Conservation of a Japanned Bureau-Cabinet from Erddig

Some months ago now we had an interesting object in the studio for extensive treatment: a black japanned bureau-cabinet, one of the most important pieces of furniture from National Trust’s Erddig in Wrexham. The goal of the work over six months was to preserve the decorative surfaces and to restore it aesthetically, including cleaning, consolidating the flaking japanning, restoring losses of damaged wooden elements and re-integrating the degraded varnish surface. The captions in the photos below explain it all.

Erddig is a wonderful eighteenth century country house and well worth a visit, especially now with its bureau-cabinet back! It has a unique collection including an amazing series of portraits of the servants spanning 200 years—my favourite, of course, is that of Thomas Rogers, the house carpenter at his workbench.

Before Treatment

Before Treatment

After treatment

After treatment

by Tristram Bainbridge

Bookbinding According to Diderot

On Thursday I made my usual pilgrimage north, only this time to Dartmouth College for a class on 18th century French binding before going to Women's Studio, and this time with two little babies the size of lemons inside. We wound our way up and tried not to be homesick. It's hard to put a finger on it but the road is different, the signs are different, the trees are different, the temperature is definitely different. It smells like summer and it smells like New England. Dartmouth looks like what my child self thought college would look like, before I went to MICA and Columbia and West Dean. 

In two days, ten of us (three from Yale, three from Dartmouth, three independent binders, & I) made models of mid- to late-18th century French trade bindings like the ones below. The style is recognizable from a mile away:  mid-brown calf, sponged or sprinkled, at least five raised bands, a characteristically-tooled spine, red edges, French curl marbling in yellow, red, and blue. Not that there aren't variations but one so often sees exactly this pattern. Structural features include a double comb lining, at least in theory; a particular lacing pattern; rounding, backing, and cutting in boards; sewing down the gutter of the marbled pastedown/flyleaf. "Always," I say, opening one of the example books and not finding any sewing. "Always," I say, reaching for another, shutting it just as fast. "Always!" I say, finally finding one that followed the rules. 

(I took a few pictures in the beginning, before I got too distracted and forgot to take more, so the rest of the "during" images will have to wait until someone else passes some on.)

For textblocks, I adapted an 1827 binding manual helpfully digitized by Google. Most of us have enough blank bindings to last a lifetime of thoughtful journaling and it really looks the part when the insides match the outsides, even if on bright white machine-made paper. I opted for the shorter and fatter of the 1820s options, Manuel Complet du Relieur, but there is also an amazing one in the form of a "didactic poem" if anyone wants to practice their 19th c. French binding rhymes. A few colleagues wanted copies to bind on their own, not being able to make it to the workshop, so I had some extras printed and will offer them here for sale soon along with notes on how to put it all together.

The marbling is the most beautiful marbling, from The Marbler's Apprentice—hand-ground pigments, lovely colors that don't sit heavy on the surface like acrylics. Pergamena sent the leather, which they managed to split to super super thin. I always think when covering of the first skin I ever bound with, which I picked out based on color and grain without Maureen around—turned out it was, according to her, the thickest, toughest goat that ever did live, and I spent the better part of a day paring it. It was a revelation when I learned about splitting machines. 

Somehow in only two days we sewed on raised cords; laced on boards; rounded and backed; scraped, burnished, and lined the spines; plowed; edge-colored; endbanded; pared; covered; and sprinkled. The only thing left is to put down the ends, which needed open drying time so had to be done at home in order for people to travel efficiently. (Bonus points for titling, tooling, and polishing at home, which I have all intention to do and probably won't.) And we still had time for bagels & ice cream.

New (top) and old (bottom). Don't mind the generous sprinkles on mine! 

Binding club

Some recent West Dean graduates & I started a binding club: we take turns researching a binding and showing the structure to the others. DIY professional development. First meeting: a trial run of the 18th century French model we'll be making at Dartmouth at the end of this week. We also managed to fit the three of us in my little studio and still have room to make a mess!

Hot tip: washing smoke sponges

One of the students recently blew our minds when she came back from an internship and told us that you can wash and re-use smoke sponges. They're vulcanized rubber blocks designed for removing soot from walls after a fire, a pretty similar application to removing surface dirt from paper, so we've adopted them in conservation for that use. Only I was taught to cut them in increasingly smaller blocks to expose new surfaces as the old ones get dirty, until I'm left with a pile of tiny black sponges that just can't be cut anymore. There's an art to this as well, because of course the thing squishes between the scissors, making it difficult to cut a flat plane. Each new smoke sponge is a game to cut into the most efficient bits possible. Used to be a game.

