Communion Of Dreams


The St John’s Bible

In 1998, Saint John’s Abbey and University commissioned renowned calligrapher Donald Jackson to produce a hand-written, hand-illuminated Bible. We invite you to explore this work of art that unites an ancient Benedictine tradition with the technology and vision of today, illuminating the Word of God for a new millennium.

The Saint John’s Bible homepage.

This was no small project. The finished bible, produced on animal skin vellum, was in seven volumes. Each volume was two feet tall, and three feet wide when opened.

Recently Special Collections and Rare Books at the University of Missouri — Columbia asked me to archivally mount special dedication pages to six of the seven volumes in their Heritage Edition set of the book. Since this very limited edition (just 299 copies) is the full-size, fine art version which very few people will ever have a chance to see in person, I thought I’d take some pics and share them here, along with some notes and observations.

Each volume comes in its own conservation clamshell box:

As you can see, these things are huge. They’re so big, I couldn’t store them in my large safe — so I picked up a pair of the books at a time, did the mounting (which takes two days to do properly), then returned them to Special Collections.

And that style of clamshell box is a work of art itself. I occasionally do (smaller) ones for clients, and they can take three or four hours of labor for me. Doing one that size would take special equipment and workspace I just don’t have.

Here’s the first volume in the set, in gorgeous hand-bound red calfskin:

Click, then follow the link at the bottom, if you want to take a close look at the calligraphy.

 

Likewise.

And here’s the dedication page, along with the facing colophon:

The calligraphy for the dedication page was done by Diane M. von Arx, who was part of the team which worked on the St John’s Bible. If you look closely, you can see some of how I mounted the dedication pages: in the gutter there’s a slight discoloration from the Japanese Kozo tissue paper. The process of mounting the pages was easy: first mount the Kozo strip along the back of the dedication page, then allow to dry under restraint overnight; the next day, position the page and then paste out the Kozo ‘tab’, and secure it to the facing page and again allow to dry under restraint. This kind of mounting allows for a very natural movement of the page, as though it was part of the original binding, with minimal chance of the additional bulk of a page causing long-term problems. I also had to trim each dedication page to the specific dimensions of each respective book (they vary by a couple of millimeters — no surprise, given the size of the things and the fact that they were bound by hand).

And here are some additional images from the books, again available in full scale:

A fun project.

 

Jim Downey

If you are interested in supporting conservation work at Special Collections and Rare Books at the University of Missouri, here is their “Adopt a Book” page. And if you might be interested in sponsoring the last of the seven volumes of the St John’s Bible, you can contact MU Libraries Director of Development, Matt Gaunt.

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Reboot.

“This new reboot of Star Trek: TOS succeeds on several levels, and all audiences are expected to find something they like in it. The choice to cast @@@$F%(&*&^^ in the role of Captain Kirk is not without controversy, however, as it is the first time a non-human actor has been selected to play the iconic character.”



Three weeks in Wales, Part 11: end days.

 

Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5. Part 6. Part 7. Part 8. Part 9. Part 10.

The next day we were in a neolithic kinda frame of mind. This was by design, actually, since one of the sites we wanted to see is only open on weekends, if you want to see the inside of it. That’s the Barclodiad y Gawres burial chamber on Anglesey, and I love this aerial image of it from CADW’s site:

I actually mentioned this site in a blog post three years ago about St Cybi’s Well, and I’ve been wanting to see it since I did the research about the site. And this was another case where I had a false memory of having previously visited it, thanks to that research. But this time I knew full well that I hadn’t been there … even as the false memory played out as having been there when we went looking for it. A very strange feeling.

Anyway. We stopped at the little shop in the nearby town, as instructed on the CADW site, and collected the key for the chamber. The site was only about a mile away, and we parked there in the lot for a small beach, and walked out to the mound.

The mound was excavated in the 1950s, and when that research was done they capped it with a concrete dome and turf to protect it and to return it to something like what it may have looked like when constructed 4,000 – 5,000 years ago. The entryway you can see in the image above allows anyone to partially enter the mound:

Where you see this:

The original entry path of the cruciform passage grave.*

The gate is locked, and the key allows you entrance. We wanted to get inside because I wanted to personally see the neolithic art:

There are better images (and more of other carved stones at the site) at the site linked above and elsewhere online.

