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Category Archives: Islamic

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!


A Journey with Lapis Lazuli Pigment

A Journey with Lapis Lazuli Pigment

An enlightening post from Anita Chowdry regarding lapis lazuli and preparing it for use. Particularly interesting to see how useless the Cennini recipe is!

Anita Chowdry

Premium quality Lapis Lazuli from the collection of David Margulies (copyrighted image) Premium quality Lapis Lazuli from the collection of David Margulies (copyrighted image)

Just look at that – a beautiful precious Blue, its subtle variety of shades and striations, shot through with streaks of calcite and glittering iron pyrites, describing some imaginary landscape. It is the original royal-blue, the best blue ever, valued as a jewel and a pigment for millennia  both in  the Occident and the Orient. It graces the pages of the most opulent and sumptuous manuscripts of the Medieval and Renaissance periods, along with gold, cinnabar, red lead and copper greens, equally valued as the ornaments of choice for volumes sacred and secular in Christendom and the Islamic world.

Premium quality lapis lazuli pigment made by David Margulies Premium quality lapis lazuli pigment made by David Margulies  (copyrighted image)

The first time I encountered a quantity of fine quality lapis pigment was in the very early 1990s, when I met David Margulies, who had a shop…

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Visible Conservation, and an Islamic Art Lecture

Whenever conservators come out from their studios and into gallery spaces the public are invariably fascinated and keen to engage with us and our slightly hidden area of work. The British Museum’s Conservation in Focus project involved setting up a temporary studio in one of the galleries so that visitors could see conservation treatments taking place and ask questions of the conservators. Whenever I visited during this exhibition, the gallery was always busy and visitors took a great interest in conservation treatments. Fine art exhibitions are starting to reflect this area of interest by including science and conservation details in the text used on interpretation panels and the materials they provide as part of the exhibition: a recent example is the Tate’s Rothko exhibition which included conservation light-boxes to display the findings of research into Rothko’s technique and materials. There is an evaluation of how visitors reacted to this information here , and this quote tells us a lot about how much this kind of in-exhibition resource is valued:

The new insights provided in this room were generally greatly appreciated, with many visitors reporting that this section changed their viewing habits in later rooms. The majority of visitors we spoke to would like similar resources in future exhibitions. Even those who were not interested in conservation were still glad that the information was available for others. Visitors tended to be surprised by this section and were not expecting this kind of content in the Rothko exhibition.

A current exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art similarly uses the research and findings of conservators to inform their exhibition Making the Invisible Visible: Conservation and Islamic Art (ends August 4th). A variety of events have run alongside this exhibition, including several lectures and discussions which have  generously been made available on the website. Most of all, I would like to direct your attention to this Arts of the Book Lecture, given by Associate Conservator Yana van Dyke who is a leading expert in the field of conservation of Islamic art on paper.

Love and Devotion at the Bodleian

This week I visited the Bodleian Library’s current exhibition Love and Devotion: From Persia and Beyond, which is dedicated to illuminated manuscripts from the Persian tradition combining poetry and images. The exhibition is the perfect size for this kind of material: small enough to allow one to spend time looking closely at each object, but just big enough to leave one feeling satisfied and better informed.

Some beautiful manuscripts are on display, and the exhibition shares some wonderful stories perhaps less well-known in the Western world, such as the love stories of Layla and Majnun, Khusraw and Shirin, and Yusuf and Zulaykha. My previous post on Persian illuminations at the Chester Beatty Library features illustrations of some of these characters. I was also particularly interested to see a frontispiece signed by the master illuminator and calligrapher Ruzbihan, as whilst at the Chester Beatty Library the conservation studio spent a lot of time conserving a Qur’an signed by him. Ruzbihan came from a family of well-renowned artists and calligraphers, and as well as their skills in book arts they were also responsible for the design of various calligraphic inscriptions on buildings across Shiraz. It was said that artistic competitors of the family were “mere eaters of crumbs from their table”.

The team I worked with at the Chester Beatty are keen to continue research into the Ruzbihan Qur’an, so perhaps in the future I will have more of interest to post here. In the meantime, here is a poster I displayed recently at the Institute of Conservation’s triennial conference, which details a little about the ongoing treatment and research into this beautiful manuscript and the workshop that produced it.

