Based on Irreplaceable Evidence: the conservation of the University College Buttery Books

Victoria Stevens, ACR, Oxford Conservation Consortium

Ed. note: this paper re-creates a talk given during the ‘Stationery Bindings: History, Development and Treatment’ workshop,  organised by the Icon B&PG Co-Operative Training Register and the Archives and Records Association, on 4 February 2013. Victoria has previously written on the subject for The Gathering.

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The University College Buttery Books date from the early 1640s and represent some of the earliest domestic accounts still in existence in the Oxford collections. As they detail aspects of College life during the Civil War, these records provide unique information about the activities of the College members during a time of great social upheaval, specifically in Oxford.

This article aims to highlight areas of interest in the original function and condition of these four books and illustrate the methods used by Celia Withycombe (a colleague at the Oxford Conservation Consortium) and me to return them to a useable state. It will be possible to make a very direct comparison of the two completed volumes with the two yet to be conserved, an opportunity that rarely presents itself quite so directly or with such impact.

I will begin by explaining the nature of the University College Buttery Books, their historical significance and how the information they contain provides a window into the daily life of the College and the clues this gives us into the operations of the College at this crucial point in British history. I will go on to illustrate, given the original condition of the objects, how the conservation treatment undertaken between 2010 – 2011 has allowed the information they contain to be more readily and safely accessed, whilst preserving a considerable amount of evidence relating to both their original structure and use.

The four University College Buttery Books are the domestic dining accounts of the College detailing weekly expenditure of college members and staff. The first entry in the oldest complete volume dates from March 1639 and there is also a single section survivor from an earlier book dating from 1615/16. There were antecedents, however: the College’s accounts for 1569/70 record that 2s 8d was spent on paper “for the butterie book”, and there are similar references in later account records. So although you are able to see images of the College’s oldest extant Buttery Books here, there are tantalising clues that some much earlier ones did once exist.

The format is common to this type of archive record and is linked to its purpose: it is tall and narrow to allow the maximum number of names to be recorded in a column down the page, with expenditure across the bifolio. This column of names has the additional function of recording the hierarchical order of the College: Magister, the head of the college is called the Master in this case, and Bursarius, the man who held the finances of the college, at the top. This runs down through fellows and undergraduates all the way down to the lowliest members of the college fraternity, the College servants. Here you can see the cook, coquus, and the caretaker, janitor, listed near the top of this section, indicating their relative high status within the body of the domestic staff.

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They are also records detailing social mobility. There was a College tradition, and one that was maintained into the 19th century, of writing your name in the Buttery Book on your first day in College. A good example of the Buttery Books being able to tell a story begins with the signature of Ezreel Tonge, who first made his mark on the college records during the week of 24 May 1639, at the bottom of the list of the poorest undergraduates. Tonge is, according to the College archivist Dr Robin Darwall-Smith, one of University College’s few historical villains.

With the irritating luck that seems to be common to all such base creatures, this unpleasant character gradually worked his way up the pecking order. In the list of the same poor undergraduates from a few pages later in the 1639 buttery book, Tonge’s name has moved up a few notches. He was to rise even higher in subsequent books but is remembered for his transgressions rather than his achievements. As a Fellow and Bursar in the 1650s he caused financial chaos, and then in the late 1670s he teamed with Titus Oates as one of the ringleaders of the Popish Plot, a nasty, McCarthyite-like campaign created to whip up hysteria and hatred against Catholics. So the Buttery Books add considerably to our understanding of the social structures built up within a generation within the College.

Aside from the individual stories these books tell, this breakdown of who was in College during the late 1630s and early 1640s is made doubly important by the historical context: they span the beginnings of the English Civil War, and by the time pen was put to paper in the final volume Charles I was permanently resident in a besieged Oxford. So they become a record of both loyalty and poverty: those who were staying and throwing in their lot with the crown and those who were too poor to leave.

The importance of these objects was under no doubt when they arrived in the studio as you can see from the box label used, shown above. Irreplaceable indeed, but their condition was extremely poor.

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The original bindings are lost, although there is some evidence of tanned leather being used as a covering material, unusual in bindings of this type and date. Research to find other examples in the collections both in Oxford and beyond produced no other contemporary examples, parchment or reversed skin being the norm. The use of printers’ waste for the endleaves by the early 1600s indicates that the original bindings were of cheaper quality, as would be expected in this type of binding. Far from being of no consequence, however, research has shown that the printed waste fragments are actually from a relatively rare commentary on the Acts of the Apostles by Nicholas of Lyra dating from the 1480s.

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At the start of the treatment, one of the most remarkable aspects of the project was that all the text blocks were severely misshapen, with their spines distorted to an almost shepherd’s crook-like convex curve. It is likely that this was caused not only by heavy use during their working lifetime but also by unprotected storage, during which the books were piled on top of each other for a considerable length of time.

