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Artists’ sketchbooks

Artists’ sketchbooks

Small article here about how artists use their sketchbooks, including a little reference to the work I undertook on a few of Graham Sutherland’s sketchbooks whilst at Tate:
Da Vinci, Sutherland and Van Gogh

Full article for Tate here: Up Close and Personal with Graham Sutherland’s Sketchbooks


Chinese book conservation

Chinese book conservation

Over the past year at the Bodleian I have been working with a small number of Chinese books requiring a variety of conservation treatments. I’m benefitting greatly from the expertise of my colleagues here and have learnt a lot about the materials and structure of Chinese books over the last year. Just up on the Bodleian’s website is a case study I’ve written about this work, complete with diagrams to elucidate some of the key features of such bindings. Please follow the link to read the article! Chinese book conservation


Event announcement: Lapis Lazuli: Myth, Matter and Majesty

Event announcement: Lapis Lazuli: Myth, Matter and Majesty

Lecture on Lapis Lazuli next week at the Bodleian!

The Book & Paper Gathering

Lapis Lazuli: Myth, Matter and Majesty

15 June 2015 10.00am — 11.50am

Venue: Lecture Theatre, Weston Library, Oxford (Map)

Speaker(s): David Margulies introduced by Anita Chowdry

This lecture and demonstration will be an exploration of the myths, mistakes, and facts about lapis lazuli and the pigment, genuine ultramarine. The intention is to challenge, and investigate the ‘accepted wisdom’ surrounding the stone through geology and geo-politics, mineralogy, etymology, the manufacturing processes, and application in sculpture and paintings.

This event is free but places are limited so please complete our booking form to reserve tickets in advance.

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Preparing Shell Gold

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Preparing Shell Gold

The Book & Paper Gathering

A guest post by Anita Chowdry

My last few workshops on shell gold have been particularly rewarding as my participants have all been up for doing a little extra research and experimentation, which has had the effect of pushing forward my experience as well as theirs. Most participants are motivated to attend because of their frustration with using pre-prepared shell gold, which is invariably too coarsely ground to be useful for detailed work or calligraphy.

storks macro Particles of gold just visible in this close-up detail of a painting

The process that I teach is based on my experiences with an Indian gold-master in Jaipur. Mr. Patel’s workmen hand-beat 24 carat gold foil into very fine gold leaf. Working their mallets all day, they fill the neighbourhood with the music of their hammering. In the early 1990s, Mr Patel would personally grind this leaf into pigment of the finest division, such as…

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The fascinating world of letter locking

‘Letter-locking’ is a term coined by MIT conservator Jana Dambrogio, to refer to the techniques used to fold and seal shut letters. She has been investigating many different techniques by which this could be accomplished, ranging from the mainly decorative to the highly secure – so that the receiver could tell instantly if the letter had been tampered with. She has a series of videos on YouTube showing the various methods by which a letter could be locked, supplemented with detailed images on her website, and also this great blog post from the Folger which reminds us of the importance of making models if we want to understand a structure more fully. Currently she is conducting further research with Dr. Daniel Smith of Lincoln College, University of Oxford. Suddenly all those folds, creases and curious slits in the sides of old letters start to make sense…

The role of computer technology in analysing art

Whilst working at the Chester Beatty Library with the astonishing Ruzbihan Qur’an, I spent some time wondering whether there were ways in which computers could assist with our analysis of the manuscript. Some things I wanted to find out seemed almost within reach, and certainly could be done manually, such as checking to see whether the jadval (frame lines) were all exactly the same dimensions on each page. A minor thing, but it might help us to understand whether the same mistara (ruling device – see here for some very clear examples) was used throughout. Equally, I wanted to compare other divisions of the layout on each page – the size of the onvan heading panels, and the size and position of the decorative side panels. Any anomalies might help us to understand if different quires were worked on by different people, or using different tools, or maybe just at different times. However, I’m limited by my own knowledge and skills when it comes to this kind of analysis – I can manually take measurements of each page but the book is over 800 pages long, so it would certainly be laborious, and then I would have to pick out of the measurements those which matched and those which differed. I’m fairly competent in Excel so could find a way to do this, but I felt sure there must be easier ways…

…And of course there are, and already some exciting methods are being exploited to interesting ends in the fields of art history, bibliography, and codicology. Since I began thinking about this many examples have crossed my path, including a paper given at TIMA last year by PhD student Alex Brey, who used the statistical programming language R to look for variations within certain elements of a Seljuk Qur’an: for example, to find differences between the verse markers, which may help to identify the presence of different hands. His research aims to find out exactly the things which most intrigue me about Islamic manuscript workshops – how many people may have been involved with producing a manuscript; how tasks were divided up within the studio; and how (or, indeed whether) a consistent design aesthetic was achieved when undoubtedly more than one artist was involved. Alex’s blog also delves into other areas where technology interacts with art history. This post is a very interesting discussion on whether computer vision algorithms can effectively look for compositional similarities in paintings (and indeed, what benefits exist from training computers to do this).

Image matching software is another area of interest for art historians and scholars, and already has some very exciting applications.  This Ukiyo-e Search website looks for similar prints across multiple online collections, meaning that comparing impressions, colours (and fading) and so on of the same print is exceptionally fast and easy. You can also upload your own photo of a print, and search to find matches. The Broadside Ballads Online from the Bodleian Libraries has a similar function called ‘Image Search’- you can clip an area from one of the digitised ballads, and search to see where else it appears. As woodblocks for these ballads were used over and over again, by gathering together all the similar images we can also start to see how the woodblocks age as wormholes and cracks appear as white gaps in the printed image. There are a couple of very good images of this in this blog post: Of ballads and worms.  The degradation of woodblocks can be instrumental when it comes to dating and analysing print impressions: here is an excellent poster from the University of Oxford Department of Engineering Science’s Visual Geometry Group which demonstrates this, and the role computer aided image-match technology can play in understanding the order in which prints were made. In fact, if you don’t follow any of the other links in this post I would still recommend you look at this one!

How to paint with 24 carat shell gold

How to paint with 24 carat shell gold

Anita Chowdry

The final product: finely powdered gold pigment stored in an oyster shell.Shell gold produced in a workshop with conservation staff from the Bodleian library.

As I periodically offer practical courses on how to make 24 carat “shell gold” pigment, I feel it might be useful to cover some of the applications of this marvellous pigment. The next shell gold workshops will take place on March 20th – 21st  and 17th – 18th April – please follow this link for more details.

Shell gold can be purchased from specialist suppliers and shops, but it is really not ground fine enough to enable you to understand and exploit its full capabilities. In my workshopsparticipants can learn the craft and make the very finest product, comparable to that used in the sixteenth century  royal ateliers of Iran.

The use of paper, as opposed to vellum or parchment,  developed very early in Islamic book arts , and ground gold pigment is more suited to…

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