Welcoming a New President

Laura Skandera Trombley takes the helm July 1 as The Huntington’s new president, the first woman to hold the post. Photo by Meeno.

Laura Skandera Trombley takes the helm July 1 as The Huntington’s new president, the first woman to hold the post. Photo by Meeno.

As Laura Skandera Trombley steps into her office today as the new president of The Huntington, she surely must feel that her arrival is a homecoming of sorts. Trombley often visited the gardens as a child with her mother, walking among the roses and being awed by the beauty of the grounds. Years later, as a budding Mark Twain scholar, she did research in the Library’s Twain papers that would culminate in her first book, Mark Twain in the Company of Women (1994). More recently, she returned to use the collections to complete her fifth book, Mark Twain’s Other Woman: The Hidden Story of His Final Years (2010).

“The Huntington is a place I know well,” she says, “and it has been a constant part of my personal and scholarly life.”

Taking the helm as the eighth president of The Huntington, Trombley is the first woman to lead the institution. Her lifelong affinity for the place is just one of the reasons why anyone who shares her love of The Huntington should be excited about the passion she brings to the job.

Trombley chats with Pitzer College trustees, alumni, and others during a “Farewell Tour” reception in New York. Photo courtesy of Pitzer College.

Trombley chats with Pitzer College trustees, alumni, and others during a “Farewell Tour” reception in New York. Photo courtesy of Pitzer College.

She also brings a great deal of experience. Trombley comes to The Huntington after 13 years as president of Pitzer College in Claremont, where she is widely credited with dramatically improving the college’s standing in higher education. Under her leadership, the college completed three successful fundraising campaigns, raising more than $110 million and increasing Pitzer’s endowment more than 200 percent. The college’s U.S. News & World Report ranking among liberal arts colleges improved 50 percent during her tenure, moving from 70th to 35th in the nation, a feat unmatched in higher education.

At The Huntington, Trombley’s solid leadership skills, coupled with a strong vision for how to build on The Huntington’s substantial strengths, will help propel the institution into the future. She inherits from her predecessor, Steven Koblik, a robust institution with a solid financial foundation, growing collections, and a wide-ranging schedule of programmatic activities.

As an outspoken booster of the humanities in an increasingly tech-centered society, Trombley has said that one of her goals as president is to use The Huntington as a platform for advancing the conversation about the fundamental importance of humanities education. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times last December, following the announcement of her appointment, Trombley remarked: “The humanities increasingly are treated as marginal to whatever the center is. My job is to make people understand that every time they appreciate a photograph or picture or question the meaning of their life or have goose bumps because of a favorite play or song or movie, that’s the humanities.”

And that job starts today. As Trombley says in her inaugural President’s Message: “The Huntington is on the move, and I am thrilled to be a part of the journey. Here we go!”

Ready for anything! Trombley (center) in helmet and climbing gear during a 2015 visit to the Pitzer Firestone Center of Restoration Ecology in Costa Rica. Photo courtesy of Pitzer College.

Ready for anything! Trombley (center) in helmet and climbing gear during a 2015 visit to the Pitzer Firestone Center of Restoration Ecology in Costa Rica. Photo courtesy of Pitzer College.

You can read more about President Trombley on The Huntington’s website.

Lisa Blackburn is communications coordinator for the office of communications and marketing at The Huntington.

Together, We Did This

On June 30, an era draws to a close at The Huntington as President Steve Koblik steps up to his well-deserved retirement. Before we turn the page to the next chapter in our history, Susan Turner-Lowe, vice president for communications and marketing at The Huntington, casts an eye over the life, learning, leadership, and legacy of the man who has guided this institution for nearly 14 years. What follows is an excerpt from her feature article on Koblik in the Spring/Summer 2015 issue of Huntington Frontiers.

Steve Koblik, in 2009, seated in his office at The Huntington, where he has served as president since 2001. Photograph by Lisa Blackburn.

Steve Koblik, in 2009, seated in his office at The Huntington, where he has served as president since 2001. Photograph by Lisa Blackburn.

KOBLIK SET HIS SIGHTS ON THE HUNTINGTON DECADES AGO. He was born and raised in Sacramento. His father was an architect; his mother, a homemaker, had been a self-proclaimed flapper in the 1920s—fun-loving, high-spirited, bathtub gin drinking, always in search of adventure, says her only son. That could well explain his indefatigable nature. (He credits his daily naps.)

He earned his undergraduate degree at UC Berkeley, got his master’s at University of Stockholm, and holds a Ph.D. from Northwestern. As a graduate student, he homed in on Sweden’s role in World War II and focused his dissertation there; later, he dug into Sweden’s role in the Holocaust and wrote a highly acclaimed book on the topic: The Stones Cry Out. It was in Sweden that he met his future wife, Kerstin Olseni. They have been married 47 years and have two children and four grandchildren.

After living on and off for nine years in Sweden, he returned to Southern California to teach at Pomona. And over time, he became deeply familiar with, and a bit obsessed by, The Huntington.

Koblik and his wife, Kerstin, in Stockholm, Sweden, 1967.

