Churchill With Puncture Damage


Scattered through the heritage collection of Sedbergh School are a few items that are showing their age. Volumes once pored over by pupils and masters have spines that are falling away and end boards making a bid for freedom. Portraits of much-loved figures from the school’s past have flaking paint and disintegrating plaster frames. Artefacts show the damage of rogue rugby balls that have been hurled around indoors.

One of the roles of the School Archivist is to assess the collection and determine which items are in greatest need of conservation. The School is well supported by a team of accredited external conservators and this term three of our conservators have been working to stabilise items in the collection.

The question of which items should be sent for conservation work is complex. Consideration needs to be given to how often the item is used, whether the modest resources of the archive can justify the often high expense of conservation work, and whether damage has become part of the history of the item such that a repair would mask an essential element of the provenance.

At present our bookbinder, Mark Lambert, is working on seven early volumes of Sedberghian magazines while ensuring that both the repair and the previous damage is visible. The original kid skin of these well-worn volumes has snapped in several places but Mark, evoking the Japanese art of Kintsugi goldwork, is ensuring that the repair is visible such that the varied history of the books is acknowledged. In working to reattach end boards the original boards have been split open and a white fabric called tyvek has been applied. Tyvek is acid free and tremendously strong – the material of choice for iconic pathologists’ white suits seen in crime dramas. A Japanese paper made from mulberry called kozo has then been applied to further strengthen the join. Kozo has thin, strong fibres and is known for its resilience. The kozo is coloured with aqueous acrylic paint to match the original kid skin. The adhesive used throughout is reversible PVA such that if a future conservator wished to undo Mark’s work and redo the repair using different materials it would be possible to fully erase the current work without damaging the item. Mark is a former medical surgeon making use of his transferable skills of sewing with tiny needles and undertaking high precision work. It turns out that book binding was a logical sideways career move from surgery.

Book Binding Sedberghian
Book Binding Sedberghian

Following an unfortunate run-in with a tall pair of library steps the portrait of Winston Churchill has needed some attention. The portrait by impressionist painter Amy Katherine Browning was purchased to adorn the scholars’ room of the library following Bracken’s 1950’s refurbishment. Churchill is shown in one of his personally designed ‘siren suits’ which he created to save the modesty of the wearer when dashing to the air raid shelter during night raids. The now damaged painting has a bowl-shaped indentation in the lower half of the painting with damage to both the canvas and the paint work. Happily, the School works closely with ICON accredited fine art conservator Francis Downing and his studio who are confident that they can restore Churchill and his siren suit to pristine condition. Francis works sympathetically with historic paintings to ensure that any conservation work is appropriate for the piece. In this case he will endeavour to make the portrait look ‘as new’ rather than leaving a purposeful indication that conservation work has taken place.

Some items arrive in our collection requiring repair work. Former master, Peter Akins, recently purchased the Boer War sword of Sedberghian Hugh Maxwell Blair (Sedgwick House 1884 – 1890) on behalf of the archive. The sword scabbard had historic damage and Peter generously offered to fund repair work to stabilise the item. In early March conservator Pieta Greaves from Drakon Heritage came on site to work on the sword in situ. Pieta shared her methodical work with several groups of pupils who came to watch her undertake the repair. Pieta used EVA neutral ph adhesive to re-join the wood and reattach the leather, using Autosol and fine wire wool she treated the metal to remove corrosion and she used a micro crystalline wax to provide future protection. Our own Rupert Follett of Powell House and the School history department dropped in for some advice about maintaining his own military sword.

Sword Conservation 1
Sword Conservation

Hugh Maxwell Blair was a prefect and played on the 1st XV in 1888 and 1889. He passed in to R.M.C. Sandhurst 1890 and passed out first with distinctions. He became a Captain in the Seaforth Highlanders (Ross-shire Buffs, Duke of Albany’s) and was attached to 2nd Battalion West African Frontier Force in the Boer War. He was killed in action at Koodoosburg, February 7th, 1900. It is an honour to preserve his sword in the school collection.

The work of conservation is ongoing: much like painting the Forth Road Bridge the collection will never be ‘finished’. This continuum of care is one of the many things that makes heritage work so rewarding and engaging.

Katy de la Riviere, School Archivist

Follow the archive on twitter @SedberghArchive