Peeling Back the Layers of an Eighteenth-Century Book

Amongst my weaknesses may be counted a taste for collecting the books I study.  This led me, a few days ago, to be in the happy condition of owning a copy of Alexander Nisbet’s System of Heraldry, 2 vols. (Edinburgh, 1722-42), one of the heftier sets of antiquarian folios to be published by the eighteenth-century Scottish book trade.  On examining the set, though, I was intrigued by what appeared to be three bookplates on each front pastedown, placed one atop the other.

What’s hiding under there?

After some hesitation – and a fair amount of reading up on the process – I decided to attempt a delayering of the top two bookplates, using a paper towel dampened with boiling water to gently moisten the nineteenth-century glue, allowing the slips of paper to come off, one at a time.  That was the idea, anyway.

Tools of the trade: scissors, kitchen roll, and waxed paper.  Note also the more recent bookplate of the political scientist Bryan Keith-Lucas (1912-1996) on the flyleaf.

The actual process was more nerve-wracking than this summary might suggest.  Once moistened, the already thin paper on which these bookplates were printed became terrifyingly weak and it was a slow and painstaking process to gently, ever so gently, slide a kitchen knife between them and the layer below.

Gently does it . . .

But, despite a few tense moments, the first layer was an unqualified success.  The mid-Victorian bookplate of Colin Campbell Baillie peeled smoothly away to reveal a beautiful example of engraving from the generation before: the bookplate of one George Henderson.

Hidden treasure!

The next layer was a different story.  After half an hour, Henderson’s bookplate remained obstinately glued to the board.  Another half hour later, and I could just wedge the knife in under a couple of edges, but whatever glue he had used made it impossible to lift the entire slip of paper.  In the end, though, I also found that wasn’t necessary.  I was able to lift one corner enough to see that whatever had originally been printed on the lowest layer had either been torn or abraded away before Henderson applied his bookplate.  In the picture below you can just make out the traces of a copperplate name which seems to commence with “William” but the arms – and, regrettably, the surname – have been obliterated beyond any recovery.

Disappointment at the bottom level: an already destroyed bookplate (possibly through the nineteenth-century removal of a lost intermediate bookplate between it and the one being removed in the picture).

Still, I had recovered at least one significant addition to the provenance history I was developing for the set.  And I’d also succeeded in doing so without damaging either bookplates or books, which certainly counted for something.  Baillie’s bookplates have now been carefully relaid on a blank portion of the front pastedown directly underneath Henderson’s, so that this provenance will remain connected to the volumes without concealing their other ownership markings.

Stay tuned for a companion post on the process of identifying both Baillie and Henderson through the arms on their bookplates (a sometimes neglected but important way of performing provenance research).  For now I’ll rest on my laurels, such as they are, and let the wheat paste I used when reapplying the Baillie bookplates thoroughly dry . . . .

Baillie’s bookplate, successfully removed and about to be pressed to prevent it from curling as it dries.

Copyright © 2016 Kelsey Jackson Williams




One response to “Peeling Back the Layers of an Eighteenth-Century Book”

  1. A fascinating bit of bookwork Dr Jackson-Williams. I was particularly interested in determining provenance through the coat of arms. Quite ingenious!


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