Koblik and his wife, Kerstin, in Stockholm, Sweden, 1967.

“In the ’60s, I walked through the doors of the Library with bushy hair and a mustache, wearing clogs. And they took one look at me and said, ‘Steve, you’re a nice guy. But we don’t let people like you in this place.’” A bit of a bohemian by looks, he was nevertheless a serious scholar, interested in the history of Southern California and wanting to do some research on Henry Huntington himself. The closed atmosphere—one that suggested clubbiness and exclusivity—irked him. He wouldn’t let it go.

He remembers telling friends, “I’d like to be president of The Huntington one day.”

In the meantime, he won one teaching prize after another at Pomona, became dean of the faculty at Scripps, and then went on to take the helm at Reed College in Portland, Ore. He held the presidency there for nine years.

And then, by a remarkable confluence of events, The Huntington presidency opened up, and Koblik was in perfect position for the job.

Koblik with his wife, Kerstin, and their two children in 1971.

Koblik with his wife, Kerstin, and their two children in 1971.

HE MOVED FROM REED TO THE HUNTINGTON in the fall of 2001. Sept. 11, in fact, was the day of Koblik’s first board meeting. One might have seen this as a really bad omen, but Koblik saw it as a time for strength and courage, and a time to pull together in the wake of the terrorist acts. So instead of closing The Huntington for the day and sending people home, he kept the gates open and watched as visitors came by the dozens, then the hundreds—searching for solace, for comfort, for meaning.

It is the essence of the place, and something Koblik realizes deeply. It’s sometimes hard to articulate exactly what The Huntington does for people. It doesn’t cure cancer; it isn’t in the business of providing meals to the homeless; it doesn’t take in stray animals; it’s not the kind of nonprofit that pulls at one’s heartstrings the way the Red Cross does. It’s not trying to be that. And it’s not like a college or university in the conventional sense, even though it is involved in research and education. But, it does not award degrees; it has no alumni. So it can be a little challenging to articulate what brings people to The Huntington and fuels their passion and commitment to the place.

Professor Koblik in a Pomona College classroom in 1983. Photograph courtesy of Pomona College Archives.

Professor Koblik in a Pomona College classroom in 1983. Photograph courtesy of Pomona College Archives.

Koblik explains his own passion for it in this way: “The Huntington is the keeper of the flame. We collect and preserve culture, and we celebrate human achievement, and that is fundamental if you want to know who we are as a people and where we might be going.” The Huntington’s collections explain so much about how the United States came to be—warts and all—with historical, literary, and artistic documentation that speaks to the early formulations of the rule of law (think Magna Carta); the Founding Fathers, slavery and the Civil War, the mission period and Native Americans, expedition and discovery, railroads, women’s suffrage, immigration, exclusion, innovation and invention, exploitation and emancipation. And the breadth and depth of The Huntington’s collections is simply astonishing: from micro to macro. Here is a library with nine million items, and a European and American art collection that spans six centuries. And all this is set among beautiful, world-renowned botanical gardens with 15,000 species, many of them rare and endangered.

Back when Koblik was organizing The Huntington’s first comprehensive fundraising campaign, the renowned AIDS researcher David Ho said, “We give people life. You give people meaning in life.”

Koblik, in 1995, talking with students at Reed College, where he was president from 1992 to 2001. Photograph courtesy of Special Collections, Eric V. Hauser Memorial Library, Reed College.

Koblik, in 1995, talking with students at Reed College, where he was president from 1992 to 2001. Photograph courtesy of Special Collections, Eric V. Hauser Memorial Library, Reed College.

THE AFTERNOON BEFORE KOBLIK’S FIRST DAY ON THE JOB, he walked over to the mausoleum, the gravesite of Henry and Arabella Huntington. “He wanted some quiet time there,” says Kerstin. “He had said he wanted to think deeply about what Henry Huntington might do, and how he would want the institution run.”

In some respects, Koblik’s game has been a collaboration, in part, with Henry Huntington himself—constantly thinking about what the founder’s intentions might have been and whether Koblik’s decisions and the institution’s direction have lined up with those intentions. But the collaborative spirit goes deeper and wider than that—with area institutions, disparate groups of donors, his boards, the staff. “Together,” he says, “we did this.”

You can read the full article online.

Susan Turner-Lowe is vice president for communications and marketing at The Huntington.

Writing Herself In

The Huntington’s Education staff recently formed a partnership with WriteGirl, a Los Angeles–based creative writing and mentoring organization that, according to the WriteGirl website, “launched in December 2001 to bring the skills and energy of professional women writers to teenage girls who do not otherwise have access to creative writing or mentoring programs.” Huntington reader Ayana Jamieson is the founder of the Octavia E. Butler Legacy Network, a group of scholars, artists, activists, and fans devoted to the works of science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler, whose papers reside at The Huntington. Jamieson helped develop curriculum for the partnership, which included a one-day creative writing workshop at The Huntington using Butler materials. She shares a description of the day.

