Elemental, my dear Watson!

Christmas has come early for conservation as Royal Armouries’ Conservator, Ellie Rowley-Conwy tells us about the exciting new addition to the museum’s conservation equipment…

Much of conservation, and the start of treatment on any object, begins with an in-depth look at materials. We have to be aware of what elements make up an object, how it has been manufactured and how these degrade over time, in order to make informed choices about how to prolong its longevity. The Conservation Department at Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds has a shiny, new and portable instrument called an EDXRF (Energy-Dispersive X-Ray Fluorescence) that will help us to investigate all of these areas, and we are very, very excited about it!

Christmas comes early for the Royal Armouries with the addition of a EDXRF (Energy-Dispersive X-Ray Fluorescence)

Christmas comes early for the Royal Armouries with the addition of a EDXRF (Energy-Dispersive X-Ray Fluorescence)

The addition of the EDXRF will enable the conservation department to investigate the materials in the national collection at an elemental level – and more importantly it is non-destructive. We will be able to get more of an idea about the uses of different metal alloys used for certain types of arms and armour, how these adapted over time and how they differ around the world.

An example of this could be when analysing leather, often found associated with arms and armour. The reading will pick up chromium so we then know the leather must have been chrome tanned. Chrome tanning of leather began in 1858, meaning we can use this information to help date an object. This also highlights another benefit of the EDXRF, as we can use it to help identify fakes. A number of elements and alloys that are around today could not have been extracted or manipulated for use in the past, due to the lack of modern industrial techniques. If these are present, in a supposedly historic object, then it could indicate that the object, or at least part of it, is a modern reproduction.

The EDXRF will also help us to find out about manufacturing techniques; an example of this is looking at certain decorative techniques. When analysing objects that have been gilded, a reading showing the presence of mercury will tell us that the object was gilded, using the mercury gilding technique. If we took readings from all our gilded objects we could then identify how popular mercury gilding was in the past compared to other gilding techniques.

We hope to gain lots of important information through the use of our new EDXRF and the results that we obtain, and we really look forward to sharing them with you and the other arms and armour enthusiasts out there!

Blogger: Ellie Rowley-Conwy, Conservator

Line of Kings: Back to Front

Ellie Rowley-Conwy, the project conservator for the Line of Kings tells us about her part in building a wall of armour.

Line of Kings, Project Conservator, Ellie Rowley-Conwy  © Royal Armouries Museum

Line of Kings, Project Conservator, Ellie Rowley-Conwy
© Royal Armouries Museum

To some, it might seem that cleaning 113 pieces of seemingly identical plate armour would be repetitive or even, dare I say it, boring.

Perhaps this makes me sound odd but nothing could be further from the truth. Although superficially similar, each artefact offers its own challenges, details and insights.

Indeed, it is only by working with so many pieces that the unique nature of each piece stands out. Many of the objects are inscribed with the word ‘Toiras’ across the front, referring to the Marquis de Toiras who famously withstood the three-month siege of La Rochelle in 1627, which is the provenence of all the breastplates and backplates.

© Royal Armouries Museum

© Royal Armouries Museum

Subtle differences can include the manufacturer marks that are often found on the inside; the size of the pieces giving information about the soldiers involved in the conflict; and the dents and damage present on the pieces which tells us about the objects’ working life.

Often the breastplates and backplates have been coated in a lacquer to protect them from handling and the environment. This can work well for a few years but, if left on for too long, it will yellow and become increasingly difficult to remove.

The first stage in the conservation process is to clean this off, using cotton swabs and an appropriate solvent that will remove the lacquer without damaging the underlying metal. Under the lacquer layer there can be remnants of thick wax, which was used in the past to help protect metal. This also has to be removed using a further solvent.

Any corrosion present on the object is cleaned off using, a specific abrasive material with an appropriate lubricant to prevent any scratching of the metal. The object is then coated with a protective conservation grade wax.

The result of all this hard work will be a very striking, full wall of breastplates and backplates, forming the backdrop for the Line of Kings exhibition, which will open at the Tower of London on July 10.

Blogger: Ellie Rowley-Conwy, Project Conservator, Line of Kings

Japanese Wakizashi Sword

As part of the Ingham case renovation in the Oriental Gallery, a large number of Japanese swords required cleaning and conservation at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds.

