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The Flaxman Manuscripts – a volunteer’s experience

Rebecca JWebster20 July 2018

Posted on behalf of Euan Guckian, a UCL student volunteer with Special Collections.

During the final term of this year I have had the opportunity to work with a couple of John Flaxman’s journals and notebooks for the UCL Special Collections team. Flaxman (who most reading this will recognise from his works in UCL’s main library) was a famous sculptor, and leading figure of the neoclassical movement, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

The collection was split into two books. The first comprised Flaxman’s journal from his time spent in Naples in 1788 and was filled with sketches and watercolours, as well as brief descriptions, of the various sculptures he saw and ruins he explored while there. The second contained notes on lectures he gave on the role, features, principles and history of sculpture, and was also interspersed with quick yet still interesting pencil sketches. My main role centred on summarising each page so that a visitor to the collection could quickly find whatever topic most interested them, either paraphrasing Flaxman’s notes or lifting them straight from the page.

Never having studied sculpture, or even art more generally, it was fascinating to see the thoughts and considerations of a master of the craft. Of particular interest to me were his lecture notes on how art underpinned the entire “circle of Human Knowledge” which to Flaxman included everything from astronomy to philosophy and religion. Beyond this there is loads that would be appeal to those with an interest in art both classical and neoclassical, but also in the life and thought of an artist so central to UCL’s identity and history.

You can find out more about the collection on our online catalogue – search for MS FLAXMAN. For more information about using our collections, please see our webpages.

 

Transparency can be tricky. Conserving UCL’s iconic buildings plans and drawings.

AngelaWarren-Thomas29 June 2018

Written by Laurent Cruveillier on June 29, 2018

The College Plans, belonging to the Records Office Collections within UCL Special Collections, Archives and Records Department, are housed in part at the National Archives and in part at UCL. They are architectural plans and drawings of several landmarks of the UCL campus, such as the Cruciform, the Rockefeller Building of the “New” Chemistry building.

If most of these plans and drawings, dating from the end of the 19th and early 20th century are in stable condition, some show conservation pathologies that prevent their usage by students, scholars or the public, or would impede their handling for digitization and cataloguing purposes.

They present naturally occurring conditions in working documents, such as pin holes, folds, dirt and smudges, creases… but these objects are also often torn, cockled, warped, and bear historic repairs, many of which are made with pressure-sensitive adhesive tape that needs to be removed. Those conditions are worsened by the fact that most paper substrates are brittle, particularly the different kinds of tracing paper.

A conservation campaign was then launched to stabilize as many records as possible. The work started with surveying 485 items of the collection, and identifying the unstable ones.

The plans and drawings were prioritized according to their state and their relevance for the curators of the collection, and were treated according to a protocol aiming at stabilizing them with minimal intervention:

  • Setting of tears using wheat starch paste
  • Repairs and consolidation of regular paper objects using different thicknesses of remoistenable repair tissue prepared with wheat starch paste and methylcellulose.
    Some of the tissue was toned with black acrylic paint for the repairs over black media on the recto of objects.
  • Repair and consolidation of tracing paper using remoistenable tissue prepared with Isinglass: a fine protein adhesive prepared using swim bladders of sturgeon fishes.
  • Adhesive removal using poultices prepared with methylcellulose and ethanol, or heated spatulas and other solvents.
  • Structural infills
  • Photographic and written documentation:
    Condition and treatment records
  • Housing in polyester pockets.

These interventions were carried out by paper conservators at UCL Special Collections Conservation Department, and also involved the participation of UAL – Camberwell College MA Conservation intern students, who were given the opportunity to add working collection objects treatments to their portfolios while learning and practicing different techniques, such as preparing Isinglass, removing adhesives or repairing tracing paper.

Priority was given to stability for handli

ng purposes, also respecting the nature of each substrate. For instance, repairs on tracing paper were done with extremely thin tissues to avoid being visible by transparency. Due to their aesthetical value, some objects were nevertheless given extra care, with the usage of toned tissues for repairs and infills. One plan with a large lacuna even received an infill digitally produced to minimize the visual impact of interrupted lines.

In the images, one can see the detail of record Ref. Nº ROC 86, a drawing for a decorative swag of the Board Room in the Rockefeller building before and after conservation. It was extremely rewarding for the conservators to discover that the ornament was still in place. As recommended in writing on the May 1907 document, the sculptor hadn’t “adhered” exactly to the drawing, but his execution of the motif still allowed super-imposing the final result with architect J. Carmichael’s vision.

