Last year I was given the project of conserving and remounting a collection of disbound folios from the wonderful Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent manuscript. It was a fantastic project as I ended up working on 18 folios in total, giving me a chance to really get to look at the pigments, style, and techniques used by the artists. Here is some information about the manuscript on the Chester Beatty Library’s website: Suleyman the Magnificent’s Funeral Procession. Below is one of the wonderful illuminations from the series, showing a river crossing on horseback:
Briefly, it’s a Turkish manuscript dating from 1579 (AH 987), commemorating the life and deeds of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent, who had died just 13 years previously. A bound portion of it survives in the Library, but these 18 folios had been removed and mounted separately, probably at the request of Chester Beatty himself in order to display them more readily. Like many of the disbound folios in our collection, they had been sandwiched between panes of glass taped together at the edges and inlaid into thick window mounts, probably done so that they could be handled easily. However, this mounting method can cause problems – the weight of the glass can flatten any 3-dimensional areas of pigment, and place stress upon the paint layer. Any humidity in-between the glass panes can cause a bloom to appear or in the worst cases (thankfully very rare) pigments or varnish can stick to the glass. Additionally, when such items are requested for photography the reflectance of the glass makes it very difficult to get high-quality digital images.
Several of these folios had been requested for photography, and so it seemed like an excellent opportunity to remove the whole series from glass and re-house them in conservation grade mounts and boxes. Any conservation problems that were observed could be treated at the same time. Upon removal from the glass it became clear that there were a various kinds of damage that would need some attention, the biggest conservation issues being cracking and flaking pigments, and some rather large tears in the paper itself. As I removed each folio from glass I undertook examination and consolidation immediately so that the fragile pigments did not remain at risk for longer than necessary. As is often the case, the white lead and other colours containing this pigment were where the most flaking had occurred.
Once consolidation was complete I was able to repair the tears in the paper. I decide upon two strategies for undertaking this: where the tears extended into painted areas I used remoistenable tissue, made in the studio using a fine kozo tissue and a combination of wheat starch and a special methyl cellulose as the adhesive; but if the tears were just in the undecorated margins I used fresh wheat starch paste and tissue. The reason for this is that the remoistenable tissue can be reactivated using only a very small amount of moisture, meaning that I could avoid putting the water-sensitive pigments at risk. However, the remoistenable tissue does dry to leave a very slight sparkle – unnoticeable on the glossy pigment surfaces, but potentially distracting in the plain paper margins. Therefore in the margins I used wheat starch paste to complete tear repairs as it dries to a more matte finish.
However, rather than going further into depth about the conservation treatments here, I really wanted to comment further on the details I noticed when examining the folios under a microscope. Pigment consolidation affords the conservator the opportunity to examine more closely the working techniques of the artist, and although missing areas of the paint layer are disappointing to observe they can allow us glimpses into the underdrawing that is usually hidden by the dense pigments above. Here are some of the details that I noticed on this manuscript:
- Red underdrawing was visible in many places, not only where the surface layer had been lost but also where the outlines had never been filled in.
- Interestingly, black underdrawing was also visible – it seems curious that an artist would use two different colours to undertake their sketching out, unless perhaps the intention was that the black remains slightly visible through the pigment layer and then acts as a guideline for the final details.
- From the verso thick layers of underpainting were often visible, showing how the images were built up – solid blocks of colour, to which finer details would be added afterwards.
- A variety of blind tool marks appeared when viewing the illuminations with raking light, including blind ruling to mark out margins and other straight lines, blind compass marks (with holes visible in the middle), and even grids into which patterns could then be slotted.
- Gold was used in a variety of ways, including to speckle the paper, draw borders, and to signify gleaming metal armour and other details. Interestingly speckling and gold borders often seem to lie below heavily pigmented areas, showing that perhaps the design of the page layout was more fluid than expected, with the artist adding the figures and scenery having to paint over previously applied gold in many places. This shows how lavishly gold was used, if the workshop could afford to effectively render areas of it invisible.
- Gold was also used alloyed with different metals or mixed with pigments. A combination of yellow and gold seems to appear a few times in these miniatures, and the armour demonstrates several shades of gold.
- Silver also appears in some of the illuminations, although unfortunately it has a tendency to tarnish and blacken. In this manuscript the silver has in places been over-painted with fine black lines that delineate fish and waves in delicate detail.
- Other evidence pointing at the tools and techniques used by the artists include the shape of some of the ruled lines – here you can see how a blown-up detail of a spear appears to split into two, suggesting that a nib rather than a brush was used for this detail. A split reed nib, like a fountain pen nib, would spread if too much pressure was applied and cause this double-line effect. Another possibility is that something like a mapping pen was used.
- Another interesting detail shows how some errors were dealt with – by scraping away the surface of the paper. This was a technique long used by artists and calligraphers that worked with parchment, where the substrate would allow a certain amount of scratching out. Hard Islamic paper due to its surface coatings and burnishing also allows a certain amount of this to take place.
Evidence of how such illustrations were created becomes easy to see if you subject them to detailed visual analysis. One can begin to work out the order that such things were created in, even without vast knowledge of the historic treatises, by noticing how pigments overlap (for example, gold borders often have details executed in other colours creeping over them, therefore telling us that the borders were done near the start). It would be really interesting to start cross-referencing some of this visual information against the recipes and guidelines that appear in historical treatises – to see if the working practices recorded in literature are faithful to what was actually taking place on the studio floor.
All images © Courtesy the Chester Beatty Library Trustees