What is your conservation process?
I preserve what is there and try to make the repairs as invisible as possible. In this area of conservation, we can do so because we keep extensive documentation of the process. Whereas a painting conservator might fill in entire sections of a painting, I don’t reilluminate manuscripts, because it’s not acceptable to do so. On the whole, I’m more conservative in my efforts. I will repair a tear on a piece of paper to make sure it’s safe, but I don’t mind dirt in places where a book page was handled over centuries of use.
Some tears are much easier than others to repair. Early papers are really strong because they’re made out of rag or cotton, which have very long fibers that make for a long-lasting paper. With some of them, everything is there and you can piece it together with a little bit of wheat starch paste. For those that need more work, we often use Japanese paper because it has long strands that help preserve the longevity of the paper. If I need to tone the paper, I use acrylic washes.
I work specifically on bound volumes, and tend to concentrate most on the overall structure of the book. If that’s starting to fall apart, I focus on repairing and making it
whole again. This issue comes up quite a bit with medieval manuscripts, in particular, because many are not in a twelfth- or thirteenth-century binding, but rather in
a nineteenth-century collector’s binding that is made with different quality materials. That binding is often super tight, which doesn’t allow the book to open easily.
Have you come across anything that really stood out to you in your career?
Yes! In our literary historical manuscripts department, we have the only surviving handwritten copy of any portion of John Milton’s Paradise Lost . He dictated it to a professional scribe and used it as the proof copy for the printer. The first edition was printed from this manuscript. It had been repaired previously, but I felt some of the repairs weren’t all that sympathetic and it needed to be rebound. And, as I was working on it, there was this really vexing tear that I was trying to figure out how to fix, and I realized right there was the word “Pandæmonium.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Milton’s was the first recorded use of the word. He put it together from Latin to describe the seat of all demons [“pan,” meaning “all” and “demonium,” meaning “demon.”] Then the meaning of the word changed to denote disorder or chaos, but in the context of the book, Milton meant it in this very specific and literal sense. It was a really fun moment. I was probably happier discovering that than I was with the mend.
You organized the book binding portion of the exhibition “Bound for Versailles.” Tell me about that process.
The entire show, which was organized by associate curator John McQuillen, is focused on a gift of eighteenth-century French volumes—but includes books from Louis the XIV, XV, XVI, their wives and mistresses, and the royal court—that were bequeathed to the Morgan by the collector Jayne Wrightsman in 2019. These are volumes that she lived with, and a lot of the bindings have hearts tooled on them. The books are in great condition!
Conservation fellow Lydia Aikenhead and I put together a book bindings portion of the exhibition. We started by doing a survey of the entire collection to understand what we were looking at. We thought about why the books were still in such great condition and decided to deconstruct the process of eighteenth-century French tooling to show people what went into their making. To make leather plaquettes, we covered board with leather and coated it with paste. We whisked egg whites as an adhesive before using heated design tools to press gold leaf onto the leather surface. Essentially, the heat cooks the gold into the leather with the albumin from the egg. We also looked at the patterns and the tools that were used to create them. While I wouldn’t do this kind of work in my conservation practice, it’s an important part of understanding volumes from this time period.
Do you have any other exciting projects on the horizon?
I’m really looking forward to a collaborative technical study on fifteenth-century Northern Italian tarot cards with Yale University’s Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Network Initiative for Conservation Science. We have a set of Milanese cards from the Visconti-Sforza collection that have an embossed gold background with illuminated figures on paper. Our goal is to figure out how they were made by considering early techniques in Italian papermaking and, more broadly, how the cards tie into other works, like panel paintings, commonly made during that time.