The Gathering’s Cabinet of Curiosities: A historical recipe for ink restoration

Christopher Harvey

This historical recipe for the restoration of faded iron gall ink was discovered several years ago by a researcher at the College of Arms and pointed out to the College’s then archivist Dr Lynsey Darby. This is how the conservation department came to hear of this interesting find. The handwritten note is located at the back of the manuscript volume entitled Richard Symond’s Church Notes Essex (vol. 2), ID1012, dating from circa 1639. The recipe is unrelated to the subjects of the core text of the manuscript, but is written in the same hand. The sharp-eyed will notice that this recipe has also been added to and amended by another hand. This is a common occurrence in historical working manuscripts here at the College of Arms, reflecting the process of collecting, referencing and annotating across the centuries. For those not familiar with the work of the College, much information can be found at its website:

The extensive well-referenced manuscript library at the College is the product of many hundreds of years of research and information gathering. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the heralds would have been familiar with the making and working properties of iron gall ink, which was one of the ‘tools’ they would have used in the process of record-keeping, genealogy and the granting of coats of arms. Many heralds were also antiquarians and avid collectors of historical manuscripts. They would have been all too aware of the instability and fading of some inks.


How to renew decayed Writing
Take one Pound of Gaules, beate them and boyle
gently in 3 quarts or more of spring Water, til the
3rd or 4th pt be boylid away Keep it in glassis
& with a feather lay it upon the parchment
when it is dim
Steepe one gall beatin to powder. all night
in white wine & tis as useful

Modernised version

How to restore faded ink
Take one pound of oak galls, beat (or presumably grind them to a powder) and boil the powder in 3 quarts (equivalent of 2.8 litres) of spring water, until the
3rd or 4th part has boiled away. Store this solution in glass containers.
Use a feather to apply the solution to the faded ink on the parchment.
Or steep one (oak) gall, beaten to powder, overnight
in white wine. This solution is as useful (as the previous one).

Detail of restoration of ink recipe found in the the 17th century manuscript, Symond’s Essex, College of Arms, ID1012. © Christopher Harvey

The resulting restoration solution, although presumably a clear, colourless liquid when applied, unfortunately deteriorates over time to a brown staining that obscures both the original text and the surrounding area of the support. The application with a feather is interesting and explains the rather haphazard nature of the staining found on several College of Arms parchment manuscripts that had been treated in this manner. The date of the recipe also gives us some idea of when this treatment could have been applied. The staining damage is permanent. However, the text and images can be revealed and ‘restored’, without disturbing the original material, through non-invasive techniques such as multi-spectral imaging.

Christopher Harvey holds a BA Hons in Conservation (1993), and an MA (1997), both from Camberwell College, University of the Arts London (UAL). Between the two courses, he worked in photograph conservation for English Heritage and the Perth Museum & Art Gallery, Scotland. After the MA, he set up an independent conservation workshop, working for both private clients and public collections, including the College of Arms and the National Trust. During this time Christopher was fortunate to be involved with the conservation surveys of St Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai, for the Saint Catherine Foundation. Since 2004, he has been head of conservation at the College of Arms Library, London. Since 2005, he has organised the annual student placements in the conservation department. He also has teaching and lecturing responsibilities; among others, he has been an associate lecturer for the conservation courses at Camberwell, UAL, from 2001 to 2018. Recent conservation work for private clients has included a project for the artist Gary Hume.

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