After exploring inside the chamber we locked it back up, then explored the exterior. There on the headlands the wind was brisk, but it was a wonderful location with excellent views:

We returned the key to the shop, and went off in quest of other neolithic sites there on Ynys Môn. First was Caer Lêb, a Bronze Age settlement which is little more than mounds now.

Then we stopped at another passage grave: the Bodowyr Burial Chamber.

From there we headed back to the mainland, stopping for some lunch before visiting friends of Martha’s for a couple of hours. When we headed back to our beachside hotel it was still a bit early, so we decided to to explore the substantial Iron Age hillfort overlooking our portion of the beach:

From the hotel parking lot.

That’s Dinas Dinlle, and there’s not a lot of information available about it, though the Megalithic Portal has a number of images of the site. Here are some more of mine:

At the top. I’d guesstimate the hill to be about 100 meters high.

 

Along one of the defensive earthen walls.

 

Path across the village ‘floor’ to the other defensive wall. To the right the sea has claimed approximately a third of the original hillfort.

 

During WWII there was a military airport just up the coast, so at the base of the hillfort it wasn’t surprising to see a small defensive pillbox of that era:

I thought that it was an interesting juxtaposition.

The next day was our final one in Wales. After a nice breakfast we packed up and headed east. We were driving back to Manchester (where we would fly out the next day), but we thought to hit several castles along the way. The first of these was Rhuddlan Castle. We had visited Rhuddlan some years previously, but at that time it was undergoing some restoration work.  CADW has a nice overview of the castle … in the form of an aerial fly-by:

It was nice to have a chance to really walk around the place and enjoy it.


 

From Rhuddlan we went to the first castle King Edward built to subdue Wales: Flint. Both Wikipedia and Castle Wales have good entries on Flint Castle, but I prefer my own images:

There were a number of these shadow-sculptures, which I really thought were striking. the images were drawn from history/Shakespeare.

Entry into the unusual large circular detached tower, called a donjon keep, which overlooks the main castle entrance.

 

The donjon had your typical central rooms, but it also had wide (7-8′) corridors in the walls, with defensive windows and arrow slits looking out.

 

Inner room of the donjon.

 

The lower inner corridor in the donjon keep. 

Top of the donjon. 

Inner ward of the castle.

 

Across the inner ward.

 

Our last castle of the trip was to be Ewloe. This small Welsh castle was one I’d never even heard of, as its history is both brief and unremarkable. But it is a surprisingly charming little place. I’ll add a couple of pics, but I like the ones at Castle Wales better, so would recommend that you check those out.

From there, it didn’t take us long to drive the rest of the way to Manchester, where once again we had reserved a room at Ash Farm:

It was a good trip. Thanks for sharing it with us here.

 

Jim Downey

* I’ve always been struck by the fact that the shape of these passage graves is a cross. Obviously, that was the shape which came to symbolize Christianity, and which was used to construct churches and cathedrals for hundreds of years. But I don’t recall having ever read anything where someone has drawn the obvious connection between the two. Evidently that’s a gap in my knowledge.



Three weeks in Wales, Part 9: castles, churches, and the Green Desert.

 

Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5. Part 6. Part 7. Part 8.

We were going to head north, to meet up with another of Martha’s friends from the online Welsh language community. But we decided to explore a bit along the way. Exploring, we discovered a castle we hadn’t visited previously: Cilgerran.

Here’s the nice image/intro discription from CADW:

This beautifully located castle has a romantic air.
The coracle, a one-person boat native to these parts, has a history dating back thousands of years. Cilgerran Castle, which overlooks the Teifi, a river favoured by the peculiar vessel, isn’t doing too badly either. Almost 800 years young and counting.Take the wall-walk to truly appreciate why it was built here. Stunning location. Perfect for stunning attackers. The Normans first saw the potential and established an early ‘ringwork’ castle here, but the imposing masonry castle we see today was probably the work of William Marshal, earl of Pembroke.