Using the prompt “If this goes on…,” teens from the Los Angeles–based organization WriteGirl tried their hands at writing speculative fiction. Photo by Martha Benedict.

Using the prompt “If this goes on…,” teens from the Los Angeles–based organization WriteGirl tried their hands at writing speculative fiction. Photo by Martha Benedict.

Today, June 22, is the birthday of science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler (1947–2006), who specialized in speculative fiction, an umbrella term for writing that includes sci-fi, fantasy, horror, and superhero stories. For Butler, there were at least three main approaches to the genre. You could tell stories that explained “what if,” “if only,” or “if this goes on.”

During a workshop recently held at The Huntington, 60 professional women writers, serving as WriteGirl mentors, introduced Butler’s approaches to a group of 75 teen girls, ranging in age from 13 to 19. The girls spent a day touring The Huntington and learning about Butler’s personal history and literary style, and then tried their hands at writing.

The Pasadena-born Butler was the first black woman to gain recognition in the field of speculative fiction and, in 1995, became the first science fiction writer to win a MacArthur “Genius Grant.” Writing science fiction was more than a vocation for Butler. She embraced the genre’s limitless possibilities. As a black woman, the genre afforded her the opportunity to “write herself in,” creating a world in which she could live, even if she wasn’t entirely accepted in the larger, dominant society.

Octavia E. Butler near Mt. Shuksan, in the state of Washington, 2001. Photographer unknown. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

Octavia E. Butler near Mt. Shuksan, in the state of Washington, 2001. Photographer unknown. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

The idea of creating a world of their own choosing resonated with the teens. “I liked the ‘if this goes on’ approach,” said one teen. “If we keep treating our world like this, we will be extinct. I would like to see people treat plants the way they are treated here in The Huntington’s gardens.”

The teens divided into 10 groups, each following a different tour of The Huntington and hearing a script their mentors read that put them in a hypothetical situation. The groups took Butler’s works as starting points. One group, for instance, was called Acorn, the name of a community in Butler’s dystopic near-future California novel, Parable of the Sower. The Acorn group visited the Huntington Art Gallery, exploring the Thornton Portrait Gallery and using scenes, poses, and facial expressions from the paintings to build characters for their writing.

The teens and their mentors discussed Butler’s novel Parable of the Talents, as well as other works. Photo by Martha Benedict.

The teens and their mentors discussed Butler’s novel Parable of the Talents, as well as other works. Photo by Martha Benedict.

Then they visited the period rooms where Henry and Arabella Huntington once lived. They wrote from different points of view, including the role of the lady of the house, but also wrote a scene about being a servant to a wealthy family. (Octavia Butler’s own mother had been a domestic worker for much of her life.)

The teens speculated about a world they could create in their minds, where there was no hunger, poverty, disease, violence, war, or inequality.

As a black girl growing up during the era of Jim Crow laws that enforced segregation, Butler knew exclusion, rejection, and restrictions only too well. As a preschooler, she began telling herself stories to counter her loneliness and boredom and started writing them down; later, as a 12-year-old, she decided she would become a science fiction writer.

Butler’s characters are complex, never fully good or fully evil. They inhabit stories that weave together themes of power, gender, sex, race, and humanity. By depicting the trials of strong and complicated characters, her stories reveal powerful truths about society.

The Butler archive, which The Huntington acquired in 2009, includes more than 35 cartons (350 boxes) of correspondence, manuscripts, photographs, and ephemera. Photo by Kate Lain.

The Butler archive, which The Huntington acquired in 2009, includes more than 35 cartons (350 boxes) of correspondence, manuscripts, photographs, and ephemera. Photo by Kate Lain.

The boundless potential that Butler tapped into through her writing has attracted a strong and dedicated following among readers and scholars from all over the world. Natalie Russell, assistant curator of literary manuscripts at The Huntington, says that Butler’s archive of papers consistently attracts a high number of inquiries from scholars and fans, making it one of the most popular literary collections at The Huntington. A similar enthusiasm infused the teen girls at the writing workshop.

One participant remarked, “Learning about Octavia’s life really made an impression on me. Her courage and dedication was so inspiring, and I realize there’s no limitation to fiction writing.”

For teen girls facing challenges that they have little control over and cannot easily manage, creating a world of their own choosing is powerful and liberating. Butler knew this and gained prominence putting that idea on paper. Sadly, she left this world too soon, dying unexpectedly in 2006 at the age of 57.

Perhaps some of the teens who visited The Huntington will carry on her legacy.

Workshop participants listened to the story of Butler’s life, including her rise from humble beginnings to become a successful writer and recipient of the MacArthur “Genius Grant.” Photo by Martha Benedict.

Workshop participants listened to the story of Butler’s life, including her rise from humble beginnings to become a successful writer and recipient of the MacArthur “Genius Grant.” Photo by Martha Benedict.

Ayana A. H. Jamieson is the founder of the Octavia E. Butler Legacy Network and a reader at The Huntington.

Getting to Know Jane Austen Better

During a visit to The Huntington, Caltech professor Kevin Gilmartin shows his English 127 students a book illustrating “monstrosities of fashion.” Photo by Kate Lain.

