Tag Archives: Arthur Ransome

Guest post: Conserving the Collingwood Archive

This post comes from Devin Mattlin and Joanne Hoppe, MSc Conservation Practice students at Cardiff University, and conservation volunteers at Glamorgan Archives. Both have been working on the Collingwood Archive conservation project as student conservators thanks to the generous support of the National Manuscripts Conservation Trust

Earlier of this year we had the fantastic opportunity to help conserve a collection of diaries and sketchbooks from the Collingwood Archive held at Special Collections and Archives, Cardiff University. The Collingwoods were a world-famous family of remarkable artists, archaeologists, and writers from the Lake District. W. G. Collingwood was John Ruskin’s secretary and biographer, and a friend of Arthur Ransome, author of Swallows and Amazons and a suspected double agent. The archive spans 60 boxes and comprises a treasure trove of distinctive materials largely inaccessible to research and the public – thousands of letters and correspondence dating from the 18th century (including letters from E. M. Forster and Beatrix Potter), diaries, sketches, personal recipe books, photographs, illustrated story books and outstanding landscapes of the Lake District.

Jo & Devinstudy of English costume

Study of English Costume, possibly by one of the Collingwood children, c. 19th century

 

Jo & Devin diary before conservation (002)

Diary of Dora Collingwood (1886-1964), before conservation work

In 2017, Cardiff University’s Special Collections and Archives was awarded their second successive grant from the National Manuscripts Conservation Trust to conserve key items from the archive, and we were delighted to be selected as part of our MSc Conservation Practice course to give them a hand. This was a great opportunity to learn new skills in paper conservation and to work with Lydia Stirling, an Accredited Conservation-Restorer, at Glamorgan Archives. The objects in question dated roughly from the late 19th to the early 20th centuries and consisted of several diaries, sketchbooks and a recipe book. The ultimate goal of the conservation work was to stabilise the objects for responsible and appropriate display, and allow access to researchers and the public in the Special Collections and Archives Reading Room.

A Sketchbook of British Costume

One of the first objects we treated was a sketchbook of British Costume (c. 19th century) written in iron gall ink which, if left untreated, can rust through paper. This was confirmed with iron (II) indicator paper, as seen in the figure below – the paper turns a pink colour if iron (II) is present.   After removing the dirt from the surface using a smoke sponge the pages were labelled in pencil and the threads used to originally sew the pages together were removed. To stabilise the iron gall ink, the pages were placed into four different water baths for 10 minutes each: water, calcium phytate, water, calcium bicarbonate. The calcium phytate reacts with the iron to form iron phytate compounds, which progressively slows down the iron corrosion. The calcium bicarbonate bath stabilises the paper by reducing its acidity, because as paper ages it becomes more acidic and thus more brittle. After the last water bath the wet pages were placed between blotter paper to dry. Once the pages had dried flat, the book was rebound using waxed linen thread.

Jo & Devin iron gall ink testing (002)

Iron gall ink testing showing a positive result

Jo & Devin iron gall ink treatment

Joanne stabilising the iron gall ink in various water baths

Collingwood Diaries

Many of the Collingwood diaries were falling apart and needed repairing due to the broken metal staples that were used to bind the pages together. To treat this type of damage we first removed the staples with a spatula, cleaned the surface and numbered the pages (once unbound, the sequence of the pages could be lost). Treatment of the holes involved shaping a piece of Japanese repair paper to the size of the hole by placing the original page on a light box with a sheet of plastic and the repair paper on top. The repair paper was then shaped to match the hole by using a needle and was then applied to the hole with wheat starch paste. A layer of thin Japanese tissue was then applied over the repair which was also treated with wheat starch paste to make it stronger. Tears in the paper were also repaired in the same way. Once all the repairs were done, the diaries were rebound, and the covers were reattached by adding mull (a type of bookbinding cloth) to the edge where the spine attaches and then adhering the repaired cover to that cloth strip.

Jo & Devin lifting leather

The boards are revealed under the original leather cover

However, one of the diaries could not be treated in the same way because it had a leather cover, unlike the others, which were paper. The spine on this diary had almost completely fallen off, so we made the decision to authentically restore it using new leather. First, the original cover was cut and lifted to expose the boards underneath. The repair leather was then shaved with knives to make it as thin as possible, so it would bend easily and fit under the original leather. Once the piece was sufficiently thin enough, it was saturated with wheat starch paste and then fitted onto the spine and under the lifted original leather. The original leather was then adhered on top.

Jo & Devin Spine Repair

Finished spine with the repair leather

 

The Collingwood Celebratory Conference

After we had completed the work we were delighted when the project team invited us to talk about our experience at the Collingwood Archive Celebratory Conference. Here we were given a fantastic platform to present our journey with the archive to a large audience of over 40 delegates from across the world, and share what conservation is and how archives are cared for. We were so grateful to the project team for this opportunity to communicate with many different heritage stakeholders, an essential skill that will be invaluable as we embark on our careers in conservation.

