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

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).

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CBL Ar 5655.134 before treatment.

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.

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Left: Cracking of media associated with creases in the paper (CBL Ar 5655.134); Right: 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.

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CBL Ar 5655.159 in transmitted light, showing the historic repairs.

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.

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Left: Repairing a tear on CBL Ar 5655.161 using remoistenable tissue; Right: 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.

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Detail of the spine edge of CBL Ar 5655.134, before treatment in transmitted light (left) and after treatment (right).

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.

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Left: Ar 5655.167 in raking light, showing the scoring lines used to map out the design; Right: Ar 5655.156, showing both shiny and matte media on the black horse.

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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. You can find out more about some of the treasures in the exhibition here

 

 

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Conservation collective Copenhagen

The seventeenth seminar on the Care and Conservation of Manuscripts, was held at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark from 11th to 13th April 2018. This well-established seminar provides an international forum for discussion and exchange between conservators and specialists from related disciplines.

In November last year, both Julia Poirier and I were delighted to hear that our abstracts had been successful and that we had been invited to speak at this event.

My paper, ‘Exploring the materiality of the early Islamic book: preparing to conserve an early Qur’an manuscript in the collections of Sir Alfred Chester Beatty,’ presented the initial findings from my work to conserve CBL Is 1404. Comprised of 201 folios and measuring around 47 x 38 cm, current scholarship suggests that this large Qur’an manuscript is Umayyad—that is it was made before 750 AD under the courtly patronage of the Umayyad Dynasty. It was most likely written on the Arabian Peninsula, possibly in Sana’a, in Yemen.

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CBL Is 1404

The manuscript has suffered extensive water damage and subsequent corrosion of the iron containing ink it was written with. It has in turn been subject to numerous layers of previous repairs, many of which are now failing, ineffective, and incurring damage to the manuscript. The weight and extent of the repairs was severely restricting the movement of the parchment folios, causing them to buckle and distort unevenly. This in turn was further aggravating the embrittled and ink-damaged parchment, causing it to fragment when flexed. Although the scale of the task was rather daunting, it was clear that these old repairs would need to be released if the manuscript was to be stabilised sufficiently to allow scholarly access or perhaps even display.

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CBL Is 1404 f.13 before, during, and after conservation.

My presentation included details of my treatment methodologies as well as the first results of EQuIP (Early Qur’an Illumination on Parchment) material analysis undertaken in collaboration with the EU-funded MOLAB, and the Books and Beasts BioArCh project at the University of York.

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Presenting my paper. Thank you Sam Foley for capturing the moment!

As well as presenting my own work and receiving feedback from fellow conservators, attending this well-respected conference in Copenhagen gave me the chance to develop relationships with colleagues internationally,  allowing me to expand my research on the materiality of early Qur’anic manuscripts. The chance to hear presentations from conservators working with diverse manuscript collections around the world was invaluable to my understanding of the latest developments in the conservation profession.

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Jasdip Singh Dhillon’s paper on Sikh codices.

I was particularly interested to hear Jasdip Singh Dhillon’s paper, ‘Sikh codices with Islamicate bindings: The development of a conservation approach.’ Jasdip works at the Oxford Conservation Consortium and Pothi Seva, and presented his ground-breaking research on the multiple influences on the Sikh binding structure.

Another fascinating paper was presented by Andrew Honey from the Bodleian Library’s conservation team. Andrew’s reflections on working alongside the late Christopher Clarkson to conserve the Winchester Bible, and subsequently continuing with this treatment after Chris’ death, provided a nuanced and personal account of both the great man, and a great manuscript.

JjoZxv9M_400x400‘The biology of the book: Future prospects for biology as a handmaiden to conservation,’ introduced the Beasts to Craft Advanced ERC project team, and announced their recent award of €2.5 million from the European Research Council. The team members include Matthew Collins, Jiři Vnouček, Élodie Lévêque and Sarah Fiddyment, all of whom are working on the latest developments in parchment production, manuscript materiality and conservation. Their ERC funding ensures that this fascinating project can explore new areas of research relating to animal husbandry, parchment manufacture, and the microbiome of individual skins. The opportunity to discuss my own work on CBL Is 1404 with them was invaluable.