During a visit to The Huntington, Caltech professor Kevin Gilmartin shows his English 127 students a book illustrating “monstrosities of fashion.” Photo by Kate Lain.

Few people can make literature jump off the page like Kevin Gilmartin. Professor of English and 2015 recipient of the Richard Feynman Prize for Excellence in Teaching at Caltech, he has taught at The Huntington’s neighbor institution for 24 years. When he brought a class studying the novels of Jane Austen to the Huntington Library in May, the reasons for the Feynman honor were clear: learning from Professor Gilmartin is like chatting with a good friend brimming with fresh news.

“I enjoy introducing my students to the fascinating print record from the period that Austen’s novels inhabit, including manuals of conduct for young women and instructional pamphlets on dancing and gardening that they can view online,” says Gilmartin. “It’s a way to get them thinking about history in fiction and through fiction, but then too considering it in material terms. Visiting The Huntington then gives my students the opportunity to see such items close up, not just in digital form.”

A hallmark of Gilmartin’s teaching is helping students understand the historical context in which literature is produced. Collaborating with Alan Jutzi, The Huntington’s Avery Chief Curator of Rare Books, helps Gilmartin illuminate the author’s wider world, and the two have worked together in this way for over a decade.

A first edition of the first volume of Jane Austen’s novel Emma, 1816, with board covers, untrimmed. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Photo by Lance Hayashida/Caltech.

A first edition of the first volume of Jane Austen’s novel Emma, 1816, with board covers, untrimmed. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Photo by Lance Hayashida/Caltech.

In preparation for the Austen class visit, Jutzi and his team retrieved archive treasures and arrayed them atop cabinets so that students could circle them, observing and pondering. The display would make any 21st-century Austen fan swoon with pleasure. And Gilmartin acknowledges that he learns something new on these occasions—this time, for example, about the extraordinary range of The Huntington’s collection of 18th-century visiting cards, and its rare admission ticket to Almack’s, a London social club that was among the first to admit men and women.

Gilmartin and Jutzi tag-teamed throughout the visit on a running commentary, starting with a look at Austen first editions that were originally purchased by Henry Huntington. The novel Emma, for example, came from the publisher in three volumes with board covers, untrimmed, to allow them to be taken apart and bound in leather, according to the wishes and resources of the buyer. Jane Austen’s name does not appear on any of the title pages, although the come-on “From the Author of ______” (fill in the title of Austen’s most recent hit) is prominent. Only in the posthumous double volume of her first and last books—Northanger Abbey (never published in her lifetime) and Persuasion—is she mentioned as the author in the introductions.

The Mirror of the Graces or The English Lady’s Costume by a Lady of Distinction, 1813. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Photo by Kate Lain.

The Mirror of the Graces or The English Lady’s Costume by a Lady of Distinction, 1813. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Photo by Kate Lain.

Unhappy with her first publisher, Austen trusted her naval brother to negotiate the publication of her later novels. Gilmartin pointed out that Austen eventually saw the Royal Navy as a new professional class superior to the gentry. Her esteem for navy men is evident in her last novel, Persuasion, and particularly in her depiction of Captain Frederick Wentworth, who is noble in every way—except by birth.

The pages of the hand-colored volumes presented by Jutzi speak to the class distinctions and social rituals of Austen’s time. Two books—among the most popular on the students’ circuit—reveal the pecking order of landscape gardening.

One is a book for tourists illustrating the gardens of great houses, such as the grounds at Pemberley, Mr. Darcy’s estate in Pride and Prejudice, where the novel’s heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, pays a visit with her aunt and uncle. Her satisfaction suggests that the estate is perfect as it is.

A letter from the Leigh Family Papers, unpublished letters and manuscripts from Jane Austen's mother's family, 1686–1823, 1866. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Photo by Lance Hayashida/Caltech.

A letter from the Leigh Family Papers, unpublished letters and manuscripts from Jane Austen’s mother’s family, 1686–1823, 1866. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Photo by Lance Hayashida/Caltech.

By contrast, Mr. Rushworth, the somewhat clueless landowner who enters into a disastrous marriage in Mansfield Park, talks of hiring the fashionable landscape designer Sir Humphry Repton. From Repton, he would have received a Red Book, customized for his estate, using fold-back inserts to show before and after views of the grounds; Rushworth, however, would have had to make the improvements to his land on his own.

Ladies in Austen’s time suffered no shortage of printed guidance. The Mirror of the Graces or The English Lady’s Costume lay open for Gilmartin’s students to view illustrations of fashionable “Morning Dress” and “Evening Half Dress.” The Lady’s Elegant Jester, another item on display, provided jokes for polite society.

Jutzi pointed out that the British are second to none at skewering. In the illustration “Vis a Vis Accidents in Quadrille Dancing,” a gentleman takes a header on the dance floor, contrary to what we’ve come to expect from BBC productions of Austen’s novels, in which the dancing highlights precise patterns and elegant moves.