It really is an impressive structure, and we enjoyed poking around it for a good while.

Main gate.

 

Inner ward.

Not a strawman I’d care to fight.

 

The walls were surprisingly thick — about 10′. Which is about half again what you normally see in castles of this age.

Definitely glad that we stopped to check it out.

Martha’s friend Huw lives outside Aberystwyth, and we took a room at the Black Lion pub in nearby Pontrhydfendigaid. He met us there, and we went over to Strata Florida, another Cistercian abbey which played a very important role in Welsh history, and was a major center of learning. It also plays an important role in St Cybi’s Well, with one of the chapters titled with the name. Here’s a bit of that:

He led Darnell through the gateway, onto the smooth green lawn which once had been the floor of the abbey church. To the left and right were the foundations of the original walls, less than a half meter tall, and somewhat wider than that. Beyond those were the remains of the exterior walls of the north and south aisles. Looking down the long nave, and across to the far wall of the north transept, Darnell saw a small group of people before a large slate sign. From his previous visits, he knew that this was a marker dedicated to a famous Welsh medieval poet who was buried on the grounds.

This was familiar ground, ground he had walked before. And yet, for the first time he felt something different. It was an echo of that resonance he had felt at St David’s Cathedral, of the shimmering energy of Stonehenge. Something deep. Powerful. Old.

Whether the ground was so imbued with this strange … energy … before the monks had chosen this spot for their abbey, or whether the energy was the effect of hundreds of years of worship on the location, he didn’t know. But there was something there which touched him, which opened a door he had only recently come to realize even existed.

It really does have a special feel. See for yourself (first image is from Wikipedia):

Graves of princes and poets.

 

From Strata Florida, Huw took us up into Elenydd, the so-called ‘green desert of Wales’. It’s an upland plateau, a wild and largely empty place. And it is beautiful in its starkness, particularly with the clouds hanging less than 100′ above us:

Lovely.

Huw had one more treat in store for us that afternoon: the Church of Saint David at Llanddewi Brefi. While most of the current structure dates to the 19th century, the central tower is clearly 12th century:

The interior of the church:

But what is most impressive are the Ogham stones, probably dating back to the 6th century:

 

The next day the low-hanging clouds which had been threatening rain delivered on their threat. It was a good day for driving again in the Green Desert, with a visit to “the most remote chapel in all Wales”, Capel Soar y mynydd:

And while the chapel may be remote, they’re up with the times:

 

Jim Downey



Proving title.

“A home without a cat — and a well-fed, well-petted and properly revered cat — may be a perfect home, perhaps, but how can it prove title?”
Mark Twain, Pudd’nhead Wilson

So, a couple weeks ago I had an idea … which, if you know me or have followed this blog for a while, can sometimes get me, well, not exactly into trouble, but can lead to things not entirely intended. Anyway, the idea was to build a climbing tree for our cats, which might take advantage of the 12′ ceilings we have in our historic home (ours is the next-to-last in that article).

Here’s the (probably) final result:

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Now, for those who may be curious about the process of making this cat tree, there’s more below.

We have a huge slump of an ancient catalpa out in front of the house, near the road. Here it is:

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It’s been a favorite of photographers and children for generations, and overall is doing pretty well. But one large part of it died a couple of years ago, and we’ve delayed removing it. That part is the pair of major mostly horizontal limbs which come out from the tree towards the viewer in that image.

After some discussion, my wife and I decided that the lower limb could serve as the basic structure for our cat tree. So I cut it off, and then trimmed it and started removing the bark, as seen here:

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It’s a little hard to tell scale in that pic, but that limb is about 12′ from base to either tip, and about 12′ from tip to tip.

After removing most of the bark, we somehow managed to get the thing in through the front door and then into our living room. Without breaking any windows. Or bones. This was trickier than it might sound. And did require a bit of additional editing with a chainsaw on some of the various extensions. Of the tree, I mean.