Julia’s paper on the history of Samaritan manuscript production was utterly fascinating, and there were audible gasps from the audience in the lecture theatre as she explained and illustrated the unique wooden spine stiffener binding type she has observed. Other excellent papers were given by Georgios Boudalis, Nikki Tomkins, and Nil Baydar amongst others. The standard of presentations was exceedingly high, and all of the speakers provided fascinating insights into their work.

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Julia Poirier presenting her research on Samaritan bindings.

As a practicing conservator, continuing professional development is an essential part of my duty to maintain professional standards at work. As such, I remain exceedingly grateful for the support of the Chester Beatty, ICRI  and the Heritage Council of Ireland , who facilitated my attendance at this event.

Care and Conservation 17 was directly relevant to my work on the conservation of illuminated manuscripts at the Chester Beatty. It was also particularly valuable to have the opportunity to renew relationships with colleagues working across Europe and the USA, and to share our enthusiasm about continuing projects.

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Nyhavn, Copenhagen.

After the conference, I took the opportunity to explore Copenhagen and visit the David Collection. This beautiful collection of Islamic art, contemporary Danish paintings, and decorative objects is often compared with the Chester Beatty, and provided a very pleasant venue for a morning of exploration. Their current exhibition offered an incredibly informative insight to an often misunderstood subject, The Human Figure in Islamic Art – Holy Men, Princes, and Commoners (November 24th 2017 to May 13th 2018).

 

Kristine Rose-Beers ACR, Senior Conservator

Miniature Masterpiece: The Coëtivy Hours

The conservation team have been busy preparing 144 exquisite illuminated miniatures from a manuscript dating to c. 1443, for our next temporary exhibition ‘Miniature Masterpiece: The Coëtivy Hours’.

The Coëtivy Hours (CBL W 082) was made for the renowned book collector, Prigent de Coëtivy (1400-1450), who was Admiral of France at the time. The book was specifically commissioned to commemorate his marriage to Marie de Rais in Paris in 1444. Nearly 500 years later, the book was given to Chester Beatty by his wife, Edith, on the occasion of their wedding anniversary in 1919.

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Fig. 1. The Coëtivy Book of Hours (left) and miniatures housed between glass (right), before conservation.

The tiny manuscript (14.2 x 11.3 x 4.2 cm) is bound in an intricately tooled early nineteenth-century binding. The 364 folios are skilfully painted, with highly decorative borders throughout the manuscript.  However, 144 of the 148 three-quarter page miniatures were removed from the book by Beatty soon after it came into his collection, as he wanted people to be able to ‘look at them as closely as they want and study them properly’. They were therefore stored between glass to aid their preservation and display.

Although the book itself did not require conservation treatment, it was decided that the miniatures should be removed from the glass in order to facilitate their digitisation and enable safe handling by researchers in the future. When the glass sandwiches were opened, it became clear that each folio had been attached to the glass at the top and bottom of the spine edge with pressure-sensitive tape. Thankfully, the carrier of the tape was easily removed with a metal spatula. The rubber-based adhesive left dark residual staining, but it was decided that this would not be removed as in some cases the staining was in contact with the original media and solvent treatment would be too risky.

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Fig. 2. Removing folio 291 from glass.

The parchment folios of the manuscript are very thin and have very few visible flaws, indicating that they were made from carefully selected and evenly prepared skins. Scientific analysis by the BioArCh team at the University of York revealed that both calf and goatskin were used in the Coëtivy Hours. Overall, the media was in excellent condition, and did not require consolidation. In some areas there were losses to the blue pigment and gold leaf, but the areas around these losses appeared to be stable and, when examined closely, there was no active flaking of the media.

