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).

Fig 1

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.

Fig 2

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.

Fig 3

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.

Fig 4

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.

Fig 5

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.

Fig 6

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.

Fig 7

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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Summer at the Chester Beatty

Over the summer, the Conservation team were delighted to offer a student placement (18th July- 11th August 2017) to Jana Müller. Jana is currently a student in the Conservation of Works of Art on Paper, Archives and Library Materials at the State Academy of Art and Design in Stuttgart, Germany. We’re happy to share this post from her.

On the first morning as I walked through the busy streets of Dublin on my way to the Chester Beatty Library, I arrived to find the conservation laboratory as an oasis of calm and concentration, only occasionally interrupted by screaming seagulls. Throughout this placement the seagulls have reminded me that I am right beside the sea.

My first project was the remounting of Surimono prints. The Chester Beatty Library has around 400 of these special Japanese woodblock prints and I had the opportunity to work on 31 of these lovely artworks. For various reasons discussed in a previous blog post here, the whole collection of Surimono prints is currently being remounted. The first step in this process is to lift the tabs from the old board with a little moisture and a spatula so that they can be reused later. Secondly, each object gets two more tabs attached at the bottom edge using wheat starch paste in order to keep it in place in the float mount later. Each unique Surimono is measured for a window mount and, once it is cut, the object is positioned and the tabs at the top of the print are attached to the new mount.

Slide5

Two moveable window mounts simplify the measurement of the new mount (left); The 2mm overlap of the tabs attached at the bottom edge of each Surimono allows for quick removal if necessary (centre); Once the tabs are attached to the new mount, they are allowed to dry under weight (right).

The remounting worked really well and it is interesting to see how the impression of an artwork can be changed with a new mounting system. I also got to have a close look at the fine printed lines and I gained a better understanding of how these prints are produced. There is so much work in every single print, which further increased my admiration for the beautiful Surimono.

4

Jana, working carefully on a fully illuminated page of an Italian manuscript (CBL W  113).

Another project was the in-situ conservation of an Italian parchment manuscript from 1472 (CBL W 113). Due to a very tight library binding some quires of the textblock were loose and had stepped forward. The threads at the centrefolds of these quires had ruptured. Three strong creases parallel to the spine edge had caused further damage. Usually one would humidify the parchment to bring it back to its original shape but in this case the different colourful inks in black, blue, red, green, yellow and purple seemed to be highly sensitive to moisture. To avoid the risk of bleeding, the creases were flattened under dry conditions using only weight and time.

Slide1

The tail edge of the manuscript textblock showing the heavily ingrained creases before treatment.

Slide3

W 113 before (left) and after treatment (right), showing the successful reduction of an ingrained crease.

The creases could be reduced within a couple of days so that the text is readable again without restriction. I had never tried this method before and I was surprised by how well the treatment worked. Another necessary treatment was the local consolidation of flaking pigment layers on two of the fully illuminated folios. With a very fine brush I applied a special natural adhesive made from sturgeon swim bladder—isinglass—beside the flaky pigment, and capillary action drew the adhesive between the pigment layer and the parchment securing it to the folio again.

Slide2

Detail of flaking in the green parakeet in W 113.

The next project I worked on was an Ethiopian manuscript (CBL W 913). The codex is written in Ge’ez, the Ethiopian language, and is dated to the late 17th or early 18th century. The illustrated parchment folios show scenes from the life of Christ and are in an excellent condition. However, the damage to the codex affects the connection between the heavy wooden front board and the textblock. The board attachment was completely broken at the two inner sewing stations and severely damaged at the outer ones. For this reason, there was a high risk that the front board would detach from the textblock, particularly as it needs to be handled for digitisation. To prevent further damage, the two inner sewing stations were supported gently by introducing new threads, led through the original channels in the wooden board and attached to the original thread at the board edge. The two outer sewing stations were supported with twisted Japanese tissue, also led through the board, and then fanned out and pasted to the spine edge of the first quire to distribute the stress away from the delicate original thread.

Slide4

Clockwise from top left: Ethiopian manuscript CBL W 913, detail of the broken threads between the wooden boards and textblock; using a curved needle to lead the twisted Japanese paper through the board; after treatment, the new threads stabilise the connection between the board and textblock.

The result is a very honest conservation treatment: the new material is clearly visible because of the brighter colour but it is unobtrusive at the same time. I am a little bit proud of my suggestion to use twisted Japanese tissue because it is very tear-resistant, flexible and versatile. I will definitely keep that technique in mind when working on projects in the future.

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Jana installing a printed book during a rotation in the Arts of the Book gallery.

Beside my conservation treatments I had the opportunity to help with a number of rotations in the permanent exhibition galleries, which needed to be done quickly before visitors walk in at 10 am! Overall, I had the opportunity to see many beautiful objects from the diverse Chester Beatty collections. You can gain an idea of these stunning and detailed objects here.

For conservators, it is very important to work as much as possible on objects to improve and practice the various treatments we learn, and to make sure every method is well-known and reflected upon. At university, it is difficult to spend enough time on objects between classes and exams, that’s why internships are so important. I had a great time at the Chester Beatty Library. My lovely colleagues made me feel very welcome and I was able to improve my skills while learning new things on objects from different times and countries. I gained more self-confidence as a conservator and I am now looking forward to starting my master thesis next year.

13Jana Müller (B.A.), Student at the State Academy of Art and Design in Stuttgart, Germany

Conservation of Works of Art on Paper, Archives and Library Materials

http://www.abk-stuttgart.de/

http://www.papierrestaurierung.abk-stuttgart.de/