Smoke sponge in action on a dirty album: we often can't remove all the dirt, but it's definitely better than it was. The longer you leave it, the more it gets embedded in the paper fibers, so don't let it get this bad! This book gets a pass, as it made it through WWII in London, known even in the best of times as "The Smoke" at least through the 50s)

Smoke sponge in action on a dirty album: we often can't remove all the dirt, but it's definitely better than it was. The longer you leave it, the more it gets embedded in the paper fibers, so don't let it get this bad! This book gets a pass, as it made it through WWII in London, known even in the best of times as "The Smoke" at least through the 50s)

The student learned on placement that all you need to do is wash the sponge in soapy water in order to make it pretty close to clean and reusable many more times! No more careful cutting, no more holding onto tiny bits of sponge. I was so incredulous that I ran off and did it right away, and then felt pretty stupid for not having thought of it before. Rest of the world, did you know this and not tell me, or is this going to blow your mind also? Check it out:

Upcoming Classes at Women's Studio Workshop

We're happy to announce two classes at the 2016 Summer Arts Institute at the Women's Studio Workshop in Rosendale, NY! I did an artist's book residency at WSW in 2009 and fell for it hard; it's been a few summers since I taught my last workshop there and I'm excited to be going back. Looks like we'll also be the first class on the new Vandercook that they've just moved in!

Letterpress Intensive

July 18-22
Tuition: $750 ($700 members)
Lab fee: $25
Class limit: 6
There’s nothing, for a writer or designer, like the feeling you get when you realize letters can be tangible things; that you can hold your words in your hands; that even the space between words is a physical object. Spend a week with WSW’s collection of lead and wood type and learn traditional hand typesetting and letterpress printing. Bring your words or someone else’s plus a dose of curiosity and discover the magic of letterpress! We’ll start with a communal broadsheet just to learn the process, then students will make their own broadsheets or simple pamphlet bindings. Those also enrolled in the following week’s workshop—Bookbinding: Case Binding with Rounded Spine—can use their letterpress work for the bindings in that class and continue to use the letterpress studio. No prior experience in printing is expected.

Bookbinding: Case Binding with Rounded Spine

July 25-29
Tuition: $750 ($700 members)
Lab fee: $45
Class limit: 6
Student Material List
In this class you’ll learn how to make a traditional case binding from start to finish (although without cutting all the corners that modern machine binding does!). This is the style of your average hardcover book, with cloth covering and a rounded spine. You’ll learn the basics of paper selection, sewing, rounding & backing, edge trimming, and casing-in. Those who are a little faster will have time to learn more advanced techniques—such as hand-sewing endbands—or start a second book and really consolidate their skills. Use your book for a sketchbook or journal or just to learn the process so you can go home and make them on your own. We’ll talk about ways to get around any lack of equipment. Those enrolled in the letterpress class from the week before have the opportunity to incorporate their printing in these books.

We've Moved!

Bainbridge Conservation is now in Forest Hill! We left our old place in Brixton for a little more space. The book studio is pretty much unpacked though the furniture operation is still in the old studio while we do some work to Tristram's new space, but it will be worth the wait. A very hearty thank-you to all of our clients have patiently waited for us to set up! 

False-Color Infrared Imaging

I sat down a few days ago to write a lecture on rigid gels for Camberwell and a few hours later I was plotting to turn my old Nikon D40 into an infrared camera for false-color infrared (FCIR) analysis. Procrastination isn't usually this productive. FCIR is a nice trick that can be used for pigment identification, or to see areas of retouching/restoration in past, or distinguish between carbon black and iron gall ink, or probably some other things appealing to the book conservator that I haven't thought of yet. Some of these materials absorb IR light and some reflect it, making them appear black or light respectively, though your human eye can't tell. My new clever camera will be able to make a photo using these longer wavelengths, though. Once you have the normal visible light photo and the IR photo, you can combine them in Photoshop (this was a revelation) by mixing up the channels to create an FCIR image: from the color image, the green light is registered as blue, the red light is registered as green; and the information from the IR image is registered as red. 

Normally this is done with a specialized camera and software to go with it, but I discovered that you can do it with a normal SLR with the help of this page and worked out these options with the help of some old photography friends:

  • Use IR film: not convenient

  • Modify the camera internally to remove the bit that normally filters out IR wavelengths (not cheap)

  • Get a £34 filter that screws on the end of the lens and turns your world red. Bingo!

