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The conservation of Bishop Cosin’s Library

Furniture & Wooden Artefacts Conservator Sarah Gerrish writes:

As a Furniture Conservator I specialise in preserving significant furniture, wooden artefacts and historic interiors by stabilising them and keeping as much of the original as possible to protect our cultural heritage for future generations.

Often the importance of a piece of furniture in an historic collection is not necessarily the market value of the object so much as the history, owner, signs of its use and age, all going to make up the provenance.

Through thoughtful use of materials and techniques and guided by a high standard of professional ethics damaged furniture is repaired with minimal intervention disturbing as little of the original as possible. All treatments are carefully recorded, siting the materials used with photographs of before and after conservation taken for future reference.

This differs from furniture restoration, which is generally more invasive, using techniques such as stripping surfaces and refinishing them. This is a valid approach in many situations, and aesthetically a restored piece can look as good as new but in the world of conservation this approach could de-value the important story of an object and erase evidence of its historical use.

For example, when working on Walter Scott’s Writing desk, in the study of his home in Abbotsford, there were marks on the surface of the desk which indicated ink stains from where Scott had once sat and penned many of his novels. Whilst repairing the surface, which was very badly light damaged, having been positioned in the light of a south facing window for many years, had I stripped it and re-polished the top, it would have looked as new but would have removed any signs of Scott’s use hence devaluing the desk and removing the story, which for Abbotsford, now a museum, is an intrinsic part of the interpretation of how Scott lived and worked.

Having been a furniture conservator for nearly thirty years, I have been employed by two National Museums, in Wales and Scotland but have been freelance, with my own workshop, for nearly fifteen years. I work on a wide variety of furniture and wooden objects, from Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Alvar Aalto furniture, to wooden aircraft propellers and threshing mills to french boulle furniture and historic wooden interiors, such as the Mackintosh Library at the Glasgow School of Art. My clients include Historic Environment Scotland, National Trust for Scotland, Edinburgh and Glasgow City Councils, Museums and Public Organisations as well as private clients and collections.

I was awarded the tender for the conservation of the interior of Bishop Cosin’s Library at Durham University. The specification was to conserve the existing Seventeenth Century bookcases, the balustrades of the gallery, staircase and flooring after a programme of building works to restore and renovate the building. This included repairing any elements of damage, replacing the painted panels and wooden crests removed from the cornices of the bookcases prior to works and ensuring the bookcases were in excellent condition to re-instate the libraries nationally significant collection.

With a team of four we took a fortnight to complete the conservation as specified, which also included some of the furniture permanently housed in the library. Planning had to be slightly modified to fit in with restrictions and regulations put in place by the government due to the Covid- 19 Pandemic along with adhering to the Universities requirements for safe working during the pandemic, but did not change my approach overall.  

We began by cleaning all the surfaces ensuring they were free from dust and dirt and then further cleaned to remove ingrained dirt by controlled wet cleaning. All repairs were carried out prior to reinstating the painted panels which sit under the cornices of the bookcases and the carved crests which were positioned between each bookcase. Using conservation grade materials, which are technically reversible, ensures that if in the future new materials are found to be more suitable, by referring to the treatment reports to see what materials have been used, the treatment could be reversed and the preferred material used ensuring the future preservation of the piece as required. Surface scrapes and scratches were tinted in to match the existing finish and where necessary protected with wax.

The most rewarding part of any job is seeing the results of all our hard work and witnessing the change between the artefacts or interiors from looking a little jaded and worn through age and wear and tear to artefacts and surfaces having a soft sheen and a cared for look, so in keeping with the historic setting and without being too obviously bright and shiny. Recommendations are made, where required, for the future care of the historic interior, in terms of managing future use of the library and suggesting environmental parameters, the focus on these aspects ensure that the approach is one of prevention rather than intervention.

Working predominantly on my own, with Radio 2 and my two terriers for company, I relish the opportunity to bring together a team of talented individuals to ensure the successful completion of such a project as Bishop Cosin’s Library. Spending time in such a prestigious building with such an interesting history and delightful architecture is always a privilege and a definite perk of the job.

Sarah Gerrish ACR

Sarah Gerrish Conservation

Strathmore Lodge Carnwath ML11 8LQ

[email protected] | 07970 180004