Is Restoration Dying?

First Ed. Tom Sawyer, seen at the 2019 NYC Armory Book Show a few weeks ago.

Twenty years ago this Tom Sawyer, and other expensive first editions, were often extensively restored. This often involved a lot of conservationally questionable work. Redying or painting abrasions in the cloth, sophisticating the text with better boards from later editions, mixing partial textblocks with better condition plates were all common practice. Anything, really, that would make the book appear in more pristine condition.

Dust jackets, often worth more than the book they covered, were treated similarly with invasive, invisible, and often irreversible restoration done to make them look brand new. And now, the untouched ones are worth more than ones that has been messed with. Uh-oh.

And if the label on this Tom Sawyer is a harbinger of the market, things are changing for the books too. I personally became interested in old books because I liked the way old books looked, and didn’t want to change that. Generally speaking, old books and other old things are becoming more valuable when they are genuinely old, exhibit use value, have wear, patina, history, and character. Authenticity, in a word. Three reasons for this come to mind for this change: we spend more time virtually, are overwhelmed with disposable objects that can’t be fixed or retained, and there is a dwindling supply of unaltered old objects. I’m sure there are others.

A recent NY Times article about high end watches neatly summarizes some reasons for the appreciation — romanticization?— of older watches, which also could apply to books. “… old watches are considered cool: They have patina, provenance, soul. And for a generation of men (and yes, vintage watches seem to be an obsession largely for men, with apologies to Ellen [DeGeneres]) who value the analog-chic of antique mechanical watches, just like vinyl records and selvage jeans… .” A millennial friend of mine likened the record player in her living room to a fireplace: of course it is not necessary, but it is comforting to engage with a durable antiquated technology that takes a little bit of attention and care. It wasn’t an audiophile’s opining: she liked the thingness of it.

There is an imposing presence when you hold an older book in your hands.  A Benjaminian “aura”. Somehow just knowing this object has seen so much over the years impacts us.  The scars, damage, wear, uniqueness, and trauma an object has encountered can often add aesthetic and sometimes even informational value. An extreme example might be the books that were damaged while by stopping a bullet, possibly saving a life. Despite being mass produced, nineteenth century titles are often unique, due to the amount of handwork that went into them at various stages of the binding, and the physical traces from their existence in time and space.

Yet I fear the book dealer’s sign on this Tom Sawyer may swing the pendulum too far. Although I only looked at this book under glass, I could think of a few very minor treatments that would greatly extend the life of this object when handled, without impacting its aesthetic value, use value, patina or other inherent qualities. Is “free from repair” a good thing if the joint continues to tear with each opening? Or was the dealer sophisticated enough to distinguish between restoration, repair and conservation?

A professional conservator (i.e. me) takes their ethical obligations to the object entrusted to their care seriously, and most of us pledge to do this in writing.  The AIC guidelines for practice specifically discuss compensation for loss and reversibility.  Restoration treatment may or may not reversible: conservation treatment always should be. This may be the main reason for the notice on the Tom Sawyer book: a future owner could move forward with a more invasive treatment, depending on the intended uses of the book, but could not go back. And this affects the value.

Are we finally witnessing a place for conservation oriented book treatments in the marketplace and recognition in the public sphere?

 

A Painting of Eighteenth Century French Trade Bindings and Paper Wrappers

Bookbinder Colin Urbina recently posted a number of great images of books in art he noticed at the Art Institute of Chicago on his low_mountain instagram feed. In particular, the painting of Madame Francois Buron by Jean Louis-David caught my eye. It may give us some insight into how books were used in the eighteenth century, though there is always the possibility the books depicted were props.

Jean Louis-David, Madame François Buron, 1769. The Art Institute of Chicago.

If this is an actual depiction of reading, it adds to the mountain of evidence that full leather trade bindings and “temporary” marbled paper wrapper bindings were consumed simultaneously. This type of pictorial evidence, along with the evidence from bindings that book historians such as David Pearson have gathered, and the usual working method of bookbinders, are all closing the coffin lid on the longstanding idea that paper bindings were intended to be rebound into a proper leather binding before use. The wear on the paper bindings —deftly painted with a white line along the top edge of the book Mme. Buron is reading — suggests these books may have been read before. 

But it is a little strange to have four books so close at hand, since she doesn’t appear to be a scholar, and three of the books aren’t open to specific pages: evidence of cross-referencing. It could simply be her reading desk, though.

