Professor Michael Slater, seen below with the book, Elizabeth Twining’s Illustrations of the Natural Orders of Plants, wanted to celebrate the life of his close friend, John Grigg. Michael chose to sponsor the conservation of a book that reflected John’s interests in taxonomy and books.
The book, Twining, Elizabeth, Illustrations of the Natural Orders of Plants with Groups and Descriptions. London : Sampson Low, Son, and Marston, 1868 Elizabeth Twining (1805–1889) was a botanist and a botanic artist. Her 1868 book is reduced from the folio edition of 1849, which is thought to rank among the finest lithographic flower books of the mid-nineteenth century. The two volumes contain 160 colour plates on thick paper bound using caoutchouc, a latex adhesive.
The caoutchouc binding method was devised by William Hancock, brother to Thomas, the founder of the india-rubber trade in England. William was granted a patent in 1836. The bindings are of single sheets held together with layers of a rubber solution obtained from the latex of certain tropical plants.
The caoutchouc glue on the spine is brittle and broken
The caoutchouc binding was popular for illustrated “table books” of the 1860s and often used on books with very thick leaves. It enabled the single leaves of printed plates to open easily. Unfortunately the caoutchouc became brittle over time and this, with the inflexibility of the thick leaves, has seen most caoutchouc bindings fall apart. See http://cool.conservation-us.org/don/dt/dt0574.html and Bernard Middleton, History of English Craft Bookbinding Technique1963, p. 30).
We aim to conserve a book and its history by preserving all evidence of the book, its provenance and binding. To do this we use inert and reversible materials and techniques. For a book with many leaves loose the best approach would be to box it with its cover and ensure it is handled carefully. This book, although beautifully illustrated, is not a first edition so we looked into returning it to its bound state. We wanted to retain the single leaf binding style but avoid the binding failing again. Bernard Middleton, in The Restoration of Leather Bindings, suggests fanning the spine to apply a sliver of adhesive between each leaf and if necessary sawing a groove across the spine into the back of each section to lay a cord in. But this may need strong but irreversible glue and might involve cutting into the original leaves. We looked at turning each leaf into a section by pasting the leaves together and sewing the book as a normal binding, but this does not reflect the original style and it would be too thick to return the book to its covers.
A conservator in America, Susanna Donovan, seen below, introduced us to Gary Frost’s unpublished method. He pasted strips of thin Japanese paper to each leaf, extending a feather-cut edge of paper beyond the spine edge.
Japanese paper guard pasted to leaf
Guard pasted across two adjoining leaves
Adhering Japanese paper guards on a caoutchouc binding
These feathered edges were then glued with PVA to the spine, joining the leaves back into a volume and allowing the book to be returned to its original cover. This retains the single leaves and enables the book to be returned to its binding. However the glue used, PVA, whilst strong, may not remain reversible over time.
Our next step is to select a strong, reversible adhesive with sufficient flexibility and do a partial mock up using Gary Frost’s method to see how it works.