The paper used in the textblocks is a good-quality heavy paper, formed into quires of two bifolia, counter to the grain direction due to the long format. Clearly the seventeenth-century binders found the paper format as much of an issue when it came to materials as their twenty-first-century counterparts, as we will discover. There is also evidence of the sheet formation process in the form of indentations from the horsehair ropes used to dry the damp sheets in the paper mill. The grapes watermark indicates, hesitantly, that the paper was made in France.

The paper has a distinct fold across the width of the leaves, which would have been due to the large-format sheets being sold folded into quires. It is somewhat unusual to see such folds, as they would usually be lost in the spine folds or in the trimming process for smaller binding formats.

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The weakness this has caused in the sections can be seen on the spine, where cracks have appeared at the point of the folds across the back of the textblock. This weakness continues across the width of the leaves, resulting in extensive tears along the fold line in the majority of bifolia.

The manuscript is written in iron gall ink and there is some characteristic deterioration common to this media, including examples where the substrate has been sufficiently degraded for a loss to occur. This is sporadic and intermittent, however; given that these books have been stored, unprotected, in uncontrolled and unfavourable environments for the majority of their existence, the ink is largely stable, and the minimal damage from the ink is due predominantly to the support being well sized and thick.

The lack of a binding for a significant part of the books’ history has also resulted in considerable handling and storage damage and dirt to the leaves, and at least two volumes have extensive water damage. As well as staining, this has caused accelerated deterioration and bleeding of the media and has encouraged mould activity and softening of the paper in the affected areas.

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The pre-treatment condition assessment revealed an interesting aspect of the original use of these books. In the gutter of many folds we found a large number of small wooden chips. Several options were proposed for the nature and origin of these, but the possibility that they resulted from pencil sharpening was quickly dismissed, there being no evidence of pencil lead. Contamination from wooden storage boxes was also ruled out, as some chippings were present in the gutter of virtually every opening. Following research it was decided that it was highly likely that these would be the whittlings from tally sticks. These were a means of keeping a running account of expenditure, almost like a tab, in a similar way that students pay battels for their college board and lodging now. Physically they are similar records to indentures, with each party to the transaction keeping an identical receipt. They are the fascinating material remains of the buttery checkout process.

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This before image of one of the two books selected for the first phase of conservation provides an excellent illustration of the three main issues facing us when we were making our treatment decisions.

  • Firstly, the partial original binding evidence of a tanned-skin binding, full spines in the case of two of the four volumes and partial in one other.
  • Secondly, the awkward format, which had an implication on the materials used in particular.
  • Finally, the poor original condition of the text block but the sound condition of the sewing structure of the first two textblocks to be treated also had a bearing on the treatment decisions.

These presented not only treatment limitations but also many opportunities for developing a new binding around the original evidence and structure, as such a blank canvas is relatively unusual in book conservation. In addition to these factors, related to the physical properties and condition, was the need for the books to be used again as reference material and it was clear that the archivist found it both preferable and necessary to return these to a useable bound format.

The cleaning process did allow us to become acquainted with the issues surrounding the treatment and to identify aspects of the book that were of interest, such as the quire and tally stick evidence, and also areas that would need further attention, such as damage through tears and mould or softened areas of the textblock. Where this was the case, some of the strength, original handling properties and texture of the paper were reintroduced by applying a surface size of a 0.5% solution of hydroxypropylcellulose 400 using a solvent of 15:85 water to IMS. This proved to be a two-in-one treatment – whilst brushing on the resizing solution it was possible to flatten out the creased and folded areas of the textblock.

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This brings me to the most time-consuming aspect of the treatment, the repair of the textblock. Every page needed extensive repair, either in the form of supporting tear repairs or more substantial infills to allow rebinding. For the textblock repair we used the RK range of papers from Paper Nao and Hasegawa papers, and two adhesion methods, depending on the position and the nature of the damage.

The extensive tears on the quire folds across the width of the leaves were repaired with Hasegawa 1.7 or RK15 depending on the colour and texture of the substrate, and the edge tears were repaired by adhering small strips of thin Hasegawa 1.6 or 1.7 Japanese paper depending on location and the need for strength.

Repairs were predominantly on the verso of the leaf and avoided the iron gall ink manuscript areas to eliminate, where possible, further degradation of the substrate through contact with moisture. Heavily inked areas were repaired using remoistenable tissue, where 50:50 methylcellulose to paste coated RK0 or RK15 paper was applied to the damaged areas using IMS as a solvent.

Although the resizing treatment minimised the need for extensive broad supporting paper repairs, this was necessary in several places and in particular the damaged upper foredge corner of volume four, which was extremely mould softened. This area was effectively a loose network of paper fibres and was at high risk of areas becoming detached and lost through further handling and use. Here, very thin RK0 Japanese paper was used to support the damaged area with some fractured areas requiring splints of light Hasegawa paper, again avoiding wherever possible the manuscript inks.

