Thomas Carlyle was the founder of The London Library and this year, the Library’s Collection Care team have been involved in an exciting conservation project to help restore and protect some of the books from his collection.
The books are on display at Carlyle’s House in Cheyne Row, Chelsea which is owned by the National Trust and open to visitors between March and November. Carlyle and his wife Jane moved to Cheyne Row in 1834. They had been married for 8 years, and Thomas was embarking on his career as a writer and had been searching for a suitable London base. With rent at just £35 per year, the new house suited a writer whose reputation was not yet firmly established. Within three years, however, he had published one of the works that brought him lasting fame – The French Revolution: A History.
The foundation of The London Library stems from this time. Researching The French Revolution and later works such as On Heroes, Thomas Carlyle had become disdainful of the services provided by the British Museum and bemoaned the fact that their books could only be studied in situ among the “wheezers, sneezers and snorers” of the reading room. His solution was to set up an independent lending library and in 1840 he began a campaign to raise subscriptions to help fund it. The result was The London Library established in 1841.
Nearly a century later, Carlyle’s central role was recognised by a generous gift from Professor P.E. Newberry. Newberry had acquired a number of books from the collection of Thomas Carlyle and in 1940 he donated 59 volumes (comprising 31 separate titles) to The London Library. These include works by Homer, Aeschylus, Byron, Sophocles, Tacitus, Sir Walter Scott, Virgil and some of Thomas and Jane Carlyle’s own works.
In recent years, these books have been on loan to the National Trust so they can be displayed – along with many other of Jane and Thomas’s possessions – in the drawing room of the Carlyle House at Cheyne Row.
Our Collection Care team have recently carried out a condition survey on the books and discovered that 28 of the volumes are in need of conservation work. Many are showing signs of their earlier use, with tears across their front endpapers or title pages, or even detached front boards.
With work likely to take several weeks we decided to wait until Carlyle’s House closes to the public for its annual conservation and building maintenance before collecting the books and taking them back to our conservation studio in St James’s Square. A few days ago, the books – bubble-wrapped and boxed – were carefully transported and are now safe and sound in the hands of our Collection Care team.
Over the coming months the team shall be actively carrying out conservation work. Tears will be repaired with Japanese tissue and wheat starch paste. Japanese papers do not discolour or become brittle over time, and they have long, strong, flexible fibres; the lighter-weight papers also benefit from being translucent and unobtrusive, producing repairs that do not obscure the text. Wheat starch paste is also very suitable for repairs – our Collection Care team cook batches of it every week and store it in their fridge! Starch based pastes have been used for centuries and are known not to yellow or darken with age; they are also reversible and it is possible to remove the repair paper at a later date, if need be, without damaging the object, even after many years.
The other main area of conservation work will involve making special bookshoes for books that have detached boards. Bookshoes are a form of bespoke box with only 4 sides which hold the book together but are practically invisible from the front, which is an important point for a National Trust library. We will use a solid colour archival-quality boxboard made in a warm brown colour – these will be free from acids and from any agents which could stain or change the nature of our books’ bindings and pages.
Once the Collection Care team have finished, the books will be returned to Carlyle’s House in time for the House re-opening to the public in March. With the London Library celebrating its 175th anniversary on 3rd May 2016, we’re delighted that the personal possessions from our founder are being given a new lease of life in time for the big day!