Under Raking Light: Christopher Harvey

Illumination (raking or otherwise) is the order of the day. In the latest from our regular series, there’s insight and inspiration aplenty from Christopher Harvey.

Who are you and what do you do?
Christopher Harvey, Head of Conservation at the College of Arms Library in London. I manage a small workshop with a highly skilled conservation team largely involved in the repair and preservation of a working collection of historical manuscript books. I am very fortunate in that the position enables, on average, about four to five hours of bench practical time in a working day.

© Christopher Harvey (Courtesy of the College of Arms Library, London)

If not conservation/preservation, what?
While I was a conservation student I worked as an assistant in a second-hand and antiquarian bookshop, so I would have probably continued to eke out a living doing that. The relationship and interaction between books and people remains a fascinating one and a constant source of interest and delight. However, museums and libraries were always a strong interest, so something ‘heritage’ would probably be the ‘what?’ in this instance.

Describe your current project.
There are always several on the go. At the bench, I am working on the conservation of two manuscript volumes from the core, most heavily referenced series of the collection, together with the binding of a new manuscript volume from the reference collection, which continues to develop and grow. Away from the bench, I am following the investigation of a low-cost, low-energy, sustainable form of environmental control for a special collection store that will replace the high cost and energy consumption of the current system.

Pinny or white lab coat?
Neither. An old Ally Capellino canvas apron from Tate Modern, essential for leather dying and the rebacking of volumes when there is the potential for roving adhesive.

Tell us about your most memorable project, for better or worse?
Although it was over eighteen years ago, to have been involved twice with the survey of the manuscript book collection at St Catherine’s Monastery Library in Egypt, a project headed by Prof. Nicholas Pickwoad, remains hugely influential. It goes without saying that it was an incomparable privilege to study and handle such remarkable manuscripts in such surroundings. The project represented a peak in the system of documentation and recordkeeping. The opportunity highlighted both the remarkable survival of manuscript books and that preserving a collection may be a process that can take many years and have a scale beyond an individual’s lifespan.

Bone or Teflon?
Both, as they have different qualities for different processes. However, someone should do a study on where the Teflon particles go from a well-used folder. I am sure the folder I use is not the dimension it once was. It does pose the question whether this is something that we really want to be adding to historic material.

How do you preserve/conserve yourself?
As well as cycling as part of my daily commute to work, I am an avid fan of Pilates. I find field and woodland walking hugely restorative and I am fortunate that there are numerous places around my home to take such walks.

What do you think is underestimated in conservation?
Practical bench hand skills. Unfortunately, the conservation profession all too often follows other corporate and financial models of career progression. Management roles generally mean the neglect or death of an individual’s hand skills. I believe that there is then a fundamental disassociation in decision making. There should be greater advocacy for enabling regular and continued practical hand-skill time. These are essential to maintaining the unique and experiential connection with materials, techniques and the objects in our care.

What piece(s) of equipment would you buy first in your new dream studio?
Not really equipment, but essential – a studio space designed with optimised and controllable natural light. Closely followed by extensive and well-designed bench space. On a smaller scale, one can never have too many types of scissors!

What would be the desert island book for the conservator?
Glenn Adamson’s Fewer, Better Things: The Hidden Wisdom of Objects (Bloomsbury). Quoting from the book blurb: ‘In this delightful exploration of materiality in its many forms, curator and scholar Glenn Adamson explores how raw materials, tools, design and technique come together to produce objects of beauty and utility. A thoughtful meditation on the value of care and attention in an age of disappearing things, Fewer, Better Things invites us to reconnect with the physical world and its objects.’ I think this book is vital reading.

Who’s coming to dinner (three, living or dead) and what would be on the menu?
Katherine Mansfield, author; Andrew Wyeth, painter; Angela Hewitt, pianist; and on the menu, Mediterranean tapas – of course, this would have to be a meal eaten outside under a warm Mediterranean sun.

The gloves: on or off?
Clean hands and ‘off’ for books and most archival material, however, definitely ‘on’ for photographic material.

___ is the new black.
Hand skills should be the new black!

If you could give just one piece of advice to a new conservator, what would it be?
To really train yourself to look at, and gain familiarity with, as much material in your care as practically possible. To look intensely closely, and then to look yet again. Oh yes, and maybe draw, too! Evaluating what you see or working out processes in drawn form is unbeatable for a technique of realisation and for the sharing of ideas.

© Christopher Harvey

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