The swords had a variety of accessories and the highly ornate ones required more in-depth work. One of the most elaborate Japanese swords had approximately fourteen pieces to it – all of which required individual attention.

The object is a Japanese Wakizashi sword and dates back to the 17th century. The blade is signed ‘Hizen kuni ju Tadahiro’ and is accompanied by a wooden replica blade and two sets of scabbards and hilts; one simple and wooden, the other coated in lacquer and highly decorative with accessories.

Japanese-sword-image1

The decorative hilt was the main area of concern as the ray skin coating was fragile in a number of places and the gold dragon decorations showed evidence of copper corrosion. The metal blade collar, washers, utility knife and hair implement all showed signs of discolouration and copper corrosion. The decorative scabbard, while in good condition, had a small fragment of lacquer detached from the surface.

Before Conservators could start work on the sword, it had to be taken apart so that each item could be treated on individually. We took care to note the order and position of the accessories, so that it was not put back together incorrectly. Taking photographs helped with this process.

sword2

The metal accessories were cleaned using cotton wool swabs with a solvent specific for metals. This removed the corrosion and discolouration, without causing further damage to the objects.

The hilt’s decorative dragons were cleaned by brushing on an appropriate solvent, in order to fully penetrate the uneven surface and remove corrosion.  The fragile ray skin coating was stabilised using a suitable adhesive that was applied using capillary action, to strengthen the bond to the base material.

The decorative scabbard was cleaned using an alternative solvent, which would not damage the original lacquer, to remove the surface dirt. The detached fragment was re-attached using a suitable adhesive to secure it back to the wooden base, without damaging the lacquer exterior. The wooden scabbard and hilt, along with the remaining metal accessories, were dry cleaned to remove the surface dust and dirt

To clean the blade, traditional Japanese methods were used, including the application of a dry powder to remove any previous oil. This was then wiped with Japanese tissue to remove it. Finally, the blade was coated with a specially tested traditional Japanese oil to protect it and prevent deterioration.

Blogger: Conservator, Vicky Garlick

From Leeds to Oman…

Royal Armouries is staging an exhibition of iconic matchlock guns in the Sultanate of Oman as part of its ongoing commitment to showcase global heritage to the Islamic world.

The firearms played a crucial role in the history of both Europe and Asia and some were originally displayed in our Leeds museum. They are now part of a new exhibition at Bait al Rudaydah Museum, a recently restored Omani fort, which has its own diverse collection of small arms.

Royal Armouries Technician, Giles Storey tells us about the journey from Leeds to the Middle East.

Transporting the objects from the museum in Leeds and mounting the exhibition in Oman took eight full-on days. The first stop on our journey was London and the Constantine Warehouse, where three packed crates of the objects awaited. Once we arrived the crates were loaded onto custom-made wagons, with air-ride suspension and temperature-controlled storage to ensure the objects travelled safely.

The eight-hour overnight flight left on time with our precious cargo on board! We touched down in Muscat airport at 8am local time, and quickly made our way into the cooler air-conditioned terminal, remembering to obtain a 10-day visa in exchange for 5 Rials, before heading through security to meet up with Dihan Dole, the representative from CEVA.

We arrived at Bait al Rudayah Fort at around 4.30pm, and got ready to unload the crates into a secure area, ready for customs to inspect each crate. By the time we had worked our way through the object manifest and packed everything away in a secure room it was getting on for 8pm.

The next day was Install day. The room for the exhibition was quite small, so we were restricted slightly in terms of how much space we had to move about. The six large graphic wall-panels were the first to go up, relatively easy, though one panel did need a little alteration with a hacksaw, so it could be positioned to hide a fuse-box.

After lunch, we made a start on installing objects; my colleague, Senior Conservator Nyssa Mildwaters, condition checked each object as we unpacked them, and I started the process of placing them in the cases. We had layout drawings to work from, though the depth of the case was slightly shallower than anticipated, due to a couple of battens that were fitted to allow the glass frames to be screwed into position.

Day two involved fitting the glass for the display cases, and installing the object mounts into the table top case, bonding them in place and leaving them overnight to cure.

On the final day of installation we had to crack on with putting the finishing touches to the cases. The mirrors had to be carefully taped and bonded into position. Luckily I had brought a spare mirror, as my first attempt resulted in a scratch straight down the back of the first one. Object numbers were taped and installed, then it was a case of cleaning, cleaning, and more cleaning, ready for the glass to go in.