Jo & Devin conference talk (002)

Devin and Joanne sharing their conservation experiences at the Collingwood Archive Celebratory Conference, April 2018

We would like to thank Lydia Sterling, Alan Vaughan Hughes and the National Manuscripts Conservation Trust for the opportunity to work with such a unique collection. Through this experience we practiced our paper conservation, bookbinding, and communication skills. It was also interesting to see beautiful artwork and to get a glimpse into the lives of the Collingwood family and the Victorian era. Our favourite items had to be an article pasted into the recipe book discussing how onions are so underrated, and a Cadbury’s advert from 1881!

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The Collingwood Collection: an introduction to the family and the project

It’s been two months now since I joined Special Collections and Archives as the project archivist for the Collingwood Collection. During this time I have been completely immersed in the family’s correspondence and, as a result, feel like I know the family almost as well as my own! The project is generously funded by the National Cataloguing Grants scheme provided by The National Archives. My job is to create a catalogue with detailed descriptions of all the correspondence in the collection in order to make it accessible to researchers and to public scrutiny, interaction and celebration. (With this in mind, we will be running some events to showcase the collection over the coming year.)

The Collingwood Family: a potted history

The Collingwood Collection is the family archive of an extraordinary family. The Collingwoods have been described as ‘probably the most intellectually and artistically gifted family in the Lake District in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.’ The collection in Cardiff centres around W. G. Collingwood and his descendants. W. G. Collingwood (1854-1932) was an artist, author, professor of fine arts, Norse scholar, and John Ruskin’s friend and secretary. In 1883 he married Edith Mary (Dorrie) Isaac (1857-1928). Often confined to a footnote along the lines of ‘also an artist’, she was, in fact quite remarkable. While she was alive her art was commercially successful – much more so, it seems, than her husband as she was reportedly the main breadwinner in the marriage and exhibited widely both in the Lake District and in London. She was a noted miniaturist and while this is obvious from her artwork in the collection, it is also evident from the many sketches included in her letters to family and friends, such as these two sketches of her daughter Barbara.

They had four children. Their eldest, Dora (1886-1964), was another successful artist and married the notable medical doctor Ernest Altounyan. After the First World War, she moved with her husband to Syria where Ernest’s father ran a pioneering hospital in Aleppo. Ernest worked as a medical doctor in the hospital and they were both heavily involved with helping refugees in Aleppo, particularly in response to the Armenian Genocide (1915-23).  Arthur Ransome, a close friend of the family, based the Walker children in Swallows and Amazons (1930) on Dora and Ernest’s children.

Barbara (1887-1961), the Collingwood’s second child, was a sculptor. Her husband, Oscar Gnosspelius was a civil engineer who specialised in mining and railway construction in South Africa before the war and later prospected on the Coniston Fells with W. G. Collingwood. He was also a pioneering aviation expert and built hydroplanes on Lake Windermere. Their daughter, Janet (1926-2010), was an architect and historian. She was the former owner of the collection before it was deposited at Cardiff University.

The Collingwood’s third child, Robin (1889-1943) is better known as R. G. Collingwood and was an influential philosopher and historian. He was among the leading names in British Idealism and an expert in the archaeology of Roman Britain. The Collingwood and British Idealism Centre is based at Cardiff University and aims to ‘promot[e] and encourag[e] research into the life and philosophy of R. G. Collingwood’.

Their fourth child, Ursula (1891-1964), was both an artist and a trained mid-wife. She worked as a midwife in London’s East End from around 1912 to 1925 before returning to teach art at Blackwell School and later becoming a farmer.

I’ll be writing further blog posts introducing you to some of these fascinating family members over the next few months.

The beginnings of cataloguing

During the first few weeks, I concentrated on the boxes set aside as being of particular research interest. These included correspondence between members of the family and notable people such as John Ruskin, Arthur Ransome, E. M. Forster, and even a letter from Beatrix Potter, and many more gems besides.

One letter particularly which stood out to me at the time was a letter from E. M. Forster to Barbara Collingwood. Writing in 1916, he describes the effect he believes the First World War was having on him artistically and personally. Much is known of Forster’s pacifism but I have been unable to find an insight as personal the one revealed in this letter.

In this letter, Forster writes to his friend:

I don’t know… — as this war drags on to its dreary and arithmetical conclusion if to any conclusion at all, the passion in me for all that old High-life and High-art business of which I used to be rather ashamed, seems to increase and express itself less fearlessly.

Reading and cataloguing the personal correspondence of the Collingwood family is a real privilege and feeling like I am really getting to know them. It is almost like a novel unfolding with stories not yet told. I felt this particularly when I was reading the letters Edith (Dorrie) wrote to her future husband, W. G. Collingwood, when they were courting. It is not often that one gets such a personal insight into the private lives of others, especially not those from 120 years ago. A few letters have been reproduced hear but I look forward to telling the story of their courtship in a later blog post.

There is estimated to be around 4000 letters in total in the collection. I have now created item level descriptions of around 30% these. It’s been exciting uncovering stories about these fascinating people, and I’m looking forward to sharing some of these with you over the coming months.