You never know what you’ll find during an inventory, and each find can have implications on collections care and on our understanding of an item.
On the surface (and in the catalogue), Katāmaῆcari (கதாமஞ்சரி) EPB/B/50641 appears to be a clean copy of Tamil folk tales, printed in Madras in 1846. It is only when we opened it that we discovered a nineteenth-century miniature gouache painting loose over the title page.
Gouache painting is similar to watercolour painting, but the paint dries opaque. The technique has been used for centuries, and in this instance, it has been done on mica, a transparent mineral formed between strata of granite.
From my brief research, I have identified this as a Company painting. These were paintings created by Indian artists for the European tourist market, often by artists working for the East India Company. Not only were these paintings products of British imperialism, but one of the main traits of Company paintings was their focus on race and caste and categorising groups of individuals. This makes them important items to identify and handle sensitively.
It also opens up questions on the history of this item. Did the painting end up in the book accidentally or was it put there for safekeeping? Was it added while the book was still in India, or was it put there by an owner elsewhere?
From digging around in the archives, we know the book was bought for the collection, along with 62 other books, from the G. B. Hilliard auction house in Leyton on 11 June 1929. Unfortunately, as with so many items, little else is known about its history.
The close proximity of such different materials with individual care needs also adds a level of complexity to their storage requirements. During inventory we often come across loose items, including an eighteenth-century playing card, calling cards, envelopes, leaflets and pressed leaves and flowers. Making a note of these items allows our conservators to make decisions on how best to preserve and care for these objects, while still trying to keep the items together and retain their history.
Alexandra Hill is the librarian (printed rare material) at Wellcome Collection in London. She is responsible for the inventory of all the pre-1851 printed and published rare materials at Wellcome, and her interests lie in the materiality of books and their history as objects. Her book Lost Books and Printing in London, 1557–1640: An Analysis of the Stationers’ Company Register focuses on the impact of book survival and collecting on our understanding of early modern print.