The exhibition at the Bodleian finishes this weekend (April 28th), so please rush to visit it! It is also worth pointing out that their online information about the exhibition is extensive and includes high quality images, as well as a very useful interactive map and timeline.

Mughal art

I’ve just returned from the British Library’s exhibition Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire which has many beautiful miniatures and manuscripts on display (although in some corners of the exhibition the lighting makes is next to impossible to view them). I kept on getting tangled up with a young man and older lady, perhaps his mother, who pored over the pages of calligraphy whilst I stood next to them leaning as close to the illuminations as I possibly could in order to examine them. I overheard some of their conversations and it seemed he was attending Persian calligraphy classes so was particularly enthusiastic about some of the scripts and hands of master calligraphers on display. It made for a nice atmosphere as I was very happy to be among fellow enthusiasts of this kind of art. However, in spite of the fact that there was a section entitled ‘The Art of Painting’ and many references to how Akbar established a formal art studio, there was virtually nothing about the materials or techniques used. Even the captions for the paintings failed to mention details of media and substrate – annoying as some of them appeared to be on textile rather than paper but no mention of this was made. I think some explanation of how pigments were traded and prepared would definitely assist the viewer in understanding the unique colours and appearance of Mughal art. Anyway, it reminded me of something else in the British Library’s collection which gives a tantalising view of how a Mughal studio may have looked and what tools master artists were using. Image

This colophon portrait from the Khamsa of Nizami (BL Or. MS 12208, f.325v) was added at the request of the Emperor Jahangir and dates from 1611-1620. It shows the scribe of the text Abd al-Rahim at work, whilst the painter of this miniature Dawlat sits opposite, drawing his portrait. It’s interesting to see the tools of their trades around them, including the shells used to store paints in, and reed pens. There is also a box full of instruments that at a glance are hard to identify – it would be great to be able to magnify this image further and try and work out what they all are. Miniatures like this can be really helpful for us to see what they were using, and how they might have worked. This one is clearly fairly idealised; it’s hard to imagine that a master calligrapher could produce beautiful work without having some kind of solid support beneath his paper, but nevertheless it does give some indication as to how the artists involved with book production were working.

Suleyman the Magnificent

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:

Crossing a river

Crossing a river

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.

Before removal of mount - showing old glass panes and discoloured window mount

Before removal of mount – showing old glass panes and discoloured window mount

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.

    Red underdrawing visible showing readjustment of feet

    Red underdrawing visible showing readjustment of feet

  • 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.

    Underdrawing visible below pigment losses

    Underdrawing visible below pigment losses

  • 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.

    Underpainting of basic colours visible from verso

    Underpainting of basic colours visible from versoSame area seen from the front, showing details painted on top of basic coloursSame area seen from the front, showing details painted on top of basic colours

  • 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.
    Viewed in raking light blind ruling is visible, showing how the page was marked out

    Viewed in raking light blind ruling is visible, showing how the page was marked out

    Compass hole visible in centre of wheel

    Compass hole visible in centre of wheel

    Blind ruled grid below pattern, showing how the space was measured out prior to decoration

    Blind ruled grid below pattern, showing how the space was measured out prior to decoration

  • 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.
    A thick gold border has been painted over as the layout of the page changed. As pigment has flaked it has become partially visible again

    A thick gold border has been painted over as the layout of the page changed. As pigment has flaked it has become partially visible again

    Gold speckling is visible in areas of pigment loss - where it was never intended to be visible

    Gold speckling is visible in areas of pigment loss – where it was never intended to be visible

  • 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.
    Different shades of gold visible

    Different shades of gold visible

    Two different shades of gold are visible: a yellow, more matte gold (possibly mixed with pigment), and a brighter, more burnished gold seen on the helmet and sleeve details.

    Two different shades of gold are visible: a yellow, more matte gold (possibly mixed with pigment), and a brighter, more burnished gold seen on the helmet and sleeve details.

  • 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.

    Detail of silver used to represent water with fine details of fish and waves painted over the top

    Detail of silver used to represent water with fine details of fish and waves painted over the top

  • 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.

    Detail of line

    Detail of line

  • 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.

    Detail showing how an erroneous border was scraped away

    Detail showing how an erroneous border was scraped away

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.