The downside of the filter is that it blocks a lot of the visible wavelengths so you can see hardly anything through it unless you point it straight at the sun. It also means very little light gets to the sensor, because the internal IR-blocking filter hasn't been removed, so exposure times are long. Because I'd be taking a normal photo first then screwing on the filter without moving anything, and I'd need the tripod anyway, I decided a little lack of visibility and extra exposure time was worth the approximately $400 and longer wait saved not modifying the camera. So I bought the filter (Hoya R72), got Saturday delivery thanks to that Amazon Prime membership I forgot to cancel, and just around sunset a little envelope fell through the letterbox. After a few red photos of my garden and the cat I got this:

One of my 18th c. French books, this one with a less usual marbling pattern (the colors are still standard issue). And yes, that's marbling on marble. 

One of my 18th c. French books, this one with a less usual marbling pattern (the colors are still standard issue). And yes, that's marbling on marble. 

The red is the result of the camera, built for registering color, getting to grips with the infrared. It gets turned into black and white in Photoshop first:

Black and white IR photo

Black and white IR photo

In case you don't believe your eyes, this (below) is what a black and white image is like taken without the IR filter and (below that) the normal color photo. 

Normal visible light black & white photo

Normal visible light black & white photo

FCIR - marbling - VIS.jpg

After I worked out how to split and recombine channels, I got a false-color image that pretty much means nothing without some reference samples but it nevertheless exciting enough to present with a flourish in class on Wednesday. I can see a lot of pigment grinding in my future. We can make a few observations now, though: the red has stayed red, the green has gone an indescribable shade of muddy yellow/brown/green, the yellow is a greener/bluer yellow, and (wait for it) the blue is pink. Ultramarine behaves like this, by the way, but I'd want to confirm with PLM/FTIR/XRF/more-than-two-hours'-experience-with-FCIR before making any wild claims. 

As I'm imagining how this is going to go down in class (me: why aren't you guys more excited??) I'm reminded of the ongoing conversation, at Camberwell and West Dean and in our profession as a whole, about how much science is enough. Because most of us came from arts backgrounds, the heavy science is generally a struggle, and since two years isn't enough for any of it the time that could be spent on science always has other claims to it. I think you just need enough to look up the bits you don't know—there will always be bits you don't know. Enough that you can know almost nothing about false-color infrared photography, and two days later, have a new toy.

Fontainebleau Aldine at the Montefiascone Conservation Project, Part II

Now pictures of books instead of gelato: the model we made in Monte was of an early 16th c. book in wooden boards, bound à la grecque by the royal bindery for Henri II, now held at the John Rylands Library in Manchester. It is a pocket-sized book from the Aldine press, bound in full dark maroon goat leather with gauffered edges. By the time of the Diderot encyclopedia, these edges were old-fashioned and no longer made, but it's hard to imagine not liking them! The endbands are Greek-style in pink and white over two cores, but then with a simple front-bead sewn over the top one in blue and white. The leather was blocked and tooled in blind and gilt, with lead white painted in some of the shapes created by the tools. And then braided straps were attached at fore-edge, head, and tail, that attach to brass pins on the back board: all in all kind of aesthetic overkill for my taste given the beautifully simplistic printing inside, but fun to make.

We brought sections cut to size on a board chopper, and sewed them with an unsupported link stitch on the first day. The boards were mostly shaped for us—beveled slightly on the outside shoulder, with grooves in the board edge along head, fore-edge, and tail, and beveled at head and tail near the spine edge to accommodate the endband). We just had to plane off a bit in the joint to fit the boards to the textblock. We cut little grooves between the drilled stations to accommodate the thread, and laced them in with the ends of the sewing thread. The shape of the boards helps create a very slight round in the textblock, and then we covered the spine and onto the boards a few centimeters with a nice Irish linen cloth.

I can't get enough of this endband; I'd never sewn such an epic one before. Like normal Greek endbands, it attaches both to the textblock and boards. I can't quite imagine the Fontainebleau binders sewing it, then thinking, "It needs a little something more," and adding the front bead to the top core—but they did.

Then we covered in quite thin leather; mine was from Steven Siegal in the US. Slanted slits are cut at the head and tail to accommodate the endband, since the joint isn't accessible as in a normal binding. The corners were just cut at a bevel and folded over. No worrying about trimming turn-ins even at this time period! I'm afraid I forgot to photograph it before the tooling started, so I just have this one of the cap now covering the crazy endband.