Alan Jutzi, The Huntington’s Avery Chief Curator of Rare Books, has been collaborating with Caltech’s Kevin Gilmartin for more than a decade to help students understand the historical context in which literature is produced. Photo by Lance Hayashida/Caltech.

Alan Jutzi, The Huntington’s Avery Chief Curator of Rare Books, has been collaborating with Caltech’s Kevin Gilmartin for more than a decade to help students understand the historical context in which literature is produced. Photo by Lance Hayashida/Caltech.

Some students spent quite a bit of time with the letters of Austen’s mother’s family, the Leighs, manuscripts acquired by The Huntington in January 2015. (Austen’s own letters were burned per her request.) The wording, the handwriting, and the folding of the letters are all touchstones of her day.

How do Caltech students respond to such visits? “I regularly get what seems to me like Alan Jutzi fan mail in my course evaluations for classes that have visited The Huntington,” Gilmartin reports. And some Caltech students become so enthusiastic about Gilmartin’s teaching that they wind up double majoring in English. The Gilmartin-Jutzi collaboration serves as a wonderful example of how a phenomenal teacher and a beloved curator can bring the past to life for a new generation through an engagement with The Huntington’s collections. Such a match surely would have made Jane Austen smile.

On our Tumblr, you can find an animated GIF of before and after views in Sir Humphry Repton’s Sketches and hints on landscape gardening, London, 1794.

The Leigh Family Papers—unpublished letters and manuscripts from Jane Austen’s mother’s family—have been fully digitized and may be viewed at the Huntington Digital Library

Linda Chiavaroli is a volunteer in the office of communications at The Huntington. She is a Los Angeles-based communications consultant.

Weird, Wild & Wonderful

Asuka Hishiki, Heirloom Tomato (Kindhearted Monster), Solanum lycopersicum, watercolor on paper.

Asuka Hishiki, Heirloom Tomato (Kindhearted Monster), Solanum lycopersicum, watercolor on paper.

The botanical world is full of surprises, as any of the thousands of people who’ve visited the Amorphophallus titanum in bloom might tell you. Wild sizes, outrageous colors, complex patterns, otherworldly shapes—all a result of the remarkable adaptations plants make in response to habitat, in defense against predators, and in developing successful reproductive strategies.

Artists have long been inspired by the intriguing nature of plants. But, as Gregory Long, president of the New York Botanical Garden puts it, botanical artists take that inspiration to the highest level: combining aesthetics and formal artistic considerations with scientific accuracy and mastery of technique—with stunning results. You can see examples of this work at a new exhibition going on view in the Brody Botanical Center. “Weird, Wild & Wonderful”—which runs, weekends only, from June 13 to Aug. 23—is a collaboration between the New York Botanical Garden and the American Society of Botanical Artists. The two organizations invited artists to contribute artwork, out of which a jury selected 46 spectacular examples to comprise the exhibition. Artists were asked to focus their attention on botanical specimens that celebrate both the “bizarre and the beautiful.”

Asuka Hishiki, Wasabi Root, Eutrema japonica, watercolor on paper.

Asuka Hishiki, Wasabi Root, Eutrema japonica, watercolor on paper.

Consider Asuka Hishiki’s Wasabi Root, a tangled beard of grays and greens so delicately rendered as to leave me, upon viewing it, wondrously smitten. I’ll never look at a little lump of wasabi the same way again. Said Hishiki: “I kept adding more dash lines of roots, and eventually the root labyrinth emerged from chaos. I certainly enjoyed painting it, but it is also true that occasionally I regretted that I had picked the subject.” No kidding. It’s an extraordinary feat. And yet I can imagine the headache that might have resulted, not to mention the stinging eyes. This is, in fact, what the word “awesome” was designed to describe.

Hishiki has another piece in the show that adorns the cover of the catalog and much of the publicity material for the exhibition: an absolutely mind-blowing watercolor of an heirloom tomato, lovingly called Kindhearted Monster. It is so technically masterful that it’s nearly impossible to believe the work is not a color photograph.

Dick Rauh, Witch Hazel Capsules, Hanamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’, watercolor on paper.

Dick Rauh, Witch Hazel Capsules, Hanamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’, watercolor on paper.

Says historian of science Karen Reeds in the exhibition catalog: the artists “tempt us to imagine oddly distorted bits of ourselves—heads, hair, whiskers, fingers, claws, baby toes, gaping mouths—embodied in these plants.” And gaping mouths there are aplenty, in Dick Rauh’s Witch Hazel Capsules, Carol Woodin’s Muir Listens, and Lee McCaffree’s California Pipevine. And then there are the creepy, gnarled fingers of Carrie Di Costanzo’s Buddha’s Hand. Of course, it’s impossible not to mention Deborah Shaw’s spectacularly detailed offering: Dog Turd Fungus with Pill Bug. Every child of a certain age will get a particular thrill out of this one, not to mention some of the grown ups!  Including me.

Something for everybody here. See for yourself. In addition, you can take the art home with you: the exhibition’s full-color, 76-page catalog is available in the Huntington Store. And there’s a whole host of programming that accompanies the show, including a symposium and summer workshops.

