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Tag Archives: archive

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…


Pterodactyls and bootprints

One of the pleasures of being a conservator is that unlike art historians, we are not necessarily restricted to the output of a particular period or country. This means that over the last few years I’ve worked with 16th century Persian manuscripts, First World War documents, and during my recent post at Tate, with a huge variety of 20th and 21st century art (including works produced within the last month!).

Possibly my favourite project whilst at Tate was the conservation of a collection of Graham Sutherland sketchbooks, which are part of the Archives holdings. The Archives at Tate are really something special: not just documents such as letters and diaries, but countless sketchbooks, drawings, studies, photographs, ephemera: often works that would be displayable as “art” in their own right. The Archives are currently involved in a project to digitise some of the collection and make it more accessible to the public, which is a wonderful thing as the images of the work will be of great benefit to researchers and the interested public. Sutherland’s sketchbooks were lovely to work with as they tell you a lot about his working processes: he would have a sketchbook per project (including one full of pterodactyls, probably associated with the painting The Origins of the Land, in Tate’s collection) and clearly worked in a very rough-and-ready way. Paint splashes everywhere, dog-eared corners, squashed spiral-bound rings, and sometimes bootprints. I imagine him in his studio with all his sketchbooks open on the floor, treading on the paper as he tries to transfer his vision to the canvas. I wrote a blog post for Tate’s own website about the project, which you can find here. Due to copyright, I haven’t reproduced any images here so do please follow the link to see!

Watermarks at the BM

I have been working on a project at the British Museum to create a paper archive of various samples of handmade papers. This has involved taking lots of measurements and also recording and imaging watermarks in the papers. So far I have not been able to dedicate much time to identifying the watermarks but I hope that in time the information I have gathered can be added to, and this would make the database a really useful resource.

Finde/ A F Montgolfier/ D’Annonay /1769

Chain lines: 36-39mm, Laid lines: 7 per cm, Approx. gsm: 159

This paper and its watermark are typical of French paper from the Auvergne region. The paper is relatively thick, with an uneven distribution of pulp, and the watermark text is encapsulated within lozenge shapes. The heart device used as a stop between letters occurs frequently in French papers. The Montgolfier family of papermakers became particularly famous when two brothers from the family, Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne, invented the hot air balloon, apparently using Montgolfier paper in its lining construction. Following several test flights, they eventually launched a sheep, a duck and a rooster into the air in one of their balloons at Versailles in 1783 (the King had suggested they launch two criminals instead). Apparently the balloon landed safely, although one wonders how the animals got on together in the basket.

The company became “Montgolfier et Canson” in 1801, and produces fine papers to this day under the name “Canson”.