Conservation, collaboration and colour at the Fitzwilliam Museum by Edward Cheese

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© Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Founded by Richard, 7th Viscount Fitzwilliam of Merrion, in 1816 ‘for the Increase of Learning’, the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge is celebrating its bicentenary with a special exhibition, COLOUR: The Art and Science of Illuminated Manuscripts. Viscount Fitzwilliam’s magnificent library was at the very heart of his bequest and many of the 130 manuscripts it included – which, by a clause in his will, can never leave the Museum building – are displayed in the current exhibition, alongside important later bequests of illuminated books and cuttings, and a small number of generous loans from institutions across Europe.

Manuscripts on display date from the sixth to the sixteenth centuries and have been chosen to demonstrate not only the development and range of artists’ techniques, but to showcase the cross-disciplinary research, scientific analysis and conservation work which they inspire.
COLOUR has grown out of two major collaborative research projects run from the Fitzwilliam Museum and led by Stella Panayotova, Keeper of Manuscripts and Printed Books: the Cambridge Illuminations Project, which is publishing the illuminated manuscripts at the Museum and the Cambridge Colleges in a multi-volume catalogue series; and the MINIARE Project, which is at the forefront of a rapidly developing field of research, the non-invasive scientific analysis of illuminators’ materials and techniques (
Art-historical research and scientific analysis complement each other to allow visitors to understand the complex and subtle materials and techniques employed by artists in the creation of some of the best-preserved examples of medieval and renaissance art in existence. From initial analysis to catalogue contributions and final mounting in the display, the Museum’s book and manuscript conservators have been closely involved with all aspects of the exhibition, advising on the preservation needs of the material and carrying out frequently complex practical conservation of works in need of treatment.
Painted on parchment - one of the most durable supports - and preserved between the heavy boards of their bindings from the damaging influences of exposure to light, abrasion and dramatic fluctuations in relative humidity, illuminated manuscript books represent the richest source of medieval and renaissance colours to have come down to us. In-fact textiles have faded, stained glass has been smashed, and panel- and wall-paintings have been exposed to physical damage followed by repeated campaigns of restoration. Although the great majority of original bindings have been lost, the books on display in COLOUR show off the rich colours and superb technical skill of their illuminators. It is a cruel irony, then, that these generally high levels of preservation encouraged collectors to break up the books, using them as a source of jewel-like works of art feeding the enthusiasm for ‘monuments of a lost art’ that developed towards the end of the eighteenth century. Alongside the bound volumes, the exhibition provides a rare opportunity to see illuminated fragments from two of the most significant private collections amassed in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, bequeathed to the Museum by Frank McClean and Charles Brinsley Marlay.
The challenges of displaying these fragments and making them accessible in the best possible way for their long-term preservation, and of dealing with eighteenth- and nineteenth-century bindings applied – often inappropriately – to much older manuscript text blocks, were among the most exciting elements for the conservators and technician who worked on the show.
Manuscript cuttings on parchment removed from the context of their original bound volumes are exposed to much greater fluctuations in relative humidity than originally anticipated. As a result, parchment can become distorted, with dangerous consequences for the delicate pigment layers on the surface.
In order to counteract this problem, previous generations glued manuscript cuttings to stiff mount boards or inset them into album leaves, but this process in itself frequently induced tensions (and therefore yet more distortion) in the works. Consequently, a significant element of the conservation work undertaken for COLOUR was the reduction or complete removal of backings from cuttings and the provision of new mount for some the objects . Painstaking work to remove multiple layers of acidic cardboard revealed text on the reverse of the images and allowed their exact positions in their parent books to be established accurately.
After gentle humidification and flattening, followed by a period of stabilisation, the cuttings were mounted in archival support cards individually cut to fit each fragment, which was then held in position with Japanese paper tabs. The support cards were hinged into archival window mounts, a system which allows for exhibition framing as well as long-term storage, and gives researchers easy access to both sides of each work.
Although illuminations in the collection display a remarkably good state of preservation in general, a few examples had suffered damage, either through the powdering of pigments or flaking of the paint layers. In these cases the conservators worked under high magnification to apply a very dilute solution of isinglass (an adhesive often used for consolidation) using a nebuliser or a very small-size miniaturist’s brush, depending on the type of
damage. We do not retouch losses, preferring instead to collaborate with colleagues in other disciplines to reconstruct works in a digital form.
The largest single intervention undertaken for the preparation of this exhibition took 214 hours, spread over the course of a year, to complete, and involved a rather more interventive approach. The exquisite half-page miniature of God with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden in the opening exhibit (MS 251, an early fifteenth-century French manuscript), has, fortunately, survived in the context of its book; but as is the case with so many manuscripts, the original binding was removed in the mid-eighteenth century to be replaced by a tanned calfskin binding with a gold-tooled spine, the fashion of the day for a gentleman’s library. In order to compensate for a weak sewing structure and to preserve the gold on the spine, the eighteenth-century binder applied thick layers of hide glue and heavy textile linings to the spine to stop it flexing when opened. Heavy-handed use of a backing hammer to shape the spine compounded this problem, leaving a book which opened poorly and with its inner margins, some of them highly decorated, almost completely obscured. Earlier attempts by frustrated readers to see the full area of the leaves had resulted in the spine splitting and tears developing in the spine margins.
Book conservators dealing with this sort of problem are faced with stark challenges: is it better to preserve a fairly common, mechanically inadequate, old but non-original binding at the expense of being able to study the hugely more significant manuscript it contains; or to remove that damaging binding to be preserved separately, allowing the manuscript to be conserved properly and rebound in a structure informed by binding techniques from the time it was produced? In the case of MS 251 curator and conservator agreed that rebinding would be the best option, but that the whole process, from decision-making to the completion of the new binding and its bespoke storage box, should be published as an online resource to allow new conservators, manuscript researchers and interested members of the public to understand in greater depth some of the complexities involved in the work.
The resource, Under the Covers: The Conservation and Rebinding of Fitzwilliam MS 251 is available on the Museum’s website (, along with the major digital legacy of the exhibition, Illuminated: Manuscripts in the Making. Both resources are the result of projects which draw their strength from multi-disciplinary collaborations, and are designed to give free access to high quality digital images of sensitive works alongside the latest research.
Viscount Fitzwilliam’s vision of learning is alive and well after 200 years: it is surely fitting that his manuscripts are made available to new audiences in richly stimulating ways.

Colour: The Art and Science of Illuminated Manuscripts runs at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, until 30 December 2016. A digital version of the exhibition is available on the Museum’s website ( along with the resources Illuminated: Manuscripts in the Making and Under the Covers: The Conservation and Rebinding of Fitzwilliam MS 251.

About the author: Edward Cheese, MA, ACR, is Conservator of Manuscripts and Printed Books at the Fitzwilliam Museum. Before joining the museum in 2015 he was employed at the Cambridge Colleges’ Conservation Consortium for eight years, the last three as Conservation Manager.