Before the book could be rebound, the text block needed to be returned to a more satisfactory shape. The pre-treatment curled spine profile was putting strain on the sewing structure and the sections at either extreme of the textblock and did not allow it to be opened easily or safely. Addressing the issues connected with this distortion is a good example of the ethical analysis required when deciding on the direction of treatments: as the original sewing structure was very sound in two of the four textblocks there was no justification to completely replace it with new supports and sewing.

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The alum-tawed supports were intact and in some cases retained their slips for lacing into the board, all important evidence of the original binding style and materials. Preserving and incorporating the existing structure into the new binding was an important consideration for the project, even though this made the treatment of these badly damaged textblocks considerably more difficult.

A combination of poulticing to soften and remove adhesive residues and make the spine pliable, and weighting, was used to manipulate the textblock into a more satisfactory shape. The textblock continued to be heavily weighted, and over the period of the project this approach has been one of the most obviously successful parts of the treatment, as the next two tail profile images show.

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We were now ready to start the second phase of the treatment – the binding of the two cleaned, repaired, reshaped textblocks. Several treatment choices were initially explored, including a limp cover paper binding or covering in full leather, before we finally chose to cover the books in quarter-tanned leather with durable cover paper sides. This provided a compromise that fulfilled the binding criteria – durable, flexible and protective – without significantly increasing the overall cost of the treatment.

The decisions made regarding the new binding presented another series of dilemmas to address in the conservation of the Buttery Books. Reconciling issues around the restrictions imposed on the project by the availability of some of the materials, combined with the awkward format of the books, has been a constant thread in the treatment decisions that have been made.

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For example, the choice of paper covering materials available to us forced a compromise. Here you can see the chosen paper, which is the University of Iowa Centre for the Book’s gelatine-sized flax cover paper, which is a mighty 0.18 – 0.22 inches thick. As you can see from this image, the sheet dimensions of the paper with sufficient strength and durability were too small to allow us to use this as a primary binding material as we had originally considered, and even as a siding material it had to be applied counter to the grain of the paper.

If you remember, the original binders of the Buttery books in the 1640s faced a similar problem when choosing paper for the textblock. With our binding, the choice of cover paper meant that we had to allow and compensate for the pull of the paper when lining the boards prior to covering. The paper was also subjected to a handling test, and frequently consulted documents belonging to Magdalen College limp bound in 1997 in the same paper were examined. Both these assessment methods demonstrated the paper’s resistance to handling damage and dirt to be exceptional.

Another example of limitations in available materials was the choice of leather for the spines. The criteria for the leather were strength, thickness and – as we had four books to be bound identically – evenness of surface texture across the two skins that were required to allow an even take-up of dye. As modern binding leathers tend to be shaved very thinly in the tannery they did not have the strength and bulk that we needed. Considerable persistence and several returns of unsuitable skins were required before we finally took receipt of leather that matched the specification required.

As I have mentioned previously, the development of the new binding also involved working with the existing structure of the textblock. In the Buttery Books the majority of the sewing supports were broken off at the joint, and so additional supports were required to provide a primary board attachment. Linen braids were sewn over the existing structure to augment it and allow the attachment of the boards to the textblock by lacing in to the existing lacing holes. An aerocotton lining also contributed to the board attachment and helps to keep the spine in its improved shape.

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Celia Withycombe and I worked together extensively on the binding part of the project, setting up an almost production-line process to make materials, such as the boards, and dyeing the leather for all four books when working on the first two – it is hoped this will save time when the second phase of the project to rebind the remaining two volumes starts this quarter.

When covering, we ensured the leather was adhered to the spine along its considerable length and, in particular, over the raised bands across the spine by tying the books up with a hemp cord to hold the leather firmly down during drying.

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Pasting down the sides and the new endpapers was the final battle of conservator against materials, requiring a quick hand and a steady nerve to ease out the expansion creases formed when the new endpapers of Moulin de Verger Angouleme rag paper, damp from the application of paste, is worked counter to the grain direction.

So we have journeyed from this

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to this.

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The conservation of the first two Buttery Books has been successful in achieving its aims of providing a durable, protective and supportive binding with good opening properties for the reshaped, repaired textblocks. Moreover, by working with the existing structure and binding evidence I feel we have managed to retain some of the original character of the books, even with their new covers.

The first phase of treatment has been hugely enjoyable and developmental, and has provided as many challenges as it has interesting opportunities to solve them. The positive results of the treatment are thrown into sharp relief at this halfway point, when the two volumes that have been repaired can be viewed alongside the two awaiting conservation. It is hoped that the sound treatment model developed, both in terms of a greater understanding of the original structure and also the original and new materials, will enable an equally successful outcome for the remaining two textblocks.

I would like to thank the Master and Fellows of University College Oxford for allowing the reproduction of some of the images used.

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