Conserving the Richard Bright Collection

Dr Richard Bright is a key figure in the history of medicine and intellectual life, famous for his work in nephrology and discovery of Bright’s disease, but also active in other areas, including natural history, geology, anthropology and travel. Bright was a notable figure on the London medical scene and was particularly active at Guy’s Hospital.

The Bright paper collection held at the Norfolk Record Office (MC 166/299, 633X7-8) consists of approximately 850 individual manuscripts and 13 notebooks containing about 830 pages in total. These items, housed in two boxes, date from 1808 to 1858 and were either written by or received by Richard Bright. Together they chart the early years of Bright’s career as a doctor and author.

Grants received from the Wellcome Trust, the National Manuscript Conservation Trust, and from other generous donors has enabled the NRO to carry out the conservation treatments.

Richard Bright papers
The original condition of both boxes of the Richard Bright papers. Norfolk Record Office, MC 166/299, 633X7-8.

The collection was originally housed at Ditchingham Hall in Norfolk where they were subject to very poor environmental conditions, particularly from water, high humidity and mould, resulting in extensive deterioration.

Such is the extent of the damage to the collection, most of the items were unable to be unfolded without causing further significant damage. Therefore, the collection’s historical importance remained unknown.

The aim of the Richard Bright project is to allow this resource to be fully accessible to researchers via high resolution digital images in conjunction with an extensive catalogue.

Lace damage
A letter in need of conservation – the paper around the ink has been degraded causing a ‘lacing’ effect

Conservation Treatment

For the treatment to be successful the paper item will have to be physically and chemically stabilised, therefore extending the life of the item and enabling the text to be transcribed.

Despite their very fragile condition, using certain controlled methods, the papers can be washed and subsequently repaired. But the most important and difficult part of the process is the initial stage – the unfolding.

To assist in the process of unfolding a vacuum table is used. The low-level suction is equivalent to having many pairs of helping hands holding the various fragments in place whilst the item is being unfolded. Rigid cards can be inserted into the final fold to support the top layer as it is unfolded.

The unfolding process on the vacuum table – inserting support cards

Once unfolded the item must be physically stabilised prior to being washed. This is achieved by applying temporary remoistenable support tissue whilst the low suction is still active. These small squares of thin Japanese tissue have been pre-coated with a thin layer of gelatin that is activated by introducing a minimal amount of water vapour. This allows the tissue to lightly adhere to the manuscript and therefore hold the fragments in place.

Temp tissue
Applying the temporary remoistenable support tissue

Once the manuscript has been physically stabilised it is ready to be washed. Fortunately, the media used around this period was iron gall ink that doesn’t bleed when wet. Full immersion in water is out of the question as the water movement would displace the fragments. A gentler method is ‘float’ washing whereby the manuscript is placed on a silk screen in a tray of de-ionised water with the level just touching the screen and manuscript. After a couple of long washes, the manuscript undergoes a couple of subsequent aqueous treatments to chemically stabilise the ink and the paper.

‘Float’ washing a document

Once aqueous treatment is complete the temporary support tissue can be removed and repair of the manuscript can commence. This is carried out immediately after the screen has been removed from the bath and the manuscript is still damp. Repair entails facing the item on both sides with a layer of Japanese paper. This paper, made from a strong Kozo fibre, is only 2 grammes per square metre – so thin enough to become virtually transparent on the repaired item but strong enough to provide the required physical support. These facing tissues are pre-prepared by applying a thin layer of watered-down wheat starch paste and allowed to dry on a supporting sheet of polyester.

The first facing is applied to the manuscript on the screen and allowed to dry in-situ overnight. The following day the item can be removed from the screen, remoistened and the reverse side faced. The final drying is achieved between blotters under a light weight.

Applying the pre-adhered facing tissue
The manuscript after conservation treatment ready for digitisation

The majority of the collection has been successfully conserved, and the contents revealed – enabling researchers and historians alike to study this rich source of historical information originating from one of our country’s most eminent physicians. Further funding is being sought to complete the project.

Written by David Parker, Project Conservator

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