Deborah B. Shaw, Dog Turd Fungus with Pill Bug, Pisolithus tinctorious, Armadillidium vulgare, watercolor on paper.

Deborah B. Shaw, Dog Turd Fungus with Pill Bug, Pisolithus tinctorious, Armadillidium vulgare, watercolor on paper.

To view some bonus images related to this post, head over to our Tumblr.

Susan Turner-Lowe is vice president for communications and marketing at The Huntington.

Running at Runnymede

The exhibition “Magna Carta: Law and Legend, 1215-2015” runs from June 13–Oct. 12 in the Library’s West Hall. We asked Tim Harris, professor of European History at Brown University and the 2014–15 Fletcher Jones Foundation Distinguished Fellow at The Huntington, to share his memories as an English youth in the environs of Runnymede—an area along the River Thames in the County of Surrey where King John signed Magna Carta in 1215—and reflect on the historical significance of the “Great Charter.”

View of the Magna Carta Memorial, Runnymede, Surrey. The memorial marks the spot in England where Magna Carta was sealed in 1215. Photograph © National Trust/Andrew Butler.

View of the Magna Carta Memorial, Runnymede, Surrey. The memorial marks the spot in England where Magna Carta was sealed in 1215. Photograph © National Trust/Andrew Butler.

There are some dates in English history that are firmly imprinted on every English schoolchild’s mind. One is 1066—the year of the Battle of Hastings, which signified the beginning of the Norman Conquest of England, when English history really began. Another is 1939, when Nazi Germany invaded Poland and triggered World War II. And then there’s 1215—the year King John signed Magna Carta.

As my mother impressed on me at an early age, “Magna Carta was signed at lunchtime.” (We always had lunch at 12:15.) Where the Magna Carta was signed, Runnymede, was also firmly impressed on me as a youth. At my grammar school in nearby Egham, Surrey, our cross-country course took us along Runnymede before heading up and down Coopers’ Hill, and past the Magna Carta memorial, on our way to the finishing line.

Illustration of King John and the barons at Runnymede from Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, 1577. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

Illustration of King John and the barons at Runnymede from Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, 1577. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

I cannot say it was my experience of running at Runnymede that inspired my love for history. Normally during “Games” we played football, the sport we English play with our feet. Cross-country seemed like punishment. The course was often waterlogged; there were cows—and cowpats—in the third field; and Coopers’ Hill was really quite daunting. Besides, history is all around one in England. It’s an old country. We had to buy our school uniforms from a shop opposite Windsor Castle—originally a Norman motte and bailey construction. Rather, it was an inspiring teacher at my school in Egham who developed my fascination for the academic discipline of history, and in particular for 17th-century English history, England’s century of revolutions.

Magna Carta has always been seen as an important foundational document of English constitutionalism. (It is a misconception that England does not have a written constitution; it is just written down in lots of different places.) Among other things, Magna Carta guaranteed the right to a trial by jury and that no one should be imprisoned or dispossessed of their property except by due process of law. It was reconfirmed many times during the later Middle Ages, and it acquired a powerful symbolic significance during the revolutionary upheavals of the 17th century.

Parliamentarians appealed to Magna Carta when criticizing royal government. Both King James I (1603–25) and King Charles I (1625–49) were accused of violating its provisions by raising taxes without consent and imprisoning people without due cause. Yet not just kings could fall foul of Magna Carta. Radicals complained that Parliament’s Conventicle Act of 1670 was in breach of Magna Carta by allowing Protestant nonconformists to be convicted without a jury trial. Political conservatives also appealed to Magna Carta, as the symbol of England’s commitment to the rule of law. Even the Stuart monarchs of the 17th century acknowledged that they were obliged to rule according to law.

Rare draft of the Magna Carta, Laws & Statutes, England, 13th century. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

Rare draft of the Magna Carta, Laws & Statutes, England, 13th century. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

However, laws had to be passed, and taxes voted, by the king and Parliament. In the 1640s, Parliament went to war with King Charles I, enacted laws and collected revenues without the king’s consent, and then, in 1649, executed the king, abolished the House of Lords, and set up a republic. Oliver Cromwell ran the country for much of the 1650s backed by a standing army. When monarchy was restored in 1660, the years of civil war and Interregnum came to be seen as a period of unconstitutional government, when Magna Carta had been flouted. Ultra-royalists under King Charles II (1660–85) insisted that only by defending the prerogatives of the crown could the rule of law be guaranteed and Magna Carta upheld.

As England divided into two parties towards the end of Charles II’s reign, both Whigs (parliamentarians) and Tories (ultra-royalists) sought to represent themselves as defenders of Magna Carta, alleging that their opponents threatened to undermine it. In short, both sides claimed that English liberties were safe with them.

When Charles II’s successor, James II (1685–88), tried to set up his royal prerogative above the law, disillusioned Whigs and Tories united to bring him down and impose new constitutional constraints on future English monarchs through their Declaration of Rights of 1689 (subsequently enacted as the Bill of Rights).

