. Early 18th century silver and gold binding (9032-1863) in phase-box lined with Plastazote. (click image for larger version)
The Conservation Department is about to examine its research role and the next step for the Paper and Book Group is to collate current research projects and compile a five year view of what theoretical and applied questions want answering, both to aid practical work, to assist the understanding of the collections and to address larger issues pertinent to the profession.
In addition to the research which will emanate from the MA programme, some research topics are more suitable for Group members and some for collaboration with other institutions. A combination of pragmatic and pure research is envisioned. An example of pragmatic research is that of Danny Norman in the Conservation Mount-cutters, who has been investigating the optimum method of mounting single parchment fragments in preparation for an exhibition in the V&A in January 1995, which has involved the use of holography in conjunction with the Royal College of Art.2 Alan Derbyshire has drafted a Light Exposure Policy from published material, which will have implications for the display of objects. Possible areas of practical research into techniques used by conservators include aspects of encapsulation, deacidification, washing, drying, humidification and solvent treatment. Research projects more suitable for collaboration between V&A staff and other institutions, are, for example in Photographic Conservation, glass deterioration in glass plate negatives or weeping glass in cased photographic objects.
'Change is not made without inconvenience, even from worse to better'
[Samuel Johnson, 'Preface to Dictionary of the English Language', 1775]
This is a snapshot of some aspects of the Paper and Book Group taken by the Head of that Group, less than one year after its formation. Undoubtedly, things will change and not necessarily in the direction envisaged now. But the need for balance between known Museum events and changing Museum priorities, between individual projects and the development of 'hands-on' skills, between teaching and research, between interventive conservation and fundamental preservation will continue.
The concept of preventive conservation is maturing in several directions. A growing role for paper and book conservators is that of conservation liaison on Museum projects such as the proposed NAL library building, the planned Photographic Gallery and the William Morris Exhibition, whereby advice is proffered early on in a project as to conservation implications. A new departure for the Group which further extends this integration is contributing to the curation of exhibitions, such as the proposed Conservation Exhibition. Another development is the preservation work undertaken by colleagues within collections, such as paperkeepers wrapping books and rolled objects, and an anticipated advancement is curators and conservators jointly conducting surveys.
Areas still to be resolved include archives, staffing issues, framing, materials testing and materials database, surveys and resulting conservation and preservation policies. The question of archives needs addressing, since this is probably the largest growing area within the Group's responsibility. The lack of staff in book and photographic conservation is an overwhelming impediment in the Group, however the Group looks forward to having up to four practical MA students, and perhaps the first staff exchanges and senior fellow.
Many condition surveys have already been conducted within the Group and over the next five years it is planned to complete condition assessing all relevant collections. Since the first one carried out in the NAL in 1985, whereby an estimated 2000 year backlog of book conservation work was identified, the information gathered from surveys has proved invaluable for establishing priorities to make the best use of finite resources and for drawing up strategies for the preservation and conservation of cellulose-based collections.
1. Helen Shenton, 'A Conservation Strategy for Books at the Victoria and Albert Museum', Institute of Paper Conservation Conference Papers Manchester, 1992, pp.133-140.
2. Daniel Norman 'Mounting Single Leaf Parchment & Vellum Objects', 'V&A Conservation Journal', October 1993, No.9, pp.10-13.