After the folios were condition checked, the new Digital Department at the Chester Beatty Library took high quality images of every folio using a Phase One XF camera with an IQ380 attachment, capable of producing images with a resolution of 80 megapixels (look out for the new digitisation blog that is coming soon!). The opening of the nineteenth-century binding was somewhat restricted, allowing it to open to little more than 90 degrees, so the conservation team provided advice on handling and helped to ensure the manuscript was supported on a cradle throughout digitisation, whilst the pages were held in place with polyethylene straps from Benchmark.

Fig. 3
Fig. 3. Digitisation of the Coëtivy Book of Hours.

When devising a mounting system for the individual parchment folios, it was important to choose a system that would be strong enough to hold the folios safely in place during display and handling, but allow the parchment to move with natural fluctuations in relative humidity and temperature. The mounting system also needed to take into account the unique contours of each folio. For this reason, a bespoke system of Japanese paper tabs was used to mount the folios within window mounts.

The majority of the folios were mounted in pairs, in a standard size mount made from acid-free, buffered Conservation Board (1650 micron), with a standardised aperture. Each folio was over mounted on the spine edge only, with the other three edges floated just a couple of millimetres inside the aperture. This partial float mounting system ensured that each folio was held in place securely, but also offered room for the parchment to expand and contract. Aesthetically, the mounting also reflects the character of the object and reminds the viewer that the miniatures are not only artworks in their own right, but are folios from a bound manuscript volume.

Two sizes of tabs were used on each folio – two 25mm tabs of Japanese sekishu paper were adhered to the spine edge and 3-5 smaller 15mm tabs of a lighter weight Japanese usumino paper were attached along the other three edges. For each tab, the edge in contact with the object was water-cut and then trimmed down with scissors.

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Fig. 4. Tabs of Japanese paper, with trimmed water-cut edges, for hinging the folios to the mounts.

The tabs were attached to the folios, with an overlap of less than 2mm, using wheat starch paste and left to dry underneath Bondina, blotting paper and small bag weights.

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Fig. 5. Attaching the Japanese paper tabs to the verso of each folio using wheat starch paste.

In terms of positioning, the two spine tabs were placed about 7mm from the bottom and top edges, to reduce the risk of the corners catching when the verso of each folio is viewed. In some cases, the position of these tabs needed to be shifted in order to avoid the red ruling lines.

The level of planar distortion varied from folio to folio, as the parchment not only had a memory of being in a bound volume but also the memory of being part of an animal skin! To account for this variation, the smaller tabs were positioned on a case-by-case basis, allowing each folio to lie as flat as possible whilst also allowing some movement. No more than 5 staggered paper tabs per folio were added, to reduce the risk of tensions arising and cockling.

2018_Composite_ImagesFig. 6. Folios 241 and 270 during treatment, showing the positions of the Japanese paper tabs.

Next, each pair of folios was positioned in their mount and the tabs on the spine edge were pasted to the back board of the mount. A Teflon folder was used to ensure a strong attachment.

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Fig. 7. Attaching the tabbed folios to the mounts using wheat starch paste.

Fig. 8

Fig. 8. Folios 294 and 295 after mounting.

The final stage in preparing these folios for exhibition involved framing the mounted miniatures in bespoke gold frames and then hanging them in the midnight blue temporary gallery, so the beautiful illuminations sparkled.

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Fig. 9. Framing the folios in the lab (left) and installing the exhibition (right).

Alice Derham, Conservation Intern

The Miniature Masterpiece: The Coëtivy Hours exhibition is on display from 9 March until 2 September 2018. We do hope you’ll come along to see it!

A lavishly illustrated catalogue by exhibition curator Dr Jill Unkel (Curator of the Western Collection), with contributions from Dr Laura Cleaver (Ussher Lecturer in Medieval Art at Trinity College Dublin), and our own Kristine Rose Beers (Senior Book Conservator), is available from the Library’s gift shop for anyone who wants to have an even closer look at the brilliance of this miniature masterpiece.