An illustration from the manuscript showing patterned tents

An illustration from the manuscript showing patterned tents

All images © Courtesy the Chester Beatty Library Trustees

Griffen Mill visit

 The Conservation studio at the Chester Beatty Library uses suppliers of materials and equipment from all over the world; however one of our favourite paper suppliers is right here in Ireland. Chris and Mike at Griffen Mill, based in County Mayo, make handmade papers suitable for conservators and bookbinders – we particularly like to use their Islamic-style paper called Akbar for endleaves. In the spring they kindly agreed to let us visit their papermaking workshop – below are some photos of my attempts at making paper.

Dipping the paper mould

Couching the newly formed sheet

Whilst we were there, Chris directed us in a little investigation into recreating a few historical recipes for the kind of surface tints and coatings that are found on Islamic papers, and we also attempted burnishing the surface to get a high shine. Islamic papers would be carefully prepared prior to calligraphy or illumination taking place, using processes such as tinting (white paper was not favoured), applying a coating, and burnishing. Surface coatings and sizes were used to create a smooth glossy, non-absorbent surface; vital in order to allow the reed pen used for calligraphy to move smoothly across the paper. Burnishing brings a beautiful gloss to the paper, but also helps to make it flexible and supple, and gives the paper the ‘drape’ characteristic of Islamic and Arabic books.

Here are some of the coatings that we tried out: 

  • gum tragacanth: soaked in cold water for 45 minutes and then strained. We painted this on in two layers, allowing it to dry in between. Although it didn’t initially produce a particularly glossy appearance, following burnishing it moved well, felt beautiful, and displayed a soft sheen
  • duck egg ahar: using the whites of duck eggs mixed 50/50 with water, to which we added a few lumps of alum. The mixture was then moved around using fingers to agitate it. It is supposed to eventually curdle, although we found if this did happen it certainly wasn’t visibly evident. After agitating it for about 30 minutes we strained it. For a more comprehensive recipe see the link at the bottom of this post. The ahar was painted on in 2 coats, and was really shiny once dry. The surface burnished up really well
  • tea and saffron tints: white paper was not generally desirable for Islamic works of art – instead a soft tint was preferred. We experimented with gently toning the paper using saffron and tea in water. I have been wondering whether using natural pigments like this might be a suitable way to tone repair papers – however a quick check in the studio showed that tea water has rather a high pH and so might not be suitable. Still, it would be interesting to carry out further tests
  • gelatine: mixing watercolour pigments with 4% gelatine in order to tint and shine at the same time
  • wheat starch paste: mixing pigment with thin wheat starch paste in order to create a tone and gloss simultaneously. This might be a good way to tone up paper for repair of manuscripts, and maybe gives depth rather than just a flat colour. Again, worth further experimentation

In order to burnish the prepared paper, it can be rested on any smooth surface. Curved wooden boards or stones were traditionally used, an image of which can be seen on this blog: The curved surface would’ve limited the amount of movement needed from the papermaker as it reflects the natural reach of the arms. The paper could be rubbed with dry soap prior to burnishing in order to increase the slip of the burnishing stone on the surface. Stones such as agate were traditionally used, but anything smooth such as glass or conch shells were also used. We tried using a round glass paperweight, which worked excellently and was comfortable to hold in the hand.

Burnishing paper

Varying pressure by the burnisher can lead to a visible difference in surface texture and gloss – sometimes burnishing on top of a patterned surface (such as carved wood perhaps) was done deliberately in order to create a subtle pattern in the paper, caused by the recesses and raised areas of the surface below (like taking a rubbing by pressure alone).

Apart from all our discussion and experimentation with Islamic-style methods, we were able to quiz Chris and Mike about many aspects of papermaking and hear about their experience as papermakers. I was particularly impressed by the labour of love it was to move their ‘pig flattener’ (big rollers used for calendaring) down the country lane and into the workshop (which took two days using a winch, a few inches at a time).

The ‘pig flattener’

I highly recommend visiting their website which has many interesting sections, including an illustrated history of papermaking. The online shop provides more details of their papers (the range covers papers for conservation, bookbinding, and artists’ papers) which excitingly now includes two different 19th century-style watercolour papers. Sample books are also available.

Further information about preparing Islamic papers can be found on this wonderful website by a contemporary calligrapher: http:// under tools and techniques for ahar recipes.