The blocking was something I had to see to believe. Stephania took a rubbing from the original and had a block made, but without a blocking press, we had to improvise. We made a blind impression in the leather while it was still damp from covering by more or less centering the block on top of the board and pressing it as tight as possible in a Dryad press. One side is blind and one is gilt, so we then had to block hot by putting the block on a stove, lifting it off and placing it on the book with pliers, hoping it was in the right place, then running off to the press to give it another squeeze. The first time I did this I miraculously got it in exactly the right place, but the pressure on the press was a little crooked so part of it didn't take the gold. I went back and forth about whether to risk a second shot, eventually did, and got the registration completely off (although the gold looks good!).

I have to say, working with gold leaf in a big room with a lot of people, a lot of heat, and an uncontrollable stove was not the most satisfying thing, but I'm glad we did it so that the book could look more like the original. The original isn't perfect in the tooling either, really, but that never makes anyone feel better about gold that won't stick! The leather I chose was nice to work with for covering but turned out to refuse to go dark for blind tooling (it didn't absorb water very well, I think because of some coating on the surface), so even the blind tooling wasn't as even as it could have been. I had thoughts at the time of watercolor? on a tiny brush to help darken the areas that wouldn't go, but that really does sound like one of those things you're still talking about doing in 30 years. Maureen Duke always quips about the shoemaker's children going barefoot.

Then we drilled holes in the boards and made tiny plaits for the clasps, which drove most people mad but wasn't so bad for me—I brought along leather from the edge of the skin, because I'm cheap, and actually the stretchiness really helped to get the strips through the holes in the board. We trimmed their ends, whacked them flat with a hammer, attached pins in the back board, and then the binding was almost finished—just needed the endpapers to be put down (I did that at home) and the lead white painted onto the boards (I did that in kind of a rush).  

So here's the finished book:

Finally, a grateful thank-you to the Clothworkers' Foundation and the Anna Plowden Trust, both of whom gave me funding towards this course and without whom I would not have been able to attend.

Fontainebleau Aldine at the Montefiascone Conservation Project, Part I

Last week Tristram and I were in Montefiascone, Italy, where I took a class taught by Caroline Checkley-Scott, Stephania Signorello, and Julianne Simpson, and Tristram bought large quantities of Parmesan. The town is a beautiful one on the top of a hill; the Montefiascone Conservation Project is situated in the seminary with views over the lake. We're learning about the Aldine press & making a copy of an Aldine book bound à la grecque in Fontainebleau for French king Henri II in 1517. First, some photos to set the scene.

The seminary is at the top of a hill at the edge of town, with a view over the lake

The seminary is at the top of a hill at the edge of town, with a view over the lake

The seminary  

The seminary  

Where the seminary's press used to be

Where the seminary's press used to be

Hall in the seminary with trompe l'oeil marble

Hall in the seminary with trompe l'oeil marble

We had class from about 9–2 each day, then hurried home to hide from the sun and eat lunch. We stayed in an old apartment in the center of town with stone floors and massively high ceilings. Then we had afternoons and evenings to explore the area.

Lake Bolsena from Marta, a caldera formed by the Vulsini volcano complex. I only just discovered that you can take a ferry to one of the islands... maybe next year.

It's only polite, when there are so many flavors of gelato, to try ... most of them. My tally was tiramisu, cantaloupe, hazelnut, & pistachio. I think Tristram had chocolate, chocolate, chocolate, and fruits of the forest. 

Cantaloupe gelato

Orvieto Cathedral (14th century)

Colored stone & glittering mosaic stripes on the Orvieto Cathedral

On Thursday we had a home-cooked candlelit Italian dinner as a class in a beautiful garden. A special bonus in all of this was a surprise reunion with Mariko Watanabe, who studied with me at West Dean & is now a book and paper conservator in Singapore.

The class was a really interesting mix of conservators, binders, and people with absolutely no experience making books. I was really impressed with the latter (everyone was); they did brilliant work, particularly under less-than-ideal forwarding & finishing conditions. And on the last day, we all walked off with some version of a Fontainbleau binding!

New PTFE folders from Dennis Ruud

A small thud in the hall this morning turned out to be a little envelope from Dennis Ruud with two Teflon (polytetrafluoroethylene) folders inside: the small spatula and microspatula offered here. I think I'd been given one of Dennis' microspatulas by my first supervisor in conservation, and had left it behind by accident when I left New York, never to be seen again. I didn't know where it came from originally and never got around to tracking another one down so it was such a delight to see it appear, with another one to boot. I've been working on the box for my herbarium this morning, and the package came just in time for laying down the inset vellum panel. Lovely tools, highly recommended.