Decant Day, 9 November 2016: Packing up the Cottonian Collection

By Susan Leedham, Cottonian Collection Researcher

As we near the halfway point of Decant (ready for building work to start in the New Year) it was time to move one of our most important pieces – our nationally designated Cottonian Collection.

aha210211-4474The Cottonian Collection was gifted to the people of Plymouth in 1853 for our ‘amusement and instruction’ and we are incredibly lucky to be able to call this unique and fascinating collection our own! The collection contains over 10,000 objects including prints, drawings and oil paintings (including many by Plympton-born painter Sir Joshua Reynolds), along with 2,000 books, ceramics, sculpture, and some large pieces of unique eighteenth-century furniture. Because of its contents, the collection was awarded Designation Status by Arts Council England. This means that it has been identified as one of the most important collections in the country.

Although the Cottonian Collection was gifted to us by William Cotton III in the mid-nineteenth century, it is much older and started life 350 years ago. In mid-seventeenth-century London, a middle-class man called Robert Townson began buying books and a few prints. The collection then passed through the hands of two further gentlemen (William Townson and Charles Rogers) who each purchased numerous drawings, prints, paintings and books. By 1799 the Cottonian Collection was two-thirds larger than its current size – just imagine how impressive it would have looked! Sadly two sales in 1799 and 1801 reduced the collection to the size it is today, however the remainder was brought to Plymouth by William Cotton III in the 1830s and on his death was donated to the people of Plymouth.

As you can well imagine, moving a collection of this size and importance was no easy feat. With only one week to accomplish this task, we worked with a company of specialist movers who helped us to pack and transport our precious Cottonian Collection. The first objects to be moved were the three large bookcases. As you can see from our time-lapse footage this was a big job!

Carefully removing the books from the shelves (some are very large and heavy) the books were packed into boxes lined with acid-free bubble wrap and tissue for their journey to the offsite store.

It was essential that each box is marked with a shelf number so that we could make sure that all the books went back on the shelves in the right order! The large bookcases were then dismantled for the journey and placed in crates to keep them safe. Once at the other end, they were carefully re-built and the books were placed back on the shelves. This was a job that needed a lot of care as the eighteenth-century wood is sensitive to movement and changes in temperature.

Reinstalling the furniture in its new location

In the time-lapse and the images below, you can also see some of the oils, bronzes and other works being taken packaged ready to be taken off-site. This gives a sense of the scale of work undertaken!

It was a busy week and in total nine pieces of large furniture, 2,000 books, 9,000 prints, twenty-two oil paintings and 54 pieces of sculpture made the journey.


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.

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.

All Change Please…

By Emma Philip, curator of Fine Art

On Monday 29th July we began work on the biggest changeover of furniture yet in the Cottonian Gallery.  The biggest bookcase in the collection, wittily christened as ‘The Big One’ to those of us on the project team, was off to conservation at Tankerdale.

‘The Big One’ contains over 300 books, from small paperback-sized ones to huge volumes of prints the size of several coffee-table books put together!  As before, every book needed to be removed before Chris and Allan could begin to dismantle the bookcase, so Neil, Jackie and I had a long day’s work.

All of the Cottonian’s 2000 books are catalogued according to their position on each shelf, and so we had to be very careful to keep the decanted books in exactly the same order at all times.

On the plus side, it did give us an opportunity to briefly check out the condition of the books whilst we handled them, and to replace some of the acid free paper shelf linings as we worked.

In addition to emptying the Big One, we also had to replace the books in cabinet 2, and our glazed front bookcase, which came back from Tankerdale at the same time.  All in all, it was a very busy three days’ work indeed!