Dante display and other events

Christopher JFripp15 May 2018

Last week saw the launch of a new UCL Special Collections display outside the Donaldson Reading Room entrance on the 1st floor of the Main Library. Dante’s Divine Comedy: Modern Visual Representations features a selection of printed materials inspired by the great medieval Italian poet’s literary masterpiece. Produced over 700 years ago, the Divine Comedy is still celebrated today for its incredible imagery of the afterlife. The twentieth-century publications chosen for the display contain their own distinctive illustrative depictions of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, but are united in the way they seek to capture elements of Dante’s extraordinary imagination. The display is scheduled to run until Tuesday 26th June.

Detail from Gyabo Szebó Belá’s untitled woodcut, in La divina commedia: XX stampe in legno – xilogravuri – fametszet – Holzschnitte [Bucharest?]: Dacia, 1976. UCL Special Collections, DANTE FOLIOS DD95 SZA

Running alongside this display and throughout the summer term are two public programmes dedicated to Dante. Weekly readings of the Divine Comedy take place on Monday evenings at the Warburg Institute, Woburn Square (6:00 – 7:30 pm), while talks about Dante, his life and works take place on alternate Tuesday evenings at the Italian Cultural Institute, Belgrave Square (7:00-8:30 pm). Both programmes are free and open to all. On Tuesday 29th May, UCL Special Collections will be at the Italian Cultural Institute to present a selection of highlights from the Dante Collection from 18:00-19:15 pm. In addition, Tabitha Tuckett (Rare-Books Librarian) will be providing expert insights on the Collection in a public talk at 18:30 pm. We hope to see you there.

If you wish to consult materials held by UCL Special Collections, please send enquiries to the following email address: spec.coll@ucl.ac.uk

‘The Lover’s Confession’: students research Confessio Amantis fragment

HelenBiggs23 April 2018

This post contributed by Calum Cockburn and Lauren Rozenberg.

On the 8th and 9th December 2017, UCL Special Collections hosted the third workshop in the Digital Editing and the Medieval Manuscript Fragment series (DEMMF), organised and taught jointly by UCL and Yale postgraduates students to twelve graduate students (the majority of whom are UCL-based).

The workshop began with a lecture on UCL’s manuscript fragment collection and a handling session held at the Institute of Education library led by Katy Makin (UCL Library Services). A huge variety of materials was on on display, including a leaf from a music manuscript, once thought to have been used as a binding for an Early Modern book; a thirteenth-century breviary with a charming inhabited initial; a Hebrew papyrus from the Book of Genesis; and a tiny piece of parchment with lines from Euripides’ Medea. Examining these materials, the participants were introduced to the unique and complex challenges literary scholars and digital editors face in creating literary editions from medieval manuscript fragments, fragments that often vary considerably in size and shape, in the legibility of their scripts and hands, in the nature of their decoration and layout, and the amount of damage they have sustained during their different lifetimes.

The students examining the the Confessio Amantis fragment.

The ultimate aim of this workshop was the collaborative transcription, encoding and publishing of a digital edition of a four-leaf fragment of the Confessio Amantis ‘the Lover’s Confession’ (MS FRAG / ANGL / 1), dated from the fifteenth-century and now housed in UCL Special Collections. This poem is a 33,000-line Middle English work by John Gower (d. 1408), a contemporary of Chaucer (d. 1400), whose compositions were particularly popular during the late medieval period. This text alone survives in 59 copies, one of the most copied manuscripts that survives to us, alongside the Canterbury Tales and Piers Plowman, written by William Langland (d. 1386). The Confessio uses the confession by an ageing love to the chaplain of Venus as the framework for a long series of shorter narrative poems, linked thematically by each of the ‘Seven Deadly Sins’. UCL’s fragment is unique in the collection in that its four leaves were given their own brand new binding at the turn of the twentieth century. It originates from Book V of the poem, concerning Avarice.