As Sir Edward Coke had predicted back in 1628, “Magna Charta is such a fellow, that he will have no Soveraign.”

The Magna Carta reissued in 1225, Statutes. England, 15th century. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

The Magna Carta reissued in 1225, Statutes. England, 15th century. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

You can listen to Tim Harris’ Distinguished Fellow Lecture, “Britain’s Century of Revolutions Reconsidered,” at iTunes U or download it directly here. His most recent book, Rebellion: Britain’s First Stuart Kings, 1567–1642, is available from Oxford University Press.

Tim Harris is Munro-Goodwin-Wilkinson Professor in European History at Brown University and the 2014-15 Fletcher Jones Foundation Distinguished Fellow at The Huntington.

It’s All About the Soil

The Ranch site, once a gravel parking lot, has been transformed into a thriving ecosystem. The secret? Mulch! Photo by Kyra Saegusa.

The Ranch site, once a gravel parking lot, has been transformed into a thriving ecosystem. The secret? Mulch! Photo by Kyra Saegusa.

As a research horticulturist and coordinator of the Huntington Ranch Garden, I spend my days on this half-acre experimental site working to create a balance between a productive garden, a livable space, and a wildish ecosystem. Part of the work I do is researching varieties of vegetables, herbs, and fruit trees that thrive with little care and less water in the hot and arid climate of Southern California.

The key to growing edibles in a time of drought is healthy soil. In the same way that our bodies depend on millions of microscopic organisms to stay functional and in balance, healthy soil is host to a microscopic world that gives it—and the plants that grow in it—the necessary building blocks for a healthy ecosystem. The organisms in the soil create and maintain the pathways through which water and nutrients travel. Without happy soil life, you don’t have soil—you just have dirt.

An ideal mulch is a mixture of woods in different sizes and textures that will break down at an uneven rate. Photo by Lisa Blackburn.

An ideal mulch is a mixture of woods in different sizes and textures that will break down at an uneven rate. Photo by Lisa Blackburn.

There really is only one basic rule for building healthy soil biology in your garden: keep your soil covered. MULCH! And when I say mulch, I don’t mean thin layers of pretty, unnaturally colored redwood bark or other decorative options, such as lava rocks, that you get at the local garden store. I’m talking about four to six inches of the good stuff. An ideal mulch is a mixture of woods in different sizes and textures that will break down at an uneven rate, not only providing long coverage, but also creating habitat and food for the decomposers in your soil: worms, fungi, and bacteria, among others. Diverse, clean mulch can be purchased and delivered in bulk from local soil yards. Avoid using mulch made of strongly scented woods—such as cedar, redwood, pine, and eucalyptus—until their scents have faded, indicating that their volatile oils have broken down. The oils contained in these woods can inhibit soil life.

Ranch apprentice Ellen Herra arranges sheets of overlapping cardboard as the first step in sheet mulching. Photo by Lisa Blackburn.

Ranch apprentice Ellen Herra arranges sheets of overlapping cardboard as the first step in sheet mulching. Photo by Lisa Blackburn.

Seven years ago, the Ranch site was nothing but a gravel parking lot for construction crews building the Chinese Garden. Since then, we’ve transformed the place into a glorious and flourishing ecosystem. What’s our secret? Seven years of sheet mulching. There are a few variations to this technique, but the one we use at the Ranch is amazingly simple and is the quickest shortcut to producing good soil. Here are the steps:

  1. Make sure your soil is moist. (You don’t even have to weed, unless you have Bermuda grass.)
  2. Place thoroughly wet cardboard over your soil, having first removed all non-biodegradable tape. (Use only matte cardboard, not the shiny type.) Double layers of cardboard are best, with as much overlap as possible to ensure that all the soil is adequately covered. It is very important that the cardboard be thoroughly wet to ensure moisture in this layer.
  3. Spread four to six inches of damp mulch on top and water it deeply.
Beneficial fungi spread through the mulch layers, slowly breaking them down. Photo by Kyra Saegusa.

Beneficial fungi spread through the mulch layers, slowly breaking them down. Photo by Kyra Saegusa.

Soil life loves to inhabit and eat the cardboard. Beneficial fungi use the corrugation as housing, forming webs throughout the small tunnels as the cardboard decomposes. Good bacteria go wild over the glues in the cardboard, and worms and macroarthropods—such as roly-polys, earwigs, and centipedes—hunt prey as they break down the material. In six months or so, depending on the weather and moisture level, the cardboard will have disintegrated, and a layer of rich compost, teeming with soil life, will have replaced it.

Even if you aren’t interested in growing your own food, healthy soil is the number one way to conserve water in your Southern California garden. Happy and healthy biology in your soil helps retain moisture and cut down on the need to water.

In roughly six months, sheet mulching produces rich compost, teeming with soil life. Photo by Lisa Blackburn.

In roughly six months, sheet mulching produces rich compost, teeming with soil life. Photo by Lisa Blackburn.