So, we got it into approximate position, then braced it with a couple of chairs. Here it is, with Greystoke (our younger cat — he’s not quite two) investigating:

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Next, we got it mounted to the wall securely. This required some stacked-lumber spacers in order to make sure that the branches cleared the windows and curtains safely. The way I mounted it was to mount the lumber to the wall, then I added heavy hook brackets to the lumber, and cinched the tree down with rope. That way, if it was ever necessary, we could detach the tree fairly easily. Here it is mounted, with a 12″ cardboard concrete tube I intended to use for part of the ‘furniture’:

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Almost as soon as it was secured, Greystoke was wanting to explore:

That's an 8' ladder, by the way. Both of our cats love climbing on it anytime we get the thing out.

That’s an 8′ ladder, by the way. Both of our cats love climbing on it anytime we get the thing out.

Hello, there!

Hello, there!

I started adding elements to the tree: a couple of simple platforms, and a horizontal bridge which would support a carpeted tube. These (and all the subsequent elements) were mounted using a combination of metal shelf brackets and rope.

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At this point I also started wrapping cotton rope around the branches, to make them more cat-claw friendly/safe:

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The branch on the left was at enough of an angle to let the cats climb it easily. On the right, I decided to put in steps similar to a ladder, but spiraling as they went up to make it easier for the cats to climb:

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Next I settled on a final design for the tube:

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Then it was time to carpet it, as well as add carpet to the ladder steps and the platforms:

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Covering the steps and platforms just required a rectangle of carpet the correct size and some double-sided carpet tape. To do the tube was a PITA using a combination of carpet tape, construction adhesive, and hot glue. I recommend checking YouTube for instructions. And gloves. Definitely you want gloves.

Here’s the semi-finished tree, before I added a final platform on the upper right, or some ‘interactive’ toys/elements:

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The (probably) finished final result again:

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Complete with a suspended ‘bird’, a dangling rope, and a couple of simple wood spinners. Note that Greystoke, instead of being on the tree, is snoozing in his favorite chair below. Typical.

But he has already started climbing on it, playing with things, looking out the windows, climbing *into* the windows …

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Silly cat. But that’s why we built it.

So, all of the wood and most of the hardware used in making the tree was stuff which I already had leftover/recovered from other projects. The tree as shown in the final version (which may get tweaked a bit over time as we see how the cats use it) has about 800′ of rope on it, and that was the biggest expense. All together, had I had to buy both rope and all the wood & hardware, the out of pocket costs would have been about $200 (I actually spent about half that). And it took me a total of about 30 hours labor, in 2-3 hour sessions over the last couple of weeks.

Fun project. I was a little concerned that wrapping it with so much rope would detract from it feeling like a ‘tree’, but it has maintained that organic feeling, even with the other elements I added. I’m pretty happy with the final product.

Jim Downey



A chronicle of the repair of The Book of Chronicles

I’ve had the pleasure to work on a number of very significant items from public and private collections. Here’s the most recent one:

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That’s the Liber chronicarum, also known as the Nuremberg Chronicle, one of the most significant books in the history of printing. There’s a good basic description of why the book is important in the Wikipedia article, but suffice it to say that it was one of the first really successful integrations of both illustrations and type, and so a big step in printing technology. Here’s a good idea of what the illustrations look like:

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This copy of the Liber chronicarum belongs to the University of Missouri system, and needed a little help, as you can see in these images:

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Basically, the current binding, as nice as it is, was breaking along the hinge of the front cover. The rear cover was also showing signs of similar aging. This is a very common problem, particularly in large & heavy books. And my estimate is that the binding was probably 100+ years old, so showing a bit of age is understandable.

Typically, there are two basic repair options for dealing with such a problem. The first is to reinforce the hinge inside and out with Kozo dyed to match the leather. This is minimally invasive to the original binding. It’s a good repair for smaller books, but it doesn’t have a great deal of strength, and if a book is very heavy or is going to get a lot of use, doesn’t hold up as well as you would like. And to do it properly on this binding, it would have covered over a significant amount of the nice gold tooling.

The second common repair strategy is to “reback” the book in new leather. This includes removing the original spine, completely rebuilding the liners & hinges, putting new leather on the spine and then remounting the original spine onto the new structure. It’s a strong repair and  works well, but tends to be much more time consuming and apparent than the Kozo repair, changing the visual character of the book more.

