Make Do and Mend?

By Emma Philip, Curator of Fine Art

Oxo crates used for an earlier repair job
Oxo crates used for an earlier repair job

When the ‘big one’ was taken apart for conservation, we found this wooden Oxo crate had been sawn up and used to repair the underside of two of the lower units.  We don’t know for sure, but it is feasible that these additions date from the initial transfer of the Cottonian Collection from the Plymouth Proprietary Library to the City Museum and Art Gallery in the early part of the twentieth century.

We know from the archives that the collection was moved and then gradually opened to the public between 1915 and 1918.  The delay was caused by a lack of cabinet makers, as many of Plymouth’s skilled men had joined up to fight in the First World War.  Perhaps as both men and materials were scarce, these crates were recycled by some cunning local carpenter.


Wood From All Over the World

By Emma Philip, Curator of Fine Art

The large bookcase (actually a pair of two bookcases originally – see below), was made in 1757 by Thomas Wood of London.  Each of the lower cabinet doors is veneered, inside and out, with rare specimen veneers from all over the globe.

Over time and with changes in environmental conditions, these veneers have moved and lifted in places and some are very fragile indeed, and one of the doors was so warped that it had jammed closed. In order to stabilise them for the future, Tankerdale are lifting and relaying or filling the veneers where possible in order to maintain the structural integrity of the doors and prevent any further losses.

Here you can see where fillers have been applied which match the colour and tone of the wood.  After this first phase, the filler is then sanded down and varnished to match the finish of the rest of the door.

Filling the veneers of the cabinet door
Filling the veneers of the cabinet door

The veneers have been used in a variety of ways to achieve different effects.  Take for example snakewood (otherwise known as Piratinera guianensis), which comes from Guiana.  When used in the direction of its natural grain, snakewood has a striped effect (see below).  These vertical snakewood bands appear on many of the cabinet exteriors.

Striped effect of snakewood
Striped effect of snakewood

When used ‘end-grain’, in slices across the width of the tree, snakewood has a dotted effect, as seen here in one of the door interior veneers.

Dotted effect of snakewood
Dotted effect of snakewood

Other end grain veneers have also been used to decorative effect by Thomas Wood – below you can see how the outer circular veneers have been created by taking a thin slice across the original timber (in this case probably yew at the top and ebony at the bottom).

Different veneers used to decorative effect
Different veneers used to decorative effect



On the Road

By Emma Philip, Curator of Fine Art

At the end of September I visited the workshops at Tankerdale’s base in Hampshire to meet the rest of the team and see for myself the large bookcase undergoing conservation treatment.  Here is Robin from Tankerdale, hard at work on the veneered cabinet doors (and of which more below).

Robin from Tankerdale at work
Robin from Tankerdale at work

The bespoke display plinth for the bookcase was also under construction.  Each section has been individually tailor-made to support the back edge of the 8 vertical units.  On dismantling the bookcase, we discovered that this had previously been done using an old pine plank!

Adding pine supports
Adding pine supports

At the front edge of the cabinets Tankerdale have added hidden pine supports and re-set the front feet, which were dangerously splayed under the weight of all the books. The new system should give better, more targeted support to help the cabinets sustain the weight of the books stored in it.

Our latest addition to the Collection…

By Emma Philip, Curator of Fine Art

Meet Becky.  Becky has kindly volunteered her time to carry out some of the evaluation work surrounding this project.  We want to know what you think of the Cottonian Gallery, particularly the work we have done in redisplaying and interpreting the furniture throughout this past year.

Becky will be working a few hours each week in the Cottonian Gallery over the coming months, so do stop and say ‘hello’ if you see her.  There is even a free gift for all those who complete our survey!

Becky, our new Cottonian Gallery volunteer

Meet the Experts!

By Emma Philip, Curator of Fine Art

Don’t forget, you can soon hear all about the Cottonian Historic Furniture Project from two experts who have played a key role.

On Tuesday October 22 at 1.10pm, Dr Adam Bowett will talk about his research into the furniture, its makers and many exotic specimen woods.  Click here for further details;

On Tuesday 26th November at 1.10pm, John Hartley, Managing Director at Tankerdale Limited will discuss the process of conserving our historic furniture.  Click here for further details;

Thanks to the Designation Development Fund at Arts Council England, tickets for these two events are COMPLETELY FREE!  Please visit our Welcome Desk or call 01752 304774 to claim yours.

The Plaque is Back!

by Emma Philip, curator of Fine Art

One of the 10 items conserved as part of this project is our rosewood occasional table made around 1825.

We haven’t yet got to the bottom of how it entered the Cottonian Collection, but its date would suggest that it was one of William Cotton III’s purchases, perhaps after his marriage and move to The Priory, Leatherhead in 1824.

A brass plaque, engraved in French, was originally set into the top of the pillar, but the glue had aged and the plaque had come loose.  Tankerdale carefully cleaned the plaque and set it back into place for us, meaning that in future we can display the table with the plaque showing.

The plaque back in its original position
The plaque back in its original position (click for a closer look!)

Here’s the inscription;

Le cinq d’Avril dixhuitcent
Quatorze.  Napoleon Bonaparte signe
Son abdication sur cette table dans
Le Cabinet de travail du Roi
Le 2eme après la chambre a coucher
á Fontainbleau

Or in translation;

On the 5th April 1814
Napoleon Bonaparte signs
His abdication on this table in
The King’s work room (office)
The second after the bedroom
At Fontainbleau

This implies that the French Emperor Napoleon signed his abdication on the table! However, such a direct connection to Napoleon himself seems rather unlikely given that the style and presumed date of the table are a decade later than the historical event.  We need to do some further digging to try and work out how this table entered the collection, and where its extraordinary claim to fame comes from.

If you know something we don’t know with regard to the history of this table or Napoleon, or both, please add your comments below, or get in touch with us via our website.

The Big One’s Little Mystery

By Emma Philip, curator of Fine Art

Following on from my last post, once we’d finally managed to clear all 300+ books out of the largest bookcase, Allan and Chris from Tankerdale set about dismantling it into its 16 sections; eight glazed top units and eight low cabinets with veneered doors.

Carefully deconstructing the bookcase
Carefully deconstructing the bookcase

When they got to the middle sections, we found that they were shallower in depth than the other base units, and that the incremental depths of the eight sections were regular until the centre two units.  There were also what looked like veneered sides to some of the vertical abutting bits of the units, which (in its current configuration), never see the light of day.  What do these discrepancies mean?

Thanks to Dr Bowett, we already knew that the configuration of this bookcase had been altered, and that what were once two separate bookcases had become one.  These new clues may help us to pin down the original configuration of Charles Rogers’ bookcases and may yet suggest further alternatives for the early life of this 256 year-old piece.