Exploring Collections

This week is Explore Your Archives Week, a national initiative to celebrate the many and diverse archives held in the UK. For our part of the celebration, we held a Collections Open Evening on Tuesday 21st November. Four speakers were invited to give short talks on some aspect of the collections and we set out two rooms of displays highlighting the material of the talks, alongside collections that have recently featured in the blog and those collections with which some of our current volunteers and interns are working. It was exciting to see so many people interacting with our collections and taking the opportunity to examine archives that are not usually on display.

The talks were begun by Rebecca Snow. For her final year project on the Camberwell College of Arts Conservation MA Course, Rebecca had restored a drawing from the Tod Collection, titled “Northern elevation of the Temple of Rana Mokal, Chitor” (RAS 037.174), dating to around 1820. This ink drawing is made across eight sheets of Indian paper which had been joined together by adhesive. The drawing exhibited many tears, losses, folds, and creases, as well as historic repairs using a crusty glue, which caused discoloration and staining. Some sections were beginning to come apart and there was a lot of surface dirt. The object’s large size also posed a challenge as far as storage was concerned, and historically it had been stored in a folded position, as it was too big for even our largest shelves. All in all, the piece suffered from a number of problems which not only reduced its aesthetic appeal, but also posed a risk to its long-term stability and survival. Rebecca shared how she had tackled the conservation project, the highs and disappointments, and the realities of what is possible with such an object. We are very grateful to her, not only for coming to speak, but for the work on the drawing which now means that it accessible to researchers.

Rebecca Snow

The second talk was given by Dr Roger Parsons, both a Member of the RAS and a long-term volunteer. As one of his earlier volunteer projects, he has sorted, listed and researched the Papers of Sir Henry Creswicke Rawlinson (1810-1895),  known for his work on cuneiform inscriptions, as well as his later political career. Roger, shared a brief summary of some of what may be ascertained about the life of Rawlinson, by examining the papers here at the RAS. A full list of the items in the Rawlinson Papers can be found on our website here.

Dr Roger Parsons

Our third speaker was Peter Collin, a member of the RAS Council and one of the longest serving members of the Society, both here and in Hong Kong. Peter chose to talk about the early cash ledger in which was recorded the membership subscription payments of the members. The ledger spans from 15 March 1823, the date of the Society’s founding, until 22 February 1828  and from it Peter has extracted the names of our early members, tallied these with the early membership lists and then researched biographies for these gentlemen. He regaled us with potted histories of the first four names that appear in the book – John Caley, Captain James Murray, B. Lambert and Samuel Turner. Caley was of particular interest to me, as he was an early archivist, though as Peter revealed, not the sort of record keeper of which our profession could be proud.

Acoording to Peter’s research  Caley was the son of a London grocer, who started work in the Record Office of the Tower of London. In 1787, on the recommendation of Lord William Bentinck. He lived most of his life (from 1795 to 1834) in Brayne’s Row, a group of houses in what is now Exmouth Market, off Farringdon Street and Rosebery Avenue, in Clerkenwell. He took a lease on Number 40 in 1795 and used it to store his vast quantity of records and books, expanding into number 42 next door when space ran out. The premises functioned as a sort of informal Public Record Office, and members of the public were allowed by Caley to visit and search for information by searching the indexes to the official records which he kept in his house. His most important position was as Secretary of the Records Commission from 1801 onwards, and then as special sub-commissioner, supervising the arranging and preservation of the records. Unfortunately the reputation of the Records Commission diminished, as his organization of the repairing and cleaning of the records was criticised. The indexes to the records were kept in his private house in Exmouth Market, and could only be consulted by special permission. It was alleged that he cut off seals from ancient documents. On his death his vast collection of manuscripts was sold, and many were bought by the British Library.

Peter Collin

Our final speaker was Professor Anthony Stockwell, Vice-President of the RAS, who spoke on some of the history of the kingdom of Ava, with particular reference to four pictures that we have in our Collections. These paintings are all currently on the walls of the Society, so available for all to view. The first is gouache and gilded painting of the Palace of the King of Ava. This was painted by a Burmese artist in 1832 and presented to Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Burney by the royal family. Burney donated the painting to the RAS in 1841, and if you come to the Society’s buildings and look up after you have signed in, you are able to view this magnificent picture, over 1.5 metres in length. The other pictures are a set of three depicting the idyllic life of Prince Thibaw and his wives and attendants. These can also be found in the entrance hall and on the first floor of the RAS building. Tony, in his talk, pointed out that the idyll they portray was soon to end when Prince Thibaw’s father died without assigning who was to be his successor.

Professor Anthony Stockwell

We are very grateful to all our speakers for their contributions to the evening. We are also grateful to our volunteer, Amy Matthewson, for creating the display of early twentieth century glass slides, and to our current Alphawood Scholarship interns, Aria Danaparamita  and Pawinna Phetluan  for their displays on Borobudur, from our Antiquities of Java Photographic Collection, and on the Papers of Horace Geoffrey Quaritch Wales respectively.

Some of the items on display in the Reading Room

The theme of exploring collections continued in our lecture on Thursday 23rd November. This time it was not one of our collections but the Ruzbihan Qu’ran purchased by Chester Beatty, possibly in the 1920s, and now held in the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin. Dr Elaine Wright spoke of her research on the Qu’ran particularly concerning the consturction of it, the many pigments used in its decoration, and in particular the different ways in which the two most expensive pigments – the blue from lapis and the gold – had to be handled. When gold pigment was used as a background, it was applied first and then the decoration added after; but for lapis the reverse applied. Because of the nature of the lapis pigment, which has a shard-like composition, other pigments would just disappear into it, therefore when lapis was used all the decoration was painted first and then the lapis carefully applied between the patterns. Only if a wax-like substance was applied to the lapis, seen on some of the folios, could other pigments be painted after. It was a fascinating talk, illustrated with copious examples of the beautiful illuminations to be found in this Qu’ran.

Dr Elaine Wright

The next lecture in the RAS Lecture Series will be on Thursday 7th December at 6.30 pm, when Dr Diana Lange from the Institute for Asian and African Studies, Humboldt University, Berlin, will lecture on “Exploring Tibet in Mid-19th Century: The British Library’s Wise Collection”. We hope that you will be able to join us on this occasion. Other events are also coming up at the RAS. Please check our website for details.