The treasures of the tea-chests and the tower…

…Knole Unwrapped 2014: Book and Paper Conservation

In 2013 when the hayloft was being cleared of its contents for its transformation into the hayloft learning centre a fantastic discovery was made.  As Project Conservator Siobhan Barratt, Curator Emma Slocombe and Lord Sackville pulled the sheets off piles of furniture and boxes they came across several large tea-chests. And inside…? A huge collection of books, packed haphazardly and now covered in varying degrees of dust, mould and the carcasses of insects.

The hayloft before being cleared.

The hayloft before being cleared.

It turns out they were part of the collection belonging to 5th Lord Sackville Edward (Eddy) Sackville-West and his step-mother Lady Anne Sackville. Combined with the contents of Eddy’s bookshelves from the Gatehouse Tower, working with these books has formed the major part of the Knole Unwrapped volunteer programme for 2014. There are over 1000 books dating mostly from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.  The collection gives a fascinating insight into the lives of Knole’s inhabitants. It has been the task of three intakes of volunteers to record, clean, repair and wrap the books, ready for temporary storage.

The books now in the store room.

The books now in the store room.

Eddy’s collection is made up of an eclectic mix of fiction and non-fiction (Why You Lose at Bridge; Flying Saucers from Outer Space…), with many well, and less well-bound classics. Some of his books contain examples of Eddy’s gothic and cubist bookplates. Anne’s collection shows her love of the theatre through the numerous English and American playtexts, often programme texts bought at the theatre and listing the actors in that show’s run. There are also postcards, calling cards and notes littered through the books as bookmarks, which lead us to speculate about the stories behind the books and their owners.

Eddy's ‘gothic’ bookplate.

Eddy’s ‘gothic’ bookplate.

Step 1: Condition Reports

The first part of our work has been to take down a record of every book, noting its usual features (author, title, publication date), its condition and any interesting features such as inscriptions and inserts. Always in pencil (no pens near the collection).

Sophie records a book’s condition.

Sophie records a book’s condition.

In general, the books are in fair condition with some torn dust-wrappers, a little foxing, perhaps some damage by silverfish or mould. Some are cheap productions, with browning acidic pages and loose bindings, but there are also leather bound collections of classics with stylish marbling on the endpapers. There are literary treasures, including beautiful large format books of art prints, and an edition of Eddy’s contribution to the Hogarth Essays, published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press, The Apology of Arthur Rimbaud, inscribed ‘To Uncle Lionel, with love from the author’.

Our paper records will be transferred later on to a computerised catalogue for the Knole team to use as a reference whilst the books are stored. Every book has been given a shelf mark, which is noted so that those books which came from Eddy’s tower can go back in the position they were found.


Step 2 Cleaning

The books are handled carefully but firmly, with crêpe bandages used to support the boards and keep the pages from being opened at more than a 90-degree angle. We use two separately marked soft-bristled paint brushes to dust the books: one for the outside, one for the inside. A smoke sponge is used to carefully remove any dirty spots; a bone folder to gently lift any folded corners. Any books where the spines are loose or have fallen off (eek!) are secured by a cotton ribbon, tied with a special knot placed so as not to damage the book any further.

Suzi dusting inside a book.

Suzi dusting inside a book.

Step 3: Repair

Many books with damage to the covers can be stabilised using starch paste. This natural paste causes no known lasting damage to the book (unlike the layers of browning sellotape we sometimes find) and can easily be removed later with water. Books with delaminating corners, where the covering material has come apart and the inside layers are showing and separating, or with pealing leather at the edges, have the paste painted onto them with a fine brush. At times it can feel like you are doing more damage by prising the corners further apart to push the paste into the gaps, but it seems you have to be cruel to be kind – this work will help stop further degradation. Greaseproof paper is used in between the covers and pages while the paste dries to ensure these don’t stick together.


Step 4. Wrapping

It’s getting close to Christmas, so it has been useful to get in some wrapping practice these past weeks! Once each book has been recorded, cleaned, repaired and dried, it is wrapped in acid free tissue, secured with a label noting the shelf mark and book title.

Anne and Pip carefully wrap the books.

Anne and Pip carefully wrap the books.

When the books have been stabilised and wrapped, they are placed back on the shelves in the conservation storage area at Knole. The collection will return to the tower when these rooms open to the public for the first time in 2016.

Suzi Williamson, Knole Unwrapped volunteer


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