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Conserving controversial literature: access and safe handling

By Erika Delbecque, on 20 May 2019

This blog post was written by Marina Pelissari, MA Book Conservation student at Camberwell College of Arts

For the Final Project of my MA in Book Conservation at Camberwell College of Arts I was given a semi-limp vellum binding to conserve by UCL Special Collections. This volume contains five early 17th-century controversial tracks, including texts against Islam, Catholicism, and Astrology, as well as a copy of Daemonology, written by King James I, about demons and sorcery.

The five books have a parchment cover with boards made of recycled blind tooled leather, which is an unusual re-use of materials for this kind of binding. The main problem concerning the use and handling of this volume is that the text block is detached from its cover. The alum-tawed sewing supports that make this attachment are completely broken.

This book is used as a teaching aid in seminars at UCL, where students can examine it closely. Being an interesting book for its content as well as its binding, it is important to ensure its accessibility and its safe handling. To ensure these, the conservation project included, along with the extension of the sewing supports to re-lace the parchment cover, surface cleaning, repairing the paper tears and losses, repairing and flattening the distortions of the parchment.

Left: Alum-tawed leather extensions of the sewing supports. Right: Parchment cover being tension dried by using magnets.

The parchment cover has yet another interesting feature: the spine shows faded manuscript writing. Thanks to a collaboration with the UCL Special Collections Conservation Studio and PhD student Cerys Jones (UCL Medical Physics and Biomedical Engineering), a further analysis of the spine cover by using multispectral imaging revealed the content of the writing and shone more light on the history of the book. We all accompanied Cerys in the imaging session, where she explained the process.

Multispectral imaging has been used to recover lost features in heritage materials, such as text and drawings. This process involved illuminating the object with ultraviolet, visible and infrared light, while pictures of the different steps were taken. The multispectral images enhanced the contrast between parchment and ink, so as to making the writing legible, since parchment is fluorescent under ultraviolet light, whereas ink is not.

The images obtained showed six sentences separated by horizontal lines. The last five were immediately identified as the titles of the aforementioned five books, and they appear in the same order as the books are bound. The first title, however, did not correspond to any recognizable book within the volume.

At the beginning it was thought that it could be a title given to the collection. After a closer analysis, Cerys and Erika Delbecque, the Head of Rare Books at UCL, identified the writing as “Anatomy of Abuses”. Further researches revealed that this is the title of a pamphlet written by Philip Stubbes, first published in 1583. In his book, Stubbs “condemns such vices as usury, gluttony, promiscuity and excessive expenditure on clothing as behaviour unfitting a true Christian, and further denounces both popular entertainments and traditional rural festivals as enticements down the road to hell and damnation.” (Kidnie, 1996).

This discovery has suggested the theory that the volume had a first pamphlet bound together with the other five. “Anatomy” had six editions. The last one, dated 1595, contains 144 pages printed in the quarto format, which is the same format as the other books contained in the volume. The presence of the title on the cover and the content of the tract, that matches the others in its controversial nature, make it seems plausible that “Anatomy of Abuses” was part of the volume. However, it can be argued that there is not enough space in the binding to contain it, since the cover is already somewhat short for the text block. At this point, it is only possible to speculate, without drawing any certain conclusions.

The conservation treatments are currently under way. The final result will be shown during the final exhibition of the graduates from the MA Conservation at the Camberwell College of Arts, between the 18th and the 23th of June, which is open to the public. The book will then be available as a teaching aid for UCL students and for research at the Special Collections.

‘Special Collections Presents…’ Returns!

By Vicky A Price, on 14 May 2019

Have you ever wondered whether our Rare Books team have favourite items, or with what kind of mysteries our archivists are grappling? Or perhaps you’ve hoped to catch a glimpse of one of our unique and beautiful manuscripts? Then Special Collections Presents… is the event for you!

We are pleased to announce that UCL Special Collections will be running our annual ‘open day’, Special Collections Presents…, as part of UCL’s Festival of Culture on June 5th 2019. This popular event is free and open to all.

We will be presenting a wide selection of items from the collections in half hour slots.  Visitors can choose an area of interest and book a free slot.

Visitors will be able to choose between a varied programme of displays that showcase many areas of interest and research:

  • Geography textbooks from the 18th and 19th century from the UCL Institute of Education Library
  • Works from the fascinating Ogden collection, whose recent cataloguing has revealed a wealth of hidden detail lurking behind their respectable titles (these item were part of Charles Kay Ogden’s private library, described in his own words as presenting “semantics, meaning, word magic…sign systems, symbol systems and non-verbal notations…universal language, translation and simplification”)
  • Items displaying UCL’s own students’ voices from the past; student magazines, debating society minutes, petitions and more from the College Archive
  • Treasures of print, including some famous publications; a rare and very early King James I Bible (1612), Hooke’s Micrographia (1667) and Chertsey’s The crafte to lyve well and to dye well (published in 1505 by Wynkyn de Worde who was known for his work with William Caxton)
  • Marking the launch of a new online catalogue, items from the recently catalogued Alex Comfort Papers will be on display (Comfort was a writer, Director of research in Gerontology in the Zoology department at UCL in the 1960s and ‘70s, an activist in many areas including nuclear disarmament – perhaps best known as the author of the cult publication The Joy of Sex).
  • Items exploring alternative youth movements from the Forest School Camp and the Woodcraft Folk archives, held at UCL Institute of Education
  • A collection of archival items from the Huguenot Library that provide unique insight into the lives of Huguenot immigrants and refugees in the 17th and 18th
  • Autograph letters from 19th and 20th century writers; tales of success, failure and domestic life.  Among others, this will include Dickens, Orwell, T S Eliot, Graham Greene, Iris Murdoch, Radclyffe Hall.

