Conserving a Caxton

By Gretchen Allen, Library Conservator, Special Collections & Archives

William Caxton printer’s mark

William Caxton was an English printer and translator active in the latter half of the 15th century. He is thought to be the first printer in the English language, and his work had an enormous impact on English literature and the wider book trade. Born in 1422, Caxton traveled to Belgium and then later to Germany where he learned how to operate the newly invented printing press. As all of Caxton’s editions were printed before the year 1500, they are classed as “incunabula”, the oldest and most highly prized class of early printed work. While there are many surviving Caxtons in the UK, there are vanishingly few in Ireland.

One of his later printed works was a 1483 edition of the poet John Gower’s “Confessio Amantis”. The poem tells of a lovesick poet “Amans”, who confesses his misadventures in love to Genius, the chaplain of Venus, in an effort to be cured of his infatuation. The work is dedicated to Gower’s friend and contemporary, Geoffrey Chaucer.

The recto and verso of the framed print, showing the letter taped to the back

When Maynooth University acquired the Otway-Maurice collection of early printed works on long term loan from St. Canice’s Cathedral in Kilkenny, there was a single framed page of Caxton’s “Confessio” found in the collection. However, the page was in poor condition: it was heavily discolored with evidence of past water damage, and the paper had tearing and losses along the bottom edge. The most pressing concern was that only one side of the page was visible–due to the method of framing it was impossible to tell if there was text on the other side. It was not even possible to dismantle the frame as the back was covered by a taped-on letter of authentication. It was clear a conservator’s intervention would be necessary.

The letter of authentication was removed from the frame, then the remaining sellotape was removed from the letter, which was then surface cleaned and flattened. The frame was carefully dismantled, revealing that the print was encapsulated between two panes of glass. This can be a risky form of encapsulation to remove due to the strong static cling between glass panes, but it was even trickier in this case since one of the panes was broken.

The dismantled frame and the print encapsulated in glass

The tape along the edges was removed and the glass was safely lifted away from the object. The label was also lifted away, and the print was free of its enclosure. It was also finally possible to view the text on the back! The print was photographed, then both sides were gently and carefully surface cleaned. The substrate and media were spot-tested to check for solubility, and the print was then washed using a capillary wetting method which allowed water to slowly travel through the paper, taking discoloration and dirt with it.

The treatment is still ongoing: a light consolidant will be applied to return some structural integrity to the page, then the torn edges will be repaired and reinforced using a very light Japanese tissue paper. The finished print will then be rehoused and stored in Special Collections where it can be safely accessed by readers.

The recto and verso of the print pre-cleaning
Discoloration leaving the print during a capillary wash

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