A new project recently appeared in the archive conservation lab: a brittle and damaged looking document that turned out to be an interesting new accession.
Letter Sent to Francis Yerbury, 14th May 1747 (1387/1697)
The document is a letter sent to local Clothier Francis Yerbury in 1747. It is thought that he may have run a cloth mill in Trowbridge although the letter is about a mill in Bradford-On-Avon. Hanne Dahl, Exhibitions and Collections Officer at Trowbridge Museum has transcribed the letter and below gives an overview of the its content:
The letter seems to consist of two messages. One is regarding a cloth order which John Howell has received and is ensuring Francis Yerbury he will pay for. The other is a new cloth order for the Empress of Russia of Clergy cloth in scarlets and greens. 5 cloth samples of Yerbury’s are attached to the letter as a colour reference. The Empress mentioned was probably Elizabeth of Russia who lived 1741-1762. According to popular history clothing was the chosen means in Elizabeth’s Court by which to display wealth and social standing and according to historian Mikhail Shcherbatov (1733-1790) her court was “arrayed in cloth of gold, her nobles satisfied with only the most luxurious garments, the most expensive foods, the rarest drinks, that largest number of servants and they applied this standard of lavishness to their dress as well.’ Hanne Dahl, Exhibitions and Collection Officer, Trowbridge Museum April 2019
The new accession was passed on to the archives here at WSHC by Hanne after being in the care of the Ponting family; the late Ken Ponting being former Managing Director of Samuel Salter Ltd. weaving mill in Trowbridge.
As is often the case with the documents I work on, there is much of historical interest and I could spend many hours researching them. However, as a conservator, once I have enough detail to inform my conservation decisions, I must tear myself away from the fascinating historical insight and prioritise stabilising and preserving the letter so that future researchers can access it safely.
It was originally folded to be posted and has the postal address visible on one of the folded sections. The letter is written in brown ink and has textile samples and a small part of a wax seal attached.
Several factors made this a conservation challenge; not only was the paper extremely thin and fragile but the additional attached textiles samples and seal remains also had to be considered at all times as they could easily become detached and lost.
The document needed to be packaged so that it could be safely stored in the archive but also handled without the risk of further damage. As the paper was so thin, it could easily tear again with further handling, even after conservation.
I decided that once repaired, the document would be safest inside a mount- this would allow for compensation of the thickness of the attached textile samples and seal remnants as the depth of the window mount would prevent them getting squashed or dislodged in storage. It would also enable easy viewing as and when required without direct handling of the letter. Text found on the back of the letter was all in one area so the mount could be adapted to have a viewing window on the reverse. This would also mean the document didn’t need to be taken out of the mount or handled to see this.
Areas of damage on the letter
The letter arrived with us inside a frame, attached to a backing board with tape partially holding it around some edges. The paper was so thin and weak that tears had started to appear along many of the original fold lines whilst large areas were breaking around the edges. It was important to remove the letter from the backing for several reasons; the backing board itself, made from poor quality board was likely to be causing damage to the paper. Unless they are archival quality, backing boards and framing materials are often made of very poor quality materials with high levels of acidity. As these materials break down they can transfer acidity to materials they are attached to, increasing their deterioration. I also needed to access the document to effectively repair the tears and remove the adhesive tape.
I was able to successfully remove the letter from the mount using a spatula to ease the tape away from the board surface.
When the board was removed it was possible to clearly see acid transfer which appeared to be coming from the document and transferring onto the backing board, suggesting the paper itself is acidic. This is likely to be due to the ingredients used when the paper was originally made, for example additives such as sizing and fillers or the materials the paper is made from such as wood pulp. The ingredients vary between paper mills and throughout the history of papermaking, for example Lignin from wood pulp is extremely acidic and is generally found in modern papers such as newsprint. This is what makes newsprint go yellow and brittle so quickly.
After removing the document from the backing a new area of writing was discovered where the letter had in fact continued overleaf. The archivist was then able to add this to the existing transcription.
Once the letter was separated from the backing board I could then remove the adhesive tape. This task of removing tape is always daunting for a conservator as different adhesives react completely differently to different types of removal. Sometimes it can take a long time to find a method that softens or releases the adhesive so that the tape can be removed.
On this occasion I found that applying moisture directly onto the tape was enough to release the adhesive. However, a thick piece of brown adhesive tape down the left side of the letter was so stubborn that after removing a small amount I decided it would be better to leave that particular piece of tape on rather than risking damage to the already fragile paper surface.
Once the tape had been removed I surface cleaned the document being careful to avoid any weak areas. I was then able to move on to repairing and stabilising.