If the books are intended to be props, what can they tell us about the sitter, and how do they relate to the painting? Why has she interrupted her reading to look at us? And what could  she be reading?  Louis-David’s painting technique evokes the solidity of the leather bound books in contrast with the loose airiness of paper ones. The way the paper book is cradled in her hand is incredibly realistic. The brush work on the splayed page edges blend with the her blouse, and the triangular composition is anchored by the books. The books are a key aspect of the composition.

The details of the bindings are rendered exquisitely. The cat’s paw decoration on the full leather trade binding is instantly recognizable. The red over black title labels, full guilt spine, and single blind line on the boards is historically accurate. The paper bindings are covered in a common, or french snail marbled pattern. The pattern is rendered loosely, almost abstractly, in some areas. Or could it depict a spoiled sheet, not good enough for endsheets or other purposes?

Jean Louis-David, Madame François Buron, 1769. Detail. The Art Institute of Chicago.

The book she is holding, with its thick flatish spine apparent at the head, appears to have multiple signatures. Intriguingly, the paper covered book lying flat appears to be a single signature, which would be very unlikely for a letterpress book; could it be a blank book, notebook, or journal? Is it possible she is reading something private, like a diary?

She is shielding her eyes from the light source (truth?), but at the same time the page she is reading is in the shadows. She looks out at us with a concern, and possibly a bit of weary annoyance. The Hasty Book List also noticed she seems a little caught off guard or shy. A full size image is here.

2018 Historical Book Structures Practicum: Demonstrating, Draw Knives, and Paring Tawed Skins

I recently finished teaching a month long workshop on historic bindings for the Library and Archives Conservation Education Consortium of Buffalo State University, New York University, and the Winterthur/ University of Delaware. LACE for short. Seven MA students in conservation completed six historic models from the 15th to the 20th centuries.

This year it was hosted by The Winterthur/ University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation and took place in the first year student classroom, which is a really great space to teach in. The room has individual work stations for the students, as well as a group area with moveable work tables for lectures, ppt’s, discussion, and demonstrations.

One configuration of the classroom.

It is important that the students can be comfortable and close enough to observe details during demonstrations. In this configuration, students could sit to watch and take notes, and I could stand, which is how I like to work. Having a task light would have made it ideal.

Edge of a bookblock cut with a drawknife. Photo Nicole Alvarado.

For our late Gothic model, some of the students wanted to try out a drawknife instead of a plough for edge cutting. Nicole Alvarado worked the edge in the above image. We found it quite difficult it is to achieve an edge that looked like historic examples. We had to start with the sides of the bookblock in order to shave it down. The resulting edges did not look like the example depicted in Fig. 9.14 from J.A. Szirmai’s The Archaeology of Medieval Bookbinding or on a first first folio of Shakespeare.

The edges on the Shakespeare and in Szirmai were presumably cut with a skewed and sliding stroke of a drawknife, with one stroke at a time advancing a significant amount through the book. It is easy to imagine this when looking at the images. We found it impossible to replicate this, though. Was our drawknife too small, the blade angle too obtuse, modern paper too hard, or our arms too weak?  A combination of all of these? Or was a different tool used? In both of these examples, each chop could have been caused by an aze or adze, in order to penetrate so far through the thickness of the bookblock. Time for more experimentation!

Paring and scraping a tawed skin with a round knife. Photo Karissa Muratore.

In bookbinding, usually vegetable tanned goat is the easiest leather to pare, followed by vegetable tanned calf, then tawed goat or calf. Tawed pig the most difficult. Tawed skins are quite abrasive, and quickly dull any knife. Karissa Muratore did a wonderful job of paring an alum tawed calfskin for her Gothic Model binding. Although tawed pigskin would have been traditional, all of the major bookbinding leather producers are no longer offering them, citing difficulty in obtaining quality raw skins.

Karissa’s image illustrates how a rounded blade knife can be used for edge paring (note the pieces in the foreground) and scraping (note the shavings in the background). Scraping is a safe, but slow way to even a skin out, as well as thin the spine and headcap area. I think that 15th century binders would have received the skins the appropriate thickness overall from the tanner, and only had to edge pare.

This late Gothic binding — clasps, alum tawed skin, wooden boards, double cord sewing —  is a satisfying final project, combining bookbinding, woodworking and metalworking skills.

By the end of the month, the students were more than happy to demonstrate what they learned about safe, professional, and thoughtful tool use.