If you’re interested in learning more about creating healthy soil, you can attend a workshop, “Paving the Way for an Organic Planet: Growing with Healthy Soil Biology,” cohosted by The Huntington and the Rodale Institute, a world-renowned leader in organic gardening. The workshop runs June 6-7 and is open to the public with advance registration.

Visitors to The Huntington who would like to explore the Ranch Garden can self-tour the site (follow the signs from the Brody Botanical Center) and talk to staff during a monthly Open House on the fourth Saturday of every month. (Confirm dates and times on The Huntington’s online calendar.) A visit to the Ranch is a great way to pick up ideas and inspiration. Advanced gardeners can learn even more by signing up for workshops in our Ecosystem-Based Gardening Series.

Boysenberries thrive in the Ranch Garden’s rich soil. Photo by Lisa Blackburn.

Boysenberries thrive in the Ranch Garden’s rich soil. Photo by Lisa Blackburn.

Additional resources:
Learn how to make your soil richer with microbes from the Soil Doctor, Doug Weatherbee.
You can purchase quality mulch in bulk from Soil and Sod Depot: 818-686-6445.

Related content on Verso:
Harvest Time on the Ranch (Nov. 5, 2014)

Kyra Saegusa is Ranch coordinator and research horticulturalist at The Huntington.

Restoring a Doyle Lane Mural

Doyle Lane, Mutual Savings and Loan Mural, 1964, clay, 17 × 8 ft., as installed in the courtyard of the June and Merle Banta Education Center, part of the Steven S. Koblik Education and Visitor Center. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

Doyle Lane, Mutual Savings and Loan Mural, 1964, clay, 17 × 8 ft., as installed in the courtyard of the June and Merle Banta Education Center, part of the Steven S. Koblik Education and Visitor Center. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

Los Angeles ceramist Doyle Lane (1925–2002) became known for his collectible “weed pots,” as he called his vases with small openings for holding a few stems, and for what he called “clay paintings”—geometric and boldly colored ceramic disks—that have been compared to the paintings of John McLaughlin and Frederick Hammersley. Lane also created monumental ceramic murals.

One of these, commissioned by architect Welton Becket in 1964 for Mutual Savings and Loan offices in Pasadena, Calif., has been installed in the courtyard of the June and Merle Banta Education Center at The Huntington. Measuring roughly 17 by 8 feet, the work consists of hand-formed tiles, each glazed a warm red and tinged with black edges.

“Lane painstakingly formed, fired, and glazed every component of the work, and each tile has a subtly distinctive character,” says Jessica Todd Smith, Virginia Steele Scott Chief Curator of American Art for The Huntington. “The individual parts make up a powerful whole. It surely will delight students and other visitors coming to the new education center, and it enhances our growing collections of works by African-American artists and by mid-20th century ceramists,” says Smith.

Sculptor and freelance conservator Morgan MacLean used an artist knife to apply treatment to damaged tiles.

Sculptor and freelance conservator Morgan MacLean used an artist knife to apply treatment to damaged tiles.

Sculptor and freelance conservator Morgan MacLean spent four months at The Huntington—documenting, treating, and installing the Lane mural. Out of the 4,876 tiles that make up the mural, MacLean restored 256 tiles that showed some evidence of damage.

We asked MacLean to share with us his experiences during the restoration process.

Q: Could you give us an overview of the work you did to restore the Lane mural before you installed it?

A: We photographed each panel and then noted in our condition report where there was any damage, such as cracking or chips. The tiles are about three inches tall, but they vary in width and depth. The mural is so huge that Lane had to divide it into 22 panels.

Q:  Why did he have to divide the mural into so many panels?

A: Pretty much for transportation. He made the mural in his studio and then had to get it moved to the Savings and Loan building to install it. Dividing the mural into panels also enabled him to organize the thousands of tiles into manageable sections. Each panel has roughly 260 tiles.

To repair tiles, MacLean prepared a treatment comprising acetone, Paraloid B-72 (a clear acrylic resin), marble powder, and dry pigment.

To repair tiles, MacLean prepared a treatment comprising acetone, Paraloid B-72 (a clear acrylic resin), marble powder, and dry pigment.

Q:  How did you restore the damaged tiles?

A: Using an artist knife, I applied to each damaged section a thin coat of a treatment comprising acetone, Paraloid B-72 (a clear acrylic resin), marble powder, and dry pigment. Some tiles had as little as a 1/8-inch loss of glaze, but sometimes a tile was cracked in half and about two inches of glaze was lost. When a lot of glaze was lost, I had to build up layers of treatment slowly over several days, creating a surface that resembled the rest of the tile. That was a fun but tricky process because of the variation of colors. I would first apply a treatment with a light cadmium red pigment, and then the next day, I would apply another treatment with a little darker cadmium red so that you could see the light coming through the dark, producing a natural glaze appearance. After the treatment dried for a while, I would go over the tile with a dry brush to create little dimples in it so it looked like dried natural glaze.

Detail of Mutual Savings and Loan Mural. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

Detail of Mutual Savings and Loan Mural. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

Q:  What did you learn about Doyle Lane’s artistry as you worked to restore his mural?