Seductive Marvels of Japanese Art– Materials and Techniques of Surimono Prints  

Surimono prints were the focus of the exhibition “The Art of Friendship: Japanese Surimono Prints” on display at the Chester Beatty Library in the spring-summer 2017. This exhibition of 95 single prints and poetry books from the collection gave us a chance to study in detail the making, techniques and materials of Japanese woodblock prints, especially focusing on the more elaborate Surimono.

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“The Art of Friendship: Japanese Surimono Prints,” an exhibition at the Chester Beatty Library.

The most lavish of Japanese prints, the quality and refinement of Surimono appealed greatly to Sir Alfred Chester Beatty. He acquired the greater part of his Surimono collection- a collection that is considered one of finest in the world- between 1954 and 1963, having already moved his Library to Dublin.

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CBL J 2078, Writing Table, by Gakutei.

The word Surimono means simply ‘printed thing’. Prepared as gifts for exchange among friends and acquaintances at New Year and on other special occasions, these privately-published prints were products of the flourishing literary culture of Edo Japan. The Surimono commissioned by poetry circles in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries combine short verses composed at poetry gatherings with designs prepared by leading artists. Taking their subjects from the scholar’s desk and the literary canons of Japan and China, Surimono embody the eloquence and amity of these cultivated salons and offer a glittering glimpse into a world rich in playful allusion.

Because of its small audience and private funding, Surimono artists and printers could produce exquisitely refined prints with delicacy and great care. They were usually limited to between 50 and 150 copies.

The basic printing technique used to create Surimono prints was similar to the commercial Ukiyo-e prints although the Surimono prints appear to be much more intricate in design. They exhibit finer and much more elaborate details, more colours, more patterns, more blocks and therefore no expense was spared.

Seductive Marvels of Japanese Art

Details of Surimono prints showing the intricacy of the design.

Japanese woodblock printing is a technique which involves the use of many different blocks of wood to produce one multi-colour print. The wood commonly used for the block is a hard cherry wood which was prepared and planed to achieve a smooth surface. The age of the block and the preparation had a direct impact on the finish achieved in the prints.

The design is first drawn on paper and then pasted face down with a starch paste onto a wooden block so that the design is reversed, ready to be carved and printed the right way up.  The block carver then cuts the design into the block by preserving the raised motif which will be printed.

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The initial drawing is adhered to the wood block (left); the wood carver cutting into the wood to created the raised motif (right).

The key block (Omohan) was produced first. It was printed in black and at this point annotated by the artist to describe which colours should be used where. With this decided, the other blocks for the different colours were carved.

Kento is the registration system traditionally used by Japanese printmakers.  It includes two parts, the hikitsuke kento (line stop) and kagi kento (key). Multi-colour woodblock prints require a separate block for each colour, and the kento marks insure the blocks are aligned with precision to print the colours on the paper.

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The Kento Registration System.

To prepare for printing, the pigments were mixed with water and sometimes animal glue (nikawa) in ceramic bowls. The block was moistened first and the pigment was applied with a brush onto the surface of the woodblock. There are different type of brushes available depending on the size of the area to be coloured and the desired effects. For example, tonal gradation could be achieved at this stage by using dampened cloth or water brushes to apply the pigment to the block.

The printing paper was dampened before being positioned onto the block using the kento marks. Next the back of the sheet was rubbed over the coloured block using the baren, a circular printing pad. The process of applying the colourants onto the block and rubbing them into the paper with the baren was repeated until the desired colour saturation was obtained.

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The printer applying pigment to the block (left); and then applying pressure to paper with the baren to print the design (right).

The paper used for Surimono prints is a kozo paper with strong fibres that tends to be heavier and more absorbent than the paper used for commercial prints. It is believed to be unsized, although a small amount of sizing might have been used to avoid smudging of the colourants in the areas that are printed.