 

This event is open to all – but especially the curious…

Book your free ticket.

‘A book full of anxieties’: The Nonesuch Press edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy

By Erika Delbecque, on 3 May 2019

Our copy of the 1928 Nonesuch Press edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy

The production of the 1928 Nonesuch Press edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy was beset with difficulties. The handmade paper from Italy that had been ordered was so defective that it was unusable, and the stained orange calfskin that was used for the binding, which naturally shrinks and extends in reaction to changes in temperature and humidity, made the boards warp. Francis Meynell, one of the founders of the Press, wrote that ‘it has been a book more full of anxieties than any I have ever tackled’ (Quoted in Dreyfus, p. 46). Nevertheless, the book became an unprecedented success for the Nonesuch Press; it was the most oversubscribed of all of their publications.

The beginning of Dante’s famous work

Meynell founded the Nonesuch Press imprint in 1923 with his wife, Vera Mendel, and the writer David Garnett, with the aim of applying advances in mechanical book production to fine book printing. As opposed to the private presses of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which according to Meynell produced prohibitively expensive books intended to grace library shelves rather than to be read, the aim of the Nonesuch Press was to produce well-made appealing books that were available at relatively low prices. They specialised in carefully designed editions of established literary works, often illustrated by contemporary artists.

Their edition of the Divine Comedy, of which 1,475 copies were printed, presents Dante’s Italian text alongside an English translation. The italic type and the use of roman capitals to mark the start of each line was inspired by the page design of Venetian books from the early sixteenth century. Meynell preferred to use italic fonts for poetry as he felt that it encouraged the reader to slow down. The volume includes 42 illustrations after the famous Renaissance painter and fellow Florentine Botticelli. He designed 19 engravings for Nicholo di Lorenzo della Magna’s 1481 edition of the Divine Comedy, of which we also hold a copy (INCUNABULA FOLIO 6 b ), and he illustrated a late 15th-century manuscript of the work with 92 drawings.

One of the reproductions of Botticelli’s illustrations

The book will be added to our unrivalled Dante collection, which comprises of over 4,000 editions of Dante’s work from the fifteenth century to the present day. When the Nonesuch Press edition was published, a reviewer wrote in the Spectator that he hoped that the copies would not go to ‘those perverse bibliophiles who thwart the holy intention of books by locking them uncut upon their jealous shelves’ (Quoted in Dreyfus, p. 46). He can rest assured when it comes to copy number 868 – it has joined fellow Dante editions on our shelves, waiting to be requested by eager readers.

Further reading

Dreyfus, John. A history of the Nonesuch Press. London: Nonesuch Press, 1981.

Announcing our first UCL Special Collections Visiting Fellow

By Erika Delbecque, on 26 April 2019

We are delighted to announce that Dr Adrian Chapman has been appointed as our first Special Collections Visiting Fellow. The Fellowship programme is an opportunity for external researchers to visit UCL to conduct research on a topic centred on the Special Collections holdings. Its aims are to raise awareness of our collections and to facilitate new research into our archives, records and rare books.

Adrian holds a PhD from UCL, and currently teaches at Florida State University. He has published extensively on psychiatry and the counterculture of the 1960s.

He will be spending six weeks with us in summer working on his project ‘Underground Psychiatry: R. D. Laing, Radical Psychiatry and the Underground Press’. Drawing on our unrivalled collection of Little Magazines and alternative press publications, Adrian will examine how the underground press circulated, contested and appropriated Laing’s ideas in the 1960s.

Adrian will participate in the programme of workshops, talks and lectures run by the Special Collections Department. The events will be advertised on the Special Collections website and on our Twitter feed.

UCL Special Collections Lates: The Colour of Spring

By Helen F Biggs, on 12 April 2019

Our first Late was a sold-out success, so we’re very pleased to be able to announce the next event in our evening programme.

Inspired by the seasonal burst of many-hued blossoms outside our windows, we’d like to invite you to join us for The Colour of Spring, featuring a talk on how coloured light can reveal hidden secrets in Mediaeval manuscripts, a history of the educational movement the Woodcraft Folk, and displays of original material from UCL Special Collections.

Get your ticket now!

Flyer for UCL Special Collections Late event, The Colour of Spring

The Colour of Spring

Date: Tuesday, 7th May, 6.15-8pm
Venue: UCL Haldane Room, Wilkins Building, Gower Street, WC1E 6BT

A Colourful Heritage: Multispectral Imaging Manuscripts and Rare Books from UCL Special Collections

Multispectral imaging involves capturing images of an object illuminated in ultraviolet, visible and infrared light. Capturing images in different colours, including light that is invisible to the human eye, can reveal features on the books which cannot usually be seen. This talk by Cerys Jones, final-year PhD student in Medical Physics at UCL, will present a brief introduction to multispectral imaging in heritage and show several examples of recovering lost features on manuscripts and rare books in UCL Special Collections.

Politics and Pedagogy: How I made use of the Woodcraft Folk Archive.

Rich Palser, a retired Further Education lecturer, is currently writing a book on the history of the Woodcraft Folk in the inter-war years which draws heavily on the organisation’s archives now held at UCL Institute Of Education. He will be talking about the archive’s relevance to his own interest in the relationship between politics and pedagogy, but also suggesting ways in which the archive may be relevant to the research of others.

Guests will be able to view a number of items for UCL Special Collections, including medieval manuscript fragments, material from the newly acquired Woodcraft Folk Archive, and an emblem book once belonging to Ben Jonson. There will be a brief colourful interlude, courtesy of our conservation team, and there will be plenty of time to enjoy a glass of wine (or soft drink) and nibbles, included with your £5 ticket. Click here to book your place now!