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Wylye Valley Decorative & Fine Arts Society

Two members of our Society, Gael Radclyffe and Anthony Fraser are currently working on an exciting book conservation project.

The ‘Heritage Volunteers’ project for the cleaning, conservation and cataloguing of the Earl of Shaftesbury’s library at Wimborne St Giles, for which 16 members from various NADFAS groups had signed on, formally started on 5th March 2015 with a training day led by Caroline Bendix, a full-time conservator with NADFAS and the National Trust.  Volunteers were divided into three groups, each allocated one workday a month, starting that April.  

Although the original brief was for us to carry out basic but vital ‘first aid’ on damaged books (something of a challenge) we have been fortunate to have been joined an Associate NADFAS Member, Rupert Brown, a skilled craftsman who has taken on all except the most difficult repairs such as complete rebinding.

The library is of considerable historical and academic importance as it covers the periods during which the Shaftesbury family has been prominent in philosophy, philanthropy, religion and government.  As a living family library, the shelves display an eclectic range of books, from massive vellum-bound volumes of Greek and Latin classics, to modern paperbacks. 

Prudently, work began on relatively modern shelves covering the late 19th and 20th centuries ranged along the external ‘garden’ wall.  Each bookcase has ten shelves. So far we have catalogued over two thousand books and we are roughly halfway.  Throughout the library’s life, and particularly over the last half-century, books have been removed and replaced several times so that often volumes from the same set have been widely separated.  Their condition was not improved by the house having been unoccupied for many post-war years during which, as Lord Shaftesbury cheerfully confirmed, broken windows were not repaired and pigeons made themselves comfortable on the contents.

Any shelf might, indeed did, produce servants’ prayer books, a German grammar from the schoolroom, a British bloodstock annual, an AA road atlas and the 1912 catalogue for the sale of the contents of Belfast Castle (another Shaftesbury family seat) as well as more mundane subjects.  We came across a fine presentation bible bearing the signatures of Her Majesty the Queen and the Archbishop of Canterbury, as well as a richly bound and illuminated volume presented to an earlier Earl on the occasion of his marriage.

Every book is carefully dusted-off and its full details and condition recorded by the volunteers on paper forms, which are then transcribed onto a computer database.  Each is also given a unique but temporary ‘shelfmark’ (its own postcode) identifying its original location, although in due course there is likely to be significant reorganisation to reunite separated volumes and group together by subject.

Now that we have processed the first run of bookcases, we have literally ‘turned the corner’ and are beginning to work in chronological reverse, with the volumes becoming increasingly delicate and challenging.  There is at least one large bible printed entirely in Chinese, so who knows what treasures we may uncover!