The glass had to be bonded into its frame, and then carefully carried through the doorway at an awkward angle. It was a five-man job to manoeuvre the glass into position – where it will stay for the next 12 months.

Once the install was finished we still had to prepare all the crates for storage. The heat in Oman can make wood warp pretty quickly so they have to be stored built up rather than as flat panels. Special seals around the crates ensure that we won’t bring any bugs back with us in a year’s time.

The return trip was relatively smooth with only the small hiccup of me losing my boarding card in the airport!

It was a tight project time-wise but we have successfully exhibited a small piece of our Leeds collection in the Middle East!

Blogger: Giles Storey, Technician

What a corker!

XVI.258A – Tower Hamlets Rifle Volunteers Officer’s Helmet

Conservation work has recently commenced on a Tower Hamlets Rifle Volunteers Officer’s regimental helmet, which will shortly be going on display at the Tower of London. The helmet is of the Home Service Pattern design, introduced in May 1878.

Black and silver helmet with chin strap and spike

XVI.258A – Tower Hamlets Rifle Volunteers Officer’s Helmet

The body of the helmet is made of cork, covered in black cloth, with two seams on each side. The chin chain is made of interlocking silver-plated rings, backed with leather and velvet. This was attached to the helmet on two side rose bosses and, when not being worn, the chain would have been attached to a rear hook. All the metal components on the helmet are silver-plated.

There is a metal crosspiece with a spike and base on the top of the helmet and a metal plate badge on the front. The badge’s design comprises an eight-pointed star surmounted by a crown. A Garter belt is around the outside, inscribed with the motto ‘Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense’ (Shame upon him who thinks evil upon it). The centre of the badge features the White Tower in the Tower of London as a symbol of the Tower Hamlets Regiment.

Silver badge with representation of White Tower and the motto Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense

Silver badge with the White Tower in the centre

The helmet’s interior has a leather layer and also a pink silk lining. The helmet features two retail labels for the hatters ‘W. Cater & Co. Established 1776, 56 Pall Mall, London’. The silk lining also features a name label for the helmet’s owner, ‘G.E. Colebrook’. George Colebrook was part of the 1st Tower Hamlets Rifle Volunteer Brigade and was promoted to Lieutenant in June 1901. Sadly he is recorded as having died in a motorcar accident in 1903.

Silver chin strap with detached leather backing

Silver chin chain with detached leather strap

The helmet arrived in the conservation lab with tarnished metal components and a partially detached chin strap, where the original thread had broken leaving some of the rings hanging loose from the leather backing. Stay tuned to hear about the conservation treatment and repair to the chin strap, ready for the helmet to go on display.

Blogger: Philippa Beesley, Conservation Student

Royal Armouries to publish oldest known fencing manual in Western World

Royal Armouries Manuscript I.33 is the oldest known fencing manual in the Western world.

In this Olympic year it is being lent for exhibition to The Wallace Collection in London.

The Royal Armouries have taken this opportunity to rebind the manuscript and
while it is unbound to photograph it so that a unique full scale colour facsimile can be published.

The Royal Armouries have teamed up with specialist publishers Extraordinary Editions who have designed a replica early 14th-century binding for the facsimile, which will be packaged in a solander box along with a companion volume and feature a page by page transcription and translation as well as a new introduction by Dr Jeffrey Forgeng of the Higgins Armory Museum, Worcester, Mass.

MS I.33 will be published as a limited edition and in order to fund the project a limited number of subscriber copies will be made available at £600 [plus postage and packing]. Remaining copies will cost considerably more.

If wish to register for a copy of I.33 please e-mail mm@extraordinaryeditions.com as soon as possible.

The first 25 copies have already been reserved.

Medieval manuscript illustrations of sword fencing

Royal Armouries MS I.33 – the oldest known fencing manual in the Western World

The Great Cover Up

Over the next few weeks, as part of the Museum’s preventative conservation programme, work will be carried out in the Royal Armouries stores at our Leeds Museum to cover all the large objects that are not stored on shelves or racking, this includes horse saddles and whole mounted armours.

Individual Tyvek covers, a non-woven fabric consisting of spun-bond olefin fibre which is water-resistant yet breathable, will be made for each object to protect them, particularly from dust, and will help reduce the need for additional conservation work to be carried out on these objects in the future. Images of the objects and their accession numbers will be attached to the outside of each cover making it easier to identify the objects.