Tears on paper documents are generally repaired by adhering small pieces of Japanese tissue to the reverse.
The tissue I used for the letter is only 5 gsm, so it is extremely thin and light- but strong enough to stabilise the tears and weak areas without distracting from the letter itself.
Two areas of the document had large gaps that although supported on the back with the Japanese tissue repairs, needed to be infilled with a paper of a similar thickness to the letter itself, to prepare the document for mounting. In the conservation of archival documents (as opposed to artworks) it is particularly important that repairs such as this are visible additions, clearly seen as modern repairs and not blended to make them invisible. This ensures that future historians and researchers are aware of the difference between the original document and any conservation work that has been done.
Creating an Inlay
In paper conservation an inlay is a piece of paper that is attached around the outside of the document to protect it and prevent further damage to fragile edges. This is achieved by tracing around the edge of the document using a needle and then removing the inner piece of inlay paper to create a paper frame. The inlay paper is attached to the document by thin strips of Japanese tissue adhered along the gap between the two. The inlay protects the original document whilst still retaining full visual access to it. It also means that the document can be attached inside the mount by putting hinges on the inlay paper rather than directly on the document itself and that the letter can be fully displayed in the aperture of the window mount without falling out through the middle.
Having reached the milestone of 10 years in my current place of work, I have been reflecting on the development of my career. I think my greatest fear as a conservator is stagnation: for my work to have lost its vibrancy and draw, for my relationship with my career to have become stale.
Thankfully, even after a decade I still find daily challenges and opportunities to develop and thrive within the sector. The importance of Continuing Professional Development (CPD) is emphasised within the conservation arena; viewed as integral to the maintenance of professional standards by organisations such as ICON, the Institute of Conservation.
Being an accredited conservator (ACR), maintaining CPD is essential to retaining my accredited status.
The CPD format encouraged by ICON allows conservators to reflect on where they have come from, focusing their aims for the future. Through a candid analysis of the strengths and weaknesses within both my team and my own armoury I was able to identify a need to improve specialist knowledge of the care of natural history specimens.
The generous award of a True Vue professional development grant allowed me to secure a place on an intensive 3 day course focusing on the care and conservation of vertebrate taxidermy specimens with Simon Moore, a subject specialist with 50 years experience.
The 3 day course kindly hosted by Reading Museum allowed experience of a broad range of materials and techniques. From the art of opening historic glazed cases, without which you’d never access the specimens; to the cleaning of feathers, repair and replication of birds toes and the creation of hair plugs for a balding otter!
The course created a relaxed welcoming environment in which I felt able to voice my previous anxieties about tackling such materials from the risk of shattering historic glass to fears of using the wrong materials and my work ending in a terrible taxidermy publication!
The natural history collection at Reading Museum is extensive and allowed course attendees the irreplaceable opportunity to put theory into practice.
In 2017 I graduated from the Conservation MA at Camberwell College of Arts and having volunteered for several years in the Archives Conservation department I began work as Assistant Archive Conservator at the WSHC. My role involves being part of the Conservation Museums Advisory Service (CMAS) who support heritage organisations in Wiltshire and beyond. Primarily I work with the archive material held at the WSHC to help maintain and preserve it for current and future generations.
Since beginning at the WSHC in August 2017 it has certainly not been quiet. So far amongst other things: I have begun to master map repair, mounted and tensioned parchment, attended several conservation surgeries, found some exciting things whilst surveying archive boxes, spent seven hours hoovering the strongrooms and made several gluten free cakes for the staffroom! Here are some of the highlights:
One of the parchment maps from our collection was extremely distorted so I used a conservation tensioning method to gradually reduce the cockling. Because parchment is animal skin it behaves very differently to paper and requires specific methods of treatment. It was left tensioning for two weeks before being put in a polyester enclosure and returned to the archive.
Overseers of the Poor Account Book
A project I am currently working on is the Overseers of the Poor Account Book
This is a large project this time involving a very fragile set of pages from 1732. These would once have been bound but now just remnants of thread remain in some pages. The paper is so damaged in areas that it is crumbling away.
One leaf had a pile of severely degraded papers attached with a pin. I carefully removed the loose pieces and pieced them back together where possible.
To make it accessible to the public again each page is being lined with a Japanese tissue. This is translucent enough that the writing on the side of the lining tissue is still visible whilst making the page strong enough to be handled.
Above: applying the lining tissue to a leaf from the volume
The above photograph shows the main leaf and one of the attachments that I was able to piece back together, after both have been lined. The remaining pieces were grouped together by ink and writing type and enclosed in bespoke polyester pockets in the hope that they may be of use to future researchers.