Alex Woodall

Travelling down to this workshop by train, I thought a lot about the books I had brought with me for the practical aspects of the session, books in need of restoration. The one I really wanted to focus on was my Granny’s handwritten recipe book, a hard-backed lined exercise book dating from 1936 and inscribed with her familiar teacherly (yet spidery) handwriting.

Granny Recipes

This, of course, is an object of immense sentimental value to me. It is a link to a person now not here, to family history, to an identity so close to my own. Its recipes tell tales of social, domestic and culinary wartime history in Yorkshire; its worn pages with splodges and splatterings tell of years of cooking and baking using ingredients now unheard of; its fallen-off front cover with blotches of grease tells of constant reference, even now.

On my train journey, I wrote affectionately about this book, and its intriguing contents (see my blog here:

I linked it to my Granny’s life story. I photographed it. I suppose part of me was scared that if I were to restore the book during the afternoon’s session, it would no longer be the same book. Its patina would be changed forever. And somehow that didn’t feel right.

What I didn’t realise on this journey, was that I wasn’t really thinking about the materiality of the book. I was thinking about its contents and its meaning. And for some reason, even though much of my work links these things together, here, I wasn’t really doing what the workshop made me think further about: restoring – or rather conserving – the material of a thing. Looking at how a book was made way before it was written in, how the stitching of the pages, the production of the ink, the making of the cover, are all material processes that I have so often ignored.

Restoration raises some complex and challenging questions for me, and these were expertly and fascinatingly described by Fred Bearman in his wonderful presentation which gave a brief history of books. Even more exciting was the opportunity to see and handle some stunning historic manuscripts and the materials currently being used in their restoration (without gloves, because use of these is “the biggest load of nonsense you have ever heard” – my sentiments exactly). The key thing was that actually restoration was perhaps a misnomer for this part of the workshop, and actually conservation is far more accurate (and ethical) a term for what goes on within libraries and special collections. Conservation is about arresting decay, stabilising, retaining original character, being reversible. Restoring it seems, could often be barbarian.

Restored Book

Of course I knew these things due to my work in museums and art galleries, but it was fascinating to hear them within this bookish context. We had a brief opportunity with Angela Warren-Thomas, to put theory into practice and actually do some conserving. Granny’s recipe book was deemed too complex a task for the few minutes we had (and I was strangely glad that it was not going to be altered), and so instead, I used the gorgeous and fine Japanese tissue and starch paste to mend one corner of another printed cookbook. The result feels good, but to an untrained eye (in my kitchen at least – not to a conservator), would go utterly unnoticed.

The final aspect of the workshop was textile-maker-mender-artist Celia Pym talking about her own processes of restoration and conservation of materials. Jumpers, sheets and blankets, Celia collects used, loved and worn remnants of people’s material or textile lives, and weaves new life into them, preserving them, yet, in contrast to the work of a conservator, her restorations always show traces and the marks of their restoration. Materials provoke thoughts that she would not have had without being able to handle the things. A detective, she chases the stories of others, inventing, reimagining, creating, listening to the tales woven into the fabric.

And perhaps this is where the materialities encountered both by the re-maker (the conservator) and the maker (the artist) are similar: it is only through the wear and damage of things – their life stories – that we know how they were made. This wear and damage is what makes things what they are. Things get worn out, used up. Why do we then feel a need to conserve things when things, like people, were not created to last forever? Does mending things say more about our own fear of mortality, our own need for being part of a larger story, than about the value of the thing being restored? Just a few existential questions then, that arose from my afternoon encounter with some old books and jumpers. Such is the power of things.


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