Monday, November 26, 2012

Compost This Book

Shown above is the Library Company’s copy of Salomon de Caus’s Institution Harmonique (Frankfort, 1615), alongside  sketchbooks and Secondary Colors bound in limp vellum by Alice Austin.
As a book conservator, I often look at a book with curious eyes. Recently, I was able to study the binding on Salomon de Caus’s Institution Harmonique (Frankfort, 1615).  Bound in contemporary limp vellum, it is very dirty with a hole in the cover and a circular stain. I think the binder used this piece of vellum because it was cost effective; vellum was an expensive material. In this spirit, when binding my books, I used vellum with holes for my sketch book and also for my binding of Secondary Colors, a collaborative project for our local chapter of the Guild of Book Workers. 

The binding on Institution Harmonique is so interestingly worn and dirty that I wanted to imitate that look and feel. I buried my vellum sketch book in my garden compost for five hours in order to soften the vellum and stain the cover. Then I set my coffee cup on it to create a circular stain. What an improvement! My book now has character and feels better in my hands. The text block molds to the cover and the vellum was no longer shiny new. As a finishing touch, I drew on the cover in pen and ink. I continue to be inspired by limp vellum bindings at the Library Company; they are simple, elegant and functional.

Alice Austin
McLean Conservation Department

Monday, November 19, 2012

Textiles and silver and chairs! Oh, my!

I recently returned from having spent two weeks participating in the Winterthur Institute, which is an intensive course on decorative arts. Winterthur, the former residence of Henry Francis du Pont, is a museum of 175 rooms which house a collection of 90,000 decorative and fine arts objects made or used in America between 1640 and 1860. Our Institute class of twenty comprised people from cultural institutions, appraisers, archaeologists, graduate students, interior decorators, and collectors from as far away as California, Arizona, and Texas. Having a diverse group with different perspectives really enhanced the experience.

Mornings consisted of lectures with hands-on workshops, and we went on house tours in the afternoon to illustrate what was discussed. Being able to work one-on-one with the collection helped reinforce what we learned. For example, a lecture on silver by the Metropolitan Museum’s curator Beth Carver Wees was followed with a workshop where we were able to handle silver pieces such as a Paul Revere tankard. The Institute provided me with a good understanding of different types of mediums and also how to differentiate between stylistic (Queen Anne, Federal, Empire, etc.) and regional variations (Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore, etc.).
Federal furniture workshop where we examined chairs and card tables.
Some of the most enlightening sessions for me were the demonstrations with wood. We watched how mortise and tenon and dovetail joints are made, as well as how inlay and veneer work are done. Furniture maker Stephen Latta made different types of ornamental banding and inlay designs, showing how scorching pieces in hot sand creates a shadow effect. It dramatically changed how we understood and examined furniture
Some of the tools used in joinery. 
Examples of legs with inlay designs made by Stephen Latta.

Touring the conservation lab, we saw objects in various stages of treatment. Winterthur and the University of Delaware jointly run a conservation program, and one of their students showed us how she stitched a tear in a painting using a microscope. They told us that patience is the most important trait for a conservator, and I could definitely see why!

A textile where the right side was exposed to sunlight, which completely faded the color.
Additionally, we went on a field trip to Odessa, DE, to see several historic houses and to Newcastle, to see the home George Read, Jr., built in 1801, a wonderful example of Georgian architecture. Read wanted a house just like the ones he saw in Philadelphia.

Read House and Gardens in New Castle, Delaware.
One of the things that most interested me was the influence of printed sources on design, and how certain images were copied across various mediums. It was fascinating to see the similarities and differences in printing techniques on textiles (block printing) and transferware ceramics, which initially used copperplates on hide glue (which is almost like gelatin), then later wet tissue paper. I’m also interested in craftsmen who were Library Company members (which includes cabinetmakers William Savery and Benjamin Randolph), the books they had access to, and how those books influenced their work. I’m excited to apply what I learned to our collection of art & artifacts.

Curator Linda Eaton shows us woodblock printing on textiles.
Linda August
Reference Librarian and Curator of Art & Artifacts