After months of work, the end of treatment of The Attributes of Christ was in sight: the next step was to put new leather on the book.
The new leather is archival-quality brown repair calf from J. Hewit & Sons, dyed with Sellaset Leather Dyes from the Leather Conservation Centre.
Putting new leather on the book, or, as we call it in conservation, ‘re-backing’, can be a stressful process, as the new leather needs to be worked quickly and cannot become too dry: a wet sponge and plenty of wheat starch paste is always on hand to dampen the leather. Leather is much easier to work with when wet and it sticks more easily. The leather was pasted over the spine and adhered to either side of the board, underneath original leather that had been carefully lifted. The leather was then ‘turned over’ at the head and tail to form ‘caps’ at either end, providing a layer of protection when taking the books on and off the shelf.
The book was then placed in a finishing press and strung up with threads – this helps the leather to stick around the raised cords as it is left to dry.
Once the new leather was stuck on, I worked on ‘infilling’ sections of the board that were exposed due to the missing leather. I built up these areas with blotter as a compensation, allowing a smooth transition between the old and the new leather.
I then stuck down the old leather and spine over the new leather, using wheat starch paste. It has worked really well and I am thrilled with how it looks!
One of the last steps of conservation was to re-adhere lifted material on the inside of the boards, securing the fly-leaf – the loose sheet – of the endpaper. After a few finishing touches, the treatment of the book itself was finally completed.
There were, however, a couple of things to do ‘outside’ of the book. Throughout the conservation process, I accumulated dozens of small fragments that were too fragile or misshapen to puzzle back into place. This ranged from the heavily-painted paper used in a 20th Century repair to scraps of leather and the remains of sewing threads. Although I could not use these fragments again, it was still important to retain them: they are evidence of the book’s life. Therefore, using a cross-welder, I created pouches from polyester and labelled each section with an acid-free paper caption. As well as keeping all the fragments together, this also provides evidence for future research.
Finally, after updating condition reports and taking ‘after treatment’ photos, I created a custom-sized box with rivets and ties to house the book and fragments. It is now ready to be added into the handling collection at the Cathedral Library.
This project has been a huge learning experience for me. Although I have completed several leather re-backs, I have never had to do so many paper repairs in one volume! The damage to the book was unlike anything I’ve dealt with previously and, as well as new conservation techniques, I have learnt a lot about myself as a conservator.
While I am very proud of the finished book, I encountered problems during the process. Upon reflection, these could have been avoided with a little more planning. One of the big things I have taken away from this project is that every action or decision has a consequence later on in the treatment process, and these decisions need to be carefully planned before being executed.
I am also very aware that the conservation of this book has taken me a lot of time: just over 100 hours. I could not have predicted it would take me so long and I am very aware that, once I have completed my internship, I will not have the same luxury of time with projects in the future.
However, being allowed all this time on a single object has taught me a lot. I have learnt several new conservation techniques, such as the Schweidler infill repair, and know how to tackle various problems as they arise. In my 100 hours, I have essentially started from scratch, re-learning and honing my skills. I know this object intimately, and will be able to use it as an example of a project in future discussions and interviews. I have also based my contributions to this blog around it, and I have loved sharing and teaching people about conservation through this blog and through visits to the studio.
As much as this book has been a learning project for myself, it is fitting that it will continue to be a learning object for future generations as it enters the handling collection of the Cathedral Library. It will be used as a physical example of a historic artefact for visiting groups and young people to handle, hopefully creating an appreciation and further understanding of the conservation of books and their significance in our heritage.
Despite some problems, I am thrilled with how this project has turned out, and, in some ways, I will miss interacting with this example of 17th Century book history.