After discussing the matter with the folks at MU Special Collections, we decided that I would attempt to do a Kozo repair, but one which had elements of the how the leather rebacking is normally done. This was something of an experiment, as is often the case in doing conservation work; you almost always have to blend techniques to meet the specific problems and needs of the item being treated.

I selected a very heavy Kozo paper and dyed it to match the leather. Then I carefully lifted up the leather along the spine, just enough to insert about a half inch of Kozo. Here’s how that looked:

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Note that the pieces of Kozo are only between the heavy bands — those bands are part of the sewing structure, and I didn’t want to impinge on how it worked mechanically.

Then I lifted up the leather along the edge of the front cover, pasted out the length of the exposed interior, and brought the two together, inserting the Kozo tabs under the leather. Once that was all positioned, I wrapped it in wide elastic bands and added weight all along the joint:

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Then I left it alone overnight to allow the adhesive to set properly. Leaving it alone is always the hardest part of this process, but you have to trust that you did it right, because if you try and look before the adhesive sets, it’s probable that you’ll cause the joint to be out of position.

Here’s what I found the next day:

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That’s a nearly perfect joint. I was very pleased.

But I wasn’t finished yet. Now that the cover was properly aligned and partially attached, I needed to strengthen the joint from the inside of the cover.

I opened the book and removed the detached marbled endpaper:

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Previously I had carefully used lifting knives to get under the cloth joint cover and lift up the marbled paste-down:

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Now I peeled further back the marbled paste-down on the front cover, and applied a wide band of heavy undyed Kozo to function as an internal hinge:

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Then I put fresh adhesive on the exposed paste-down marbled paper and put it back into position, thereby securing the joint:

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Then I remounted the marbled endpaper with a narrow strip of Kozo on the back:

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Lastly, I put down a narrow strip of dyed Kozo on the outside of the cover to mask the broken joint and protect it. This was largely cosmetic, but helped to give the book a finished appearance. After an application of leather preservative and a bit of buffing, the book was finished:

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It’s a good repair. Eventually, the book will need to be rebacked in leather properly, but for now we’ve been able to stabilize the book and again make it available for classes and researchers at the University of Missouri.

What a fun project. I really do love doing what I do for a living, and I realize just how lucky I am to be able to say that.

Jim Downey



No escape from reality.*

For fun, and to make someone’s year a little better, I recently rebound a friend’s SF novel, converting the paperback edition into a hardcover binding.

With my bookbinding skills it’s a fairly simple and straightforward process, but not a cost-effective one (so don’t ask me to rebind your favorite paperbacks). The result is usually very satisfactory and striking, and makes for a nice little present when I am in the mood to do something different from my usual conservation work.

Anyway, I made this book and mailed it to my friend where she works. She opened it and shared it with her co-workers, who thought it was “pretty darn cool.”

Which, you know, is cool and all. But consider: making that book, that physical object, took me maybe an hour and a half actual labor time. But I’m sure that it took my friend hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of labor to write that book. To conceptualize it. To make notes. To research. To stare at the blank computer screen in abject terror. To write the first draft. To edit.  To stare at the words there in horror and disgust at how horrible her writing was (I assume this happened anyway, since almost every serious writer I’ve known goes through this multiple times with any book). To write the second draft. And then the third, after getting feedback from friends and editors. Et cetera, et cetera.

But what her co-workers thought was “pretty darn cool” was a simple physical object.

Now, I’m sure that if you asked them, her co-workers would say that her book — the written words — was also pretty darn cool. And maybe some of them have even read it.** Still, the fact remains that for most people written work is mostly an abstraction, one which takes real effort and time to understand and enjoy. Whereas a tangible artifact like an artisanal hardcover book can be handled and appreciated as reality.

People are funny, aren’t we?

 

Jim Downey

*Naturally.

**A confession: I haven’t yet myself, since I am still in the middle of doing battle with St Cybi’s Well, and I just can’t read long fiction when I am trying to write it, since it just messes up my own writing. But you can bet I will when I finally finish this book.