Conservation Assistant Emily Ironmonger at work placing protective covers on a jousting saddle

Conservation Assistant Emily Ironmonger at work placing protective covers on a jousting saddle

Work has started on making covers for some of the mounted armours. It is quite a challenge to make covers for some of the objects, such as a large German jousting saddle dating from around 1500, as it is such an irregular shape.

For some of the more fragile, or awkwardly shaped objects like the saddle, covers with ties at the front will be made, making them easier to remove when necessary and prevent damage to the objects when uncovering them.

A wide-range of skills is certainly needed to work in the Conservation Department.

Blogger: Emily Ironmonger, Conservation Assistant

Cuirassier Armour

As part of the the second year of my Conservation Masters at Durham University I will be undertaking a nine-month placement in the Conservation Department at Royal Armouries, Leeds.

The placement has begun with the cleaning and conserving of a 17th-century Dutch composite cuirassier armour in preparation for its loan to Edinburgh Castle’s Great Hall, where it has previously been on display. Cuirassier armour was worn by the heavy cavalryman of the period and became prominent because of the more extensive use of firearms from the early 17th century.

The armour is often referred to as three-quarter armour covering the whole body to the knees and worn with long boots. The head was protected with a close helmet, the neck with a gorget, the shoulders and arms with pauldrons and vambraces, the body with a breastplate and backplate, the legs with tassets and the hands with gauntlets.

Over time this armour has at times been restored to an extent with features like new plates being added, new rivets to hold parts together and re-leathering. The ethical considerations of these restorations are also of paramount importance when studying the authenticity of previous work.

Armour previously on display in the Great Hall, Edinburgh Castle

Armour previously on display in the Great Hall, Edinburgh Castle

Previous conservation work took place on the armour in 2005 and presently the armour is receiving solvent and mild abrasive treatment to remove any surface dirt and corrosion. Fragile areas on the metal or on the leather straps used for attachment are either being consolidated or given additional support in order to prevent further deterioration. All of the armour is being given a protective wax coating after treatment.

Blogger: Philippa Beasley, Student Work Placement – Conservation Department

Conservation, Museums and Blacksmithing

As part of the National Heritage Ironwork Group’s Heritage Blacksmiths Bursary, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund’s ‘Skills for the Future Programme’, I have had the pleasure of spending three weeks working in the Conservation Department of the Royal Armouries. Coming from a background in blacksmithing, where often the delicate work simply requires the use of a slightly smaller hammer, it was a bit of a change swapping to cotton wool buds!

The craftsmanship and skill of the weaponsmiths and armourers that made the Museum’s objects is unbelievable. The time and care that has been spent on some of the pieces is so impressive you can see why a suit of armour could have cost as much as a small farm.

Matthew working on removing corrosion from a breastplate

Matthew working on removing corrosion from a breastplate

While working here I have been lucky enough to get involved in behind the scenes aspects of the Museum, from putting objects on display to cleaning and conserving items in the collection. The conservation of the brass nipple-studded breast plate, pictured above, required removing corrosion without disturbing the original patina in unaffected areas. This can be quite challenging and the conservation work that the department does is vital in maintaining the collection for future generations.

I will be using the skills and conservation techniques which I have learned at the Royal Armouries to protect and maintain the heritage ironwork I hope to be working on in the future.

Blogger: Matthew Boultwood, Student Work Placement – Conservation Department

Neigh-ly Done

Previously on the Royal Armouries blog we posted a story about an equine project our Conservation Team have been working on. This life-size papier-mache horse was created by the early 20th century craftsman Felix Joubert. The horse came up to Leeds from the Tower of London to undergo repair work earlier this year.

Repair work on the horse's ear

Repair work on the horse's ear

Since our initial report the Joubert horse is starting to look a little better after a lot of filling, sanding, consolidating and infill painting. His ear is firmly back in place and the damage to his neck, sides and legs have been stabilized and fixed.

The horse awaiting transportation to our Stores area

The horse awaiting transportation to our Stores area

Now it is only the tail which needs conserving, this in itself will be a big project as great care needs to be taken so as not to damage it any further.  In the meantime the horse will be stabled in our Stores area.

Blogger: Alex Cantrill, Conservator