 

Two details from MS FRAG / ANGL / 1

To aid them in the creation of their edition of this text, the graduate students took part in a series of discussions and exercises concerning the palaeography and codicology of fragments, digital editing and TEI markup, the use of XML editing tools, most notably oXygen software, and project-based collaboration in the digital arena. Subsequent sessions across the two-day event focused on the teaching of common markup languages and the Text Encoding Initiative.
Subsequently, this expertise was used to mark-up and encode UCL Special Collections’ Confessio Amantis. The fragment itself reflects issues frequently encountered by digital editors of manuscripts and fragments. Most significantly, the fragment’s leaves are actually bound in the wrong order, an observation unrecorded in the manuscript catalogue itself.

Students and instructors examining the Confessio Amantis fragment and discussing its features.

The first folio ranges from lines 775 to 966 of Bk. V while the second one jumps to line 1735 continuing to 1926, before returning to lines 1159 to 1541 over the last two folios. Additionally, the fragment includes numerous small illuminated initials and marginal Latin glosses, separate from the main body of the text, and this raised questions across the weekend as to what the workshop participants should mark up and thus include in their edition itself. Such issues prompted the students to think about the nature of the text and the materiality of medieval manuscripts, and to consider fragments as objects rather than simply illustrated books.

Special Collections provided invaluable high definition images of the fragments. This helped students to prepare their own transcriptions of each manuscript page, and in addition better grasp the necessity for scholars of medieval manuscripts in the digital age. Digital reproductions can indeed alter our experience of the text in different and unforeseen ways. The finished digital edition of our own fragment will be published online at the end of this year, accompanying an edition of another item in Special Collections, a medical manuscript (MS / Lat / 7), transcribed and encoded during a similar workshop that took place during the summer.

The December workshop was made possible thanks to the support of UCL Doctoral School, the Octagon Small Grant Fund, the UCL English Department and Yale Beinecke Rare Book & Music Library. We’re especially grateful to Katy Makin (UCL Special Collections Archivist), for allowing us access to the fragment collection and assembling these materials on the day, and to Dr. Alex Lee (UCL SELCS), for all her palaeographic expertise and help in the transcription of the document itself.

The DEMMF workshop was coordinated by Dana Kovarik (UCL PGR English). The team of instructors included Ph.D. students from a number of different departments and institutions. From UCL’s Arts & Humanities and Social & Historical Sciences faculties: Calum Cockburn (UCL PGR English), Lauren Rozenberg (UCL PGR History of Art), Agata Zielinska (UCL PGR History). From Yale University: Gina Marie Hurley (Yale PGR Medieval Studies) and Mireille Pardon (Yale PGR) as well as Stephanie Azzarello from Cambridge University (Pembroke College, History of Art).

The Norris Photography Project

Rebecca JWebster9 April 2018

This is a guest post by Euan Guckian, UCL Special Collections volunteer.

Over terms one and two this year I have had the opportunity to sort and catalogue the photograph collection of Arthur Norris for the Special Collections team. Norris was a railway engineer who, at the beginning of the twentieth century, spent several years (roughly 1909-1916) working in Latin America. He captured scenes from across the continent, annotating some of them for his mother back home in Britain.

Already gathered into region specific files, alongside a separate one for a soccer game played at one of the highest points in the Andes, my first responsibility was to sort them into a more coherent order. I was at first helped by the extensive notes provided by Norris on the back on the photos, but as the years went on I was fortunate to have a date and location. A sense of lethargy that anyone who has committed to keeping at diary will be familiar with. Having sorted each file, my next job was to list them digitally, this comprised either paraphrasing Norris’ notes or, in their absence, describing concisely what would be considered each one’s important features.

UCL Special Collections, NORRIS/9

Having previously studied the modernisation of Latin America during this period, it was interesting to see the region enter the 20th century from such a visual perspective. This was most obviously represented by the numerous photographs of the laying of tracks, carving of tunnels, building of railway bridges, and constructing of train stations taken by Norris from Buenos Aires to Lima. Amongst my favourite photographs, was a shot taken from 13,000ft above sea level of an Argentine mountain range. It came with instructions from Norris to place it next to another to create a carefully framed panorama. Unfortunately, after weeks of searching I never found it. There is plenty however, that would be appeal to those with an interest in Latin America. These include, depictions of rural village life, as well as that of the region’s capitals, all alongside photographs of ceremonies both native to South America, and those, such as bullfights, brought over from Spain.

UCL Special Collections, NORRIS/1

You can see the full catalogue for the Norris photographic archive here. To arrange a visit to consult the collection please email us at spec.coll@ucl.ac.uk