The full sheet of o-bosho paper or “presentation paper” is 39 x 53.5 cm but was not commonly used as a whole. Rather the sheet would have been cut into different sized pieces, following established patterns to obtain different formats. The most common format is Shikishi-ban, an almost square sheet about 21 x 19 cm, which became the standard for Surimono printing and was rarely used for Ukiyo-e prints.

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CBL J 2107 Shikishi-ban format.

There are two important differences to note between commercial Ukiyo-e and Surimono which are central to understanding Surimono. The first one is to emphasize Surimono prints as luxury objects with extensive use of precious materials. These include the heavy, unsized paper and the use of mica powder and metal pigments. The prints were also more labour intensive to produce, using more elaborate techniques. Surimono printers used the highest quality and the finest materials available as well as showing off their finest printing skills.

The second major difference is that the poem which accompanied each image was carved into a separate block than the key block, by a wood carver specialising in cutting script. This block would usually display the finest lines and imitate calligraphy perfectly.

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Detail of CBL J 2107 showing a variety of effects used to reproduce different fabrics.

The use of metal pigment is common on Surimono prints. However, real gold and silver are rarely found. Instead brass, copper and tin are quite frequently used, sometimes as a background, but quite often to highlight small areas of the design. The metal powder was mixed with large amounts of animal glue (nikawa) and printed on the paper last to avoid transfers of the large metal particles onto the paper during the printing process.

 

 

 

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CBL J 2078, Fluidity of the line of text.

Mica (kira) is composed of phyllosilicate minerals. The white luminescent appearance was used to highlight prints. A mixture of glue, usually a gum, and the mica powder was applied to the block and then printed gently with the baren. It was sometimes applied above a coloured ground or mixed with the pigment before printing. Another method is to cut a stencil, place it over the print, and brush the glue directly onto the paper and lightly apply the mica powder onto it and brush any excess off once dry.

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CBL J 2313, Use of mica powder to highlight the body of the watch.

Maybe the most striking difference between ukiyo-e prints and Surimono is the extensive use of embossing-a technique which is not commonly used in ukiyo-e. There are a number of ways in which this was achieved.

Blind printing (Karazuri) is a form of printing without the use of any pigment. The technique involves carving a pattern into a woodblock and then printing it in the usual way, but without any pigment. The pressure of the baren on the back of the paper causes part of the paper to be squeezed between the wood and the baren, and flattened. This type of embossing is the most common and the one often used for highlights.

In areas of Surimono where the embossing appears to be coloured, it means that the pigment has been applied before the embossing, multiplying the amount of work necessary.

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CBL J 2284, Blind embossing and coloured embossing.

Convex embossing (Kimedashi) was produced by removing a concave area in the block and pressing the piece of paper over it. The paper is pushed down into the carved spaces of the block and moulded into a new shape. This type of embossing was often used for larger areas where the mark of the embossing is visible at the verso and the paper does not remain flat.

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CBL J 2102, Convex embossing on the wine flask (left and centre), is especially visible with raking light on the verso of the print (right).

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CBL J 2179, Mount Fuji, by Hokusai

The exhibition and the catalogue were a real dive into a marvelous world of beauty and luxury. Because privately commissioned, cost was no object and this shows in the wealth of techniques and materials that the artist, wood carvers and printers used to produce the Surimono prints. Leading artists such as Hokusai and other prestigious Ukiyo-e artists dedicated large portions of their work producing these refined Surimono prints.

Julia Poirier, Book and Paper Conservator

 

 

 

Exploring Ruzbihan’s palette: Gold

It’s hard to believe that our current exhibition Lapis and Gold: The story of the Ruzbihan Qur’an will close on Sunday 28th August, however we are delighted that over 103,000 visitors have had a chance to see it so far.

We hope to encourage you to come and visit the exhibition before it closes with this post on gold – the second most abundant colour on the pages of this spectacular 16th century Persian manuscript.

Precious metals such as gold and silver are used frequently in manuscript illumination. They are applied as thinly beaten metallic leaf or finely ground to form powdered shell colours that can be used as paint. Shell gold is named after the mollusc shells that this precious paint was frequently stored in during the medieval period.

As we discovered with ultramarine (see our previous post here), gold has been used on every page of the Ruzbihan Qur’an. It has been applied exclusively as a powdered gold paint. The gold has been applied directly to the paper with no evidence of a preparatory ground layer as is often the case in the European manuscript tradition. It has been burnished selectively to highlight scrolling motifs, and pricked with a sharp point to create further visual interest.

Gold is almost always the first colour to be applied to each page of the manuscript, but it is also applied over other colours, including ultramarine.

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f.185a, a wealth of gold techniques.

Gold is routinely painted over in the Ruzbihan Qur’an. These painted details have not always adhered to the surface of the unburnished gold paint successfully, and the illumination has sometimes fractured and flaked away from the surface of the gold, particularly where the details are painted using red and white lead containing mixtures.

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Flaking lead white on gold f.3a and f.443a.

The gold sprinkled grounds seen behind the panels of large-scale script throughout the textblock are also applied as powdered gold paint, and the characteristic round droplet shape is clear under magnification. These sprinkles have been used alone, over lines of small-scale black naskh script, or layered with a translucent pink—most probably safflower.

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Gold and pink sprinkled grounds on folios f.79a and f.20b.

Towards the end of the manuscript, the use of two shades of gold further enhances the lustre of the folios. Although only pure gold was identified in the Ruzbihan Qur’an, the use of gold alloys and different carats of gold for visual affect has been identified in studies of 16th century Islamic miniature painting.

Kristine Rose Beers, Senior Conservator

Lapis and Gold: The story of the Ruzbihan Qur’an is on display until Sunday 28th August at the Chester Beatty Library. We do hope you will come and explore Ruzbihan’s palette for yourself.

Recreating the Medieval Palette: a workshop in Montefiascone

In July this year I had the opportunity to attend the Recreating the Medieval Palette workshop taught by Cheryl Porter in the picturesque town of Montefiascone, Italy. The five-day workshop consisted of lectures during the morning, followed by practical sessions of paint and ink making in the afternoon. The workshop allowed the members of the group to gain a deeper understanding of the history, chemistry and use of pigments that were produced during the medieval era, with a focus on European and Islamic manuscript art.

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Left: Cheryl Porter lecturing. Right: A view of Lake Bolsena from outside the classroom.

During the workshop we studied two groups of pigments; organics such as indigo and madder, and inorganics such as gold and lapis lazuli. Inorganic pigments are further separated into natural or synthetic. Some synthetic pigments include vermillion, lead white, red lead and lead tin yellow.  We also had the opportunity to study inks including iron gall ink and carbon ink.

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Left: Participants preparing the wonderful blue pigment lapis lazuli. Right: Experimenting with different inks, using a quill of course!

To create a colour for painting, the chosen ground pigment was firstly mixed with a small amount of water using circular motions in the shape of a figure-of-eight, to create a thick paste. At this stage the pigments were ground to the required particle size; some pigments need to be finely ground while others lose their colour if they are ground too much. Following this, a binding agent was added to the paste, to bind the pigment particles together and to help the pigment stick to the painting surface. In the workshop we tested a variety of different binding agents including egg white, egg yolk, and tree gums.

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Left: mixing egg yolk with Vermillion to produce a beautiful red colour. Right: the binding agent Gum Arabic.

For the medieval artist, understanding materials was a huge part of their knowledge and learning; they needed to know where to buy materials, how to make paint, how to apply their paints to specific supports such as plastered walls or parchment, and learn the skills necessary to determine their quality. For conservators it is useful to have an understanding of pigments and their chemistry to be able to make informed decisions when treating pigmented works of art.

I found it particularly useful to learn about the binding agents used in pigments. At the Chester Beatty Library I have been conserving a collection of Indian miniature paintings, which have particular problems with the lead white pigment flaking. Lead white was one of the most important pigments in the history of painting as it has wonderful density and whiteness; it was the best pigment for creating highlights. Chalk and bone were other options for white but they were often used as mixers only and their opacity was nowhere near as good as that of lead white.

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Left: Experiments using lead white. Centre: Adding water to ground malachite before the binding agent. Right: Grinding prepared pigment using a muller.

During the workshop I had the chance to prepare lead white and immediately I could see some of the difficulties in working with it. Firstly, most pigments are mixed with a small amount of water to create a smooth consistency before adding the chosen binder. However, as lead white is insoluble in water, this proved to be rather challenging- mixing it with a binding agent was more successful in creating a thick paste. Due to the density of the lead white pigment, large amounts of gum were added to create a smooth texture to paint with. The heavy lead and the large amount of gum Arabic binder added to the pigment often result in the flaking of lead white pigments on manuscripts. A new awareness of the historical and chemical problems with lead white has informed my understanding of the manuscripts I have been treating at the CBL. I now understand that many other pigments used in manuscripts were likely to have been mixed with lead white to create lighter colours, one of the reasons there are often problems with other colours flaking.

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Top: Seed Lac. Bottom: Stick lac.

Learning more about insect colours was really interesting for me too (I am fascinated with bugs). One example is red lac, which is an organic pigment made from a secretion of the Kerria lacca or Coccus lacca insects that live on the ficus tree  and are native to India and South-East Asia. The word lac comes from the Sanskrit word meaning 100,000 due to the number of insects that live together. The insects secrete a waxy resin which can be harvested from the branches of the tree. This is referred to as stick lac.

Lac was an expensive dye used in ancient India, China and Syria, and then used in Western Europe by the Romans. It was often used as a lake and recipes are found extensively in the 14th century. The same material was also used for shellac and varnishes. Conservators must consider several factors when dealing with lac in manuscripts; the colour is very sensitive to pH as well as moisture. Additionally the red lac colour reacts to changes in temperature.

Unfortunately, very few organic colour keep their brightness as they tend to fade; also, they could only be used in season. Artists solved some of these problems by making clothlets. The process involved squashing the insects or plants until a juice was produced and then soaking up as much colour as possible with small pieces of cloth that were dipped into the extract. The cloth was left to dry and the process was repeated many times to get a saturated colour. When ready to use, a small piece can be cut off the clothlet and soaked in warm gum, which bleeds out the colour. Clothlets were fine for the manuscript painter’s needs, however they were not so good for an easel painter or someone who needed more bulk or covering power.

By the 14th century there was a technological leap and the most common way to preserve colours was to create a powder pigment from the colour juice or dye, which is called an organic lake pigment. The juice produced from the plant or insect could be poured onto chalk and then stored as a powder.

Lac prep slide

Left: Preparing a lac lake. Right: a small bottle of lac lake pigment.

The opportunity to attend this workshop in a beautiful part of Italy has been a fantastic learning experience for me. I was able to develop my knowledge of pigments to a much higher level and Cheryl’s lectures and instructions for making pigments and inks were not only informative but also a great deal of fun. As a variety of professionals attended the course including artists, conservators, students and historians, I felt I was able to exchange knowledge with other participants and learn more about the way in which this workshop was going to aid their work. By the end of the week, I had created samples on Islamic paper, European cotton paper and sheep parchment, which I will use as a reference guide when looking at pigments in manuscripts in the future.

I would like to thank the Zibby Garnett Travel Fellowship and the York Foundation for Conservation and Craftsmanship for generously providing funding to attend this workshop.

Puneeta Sharma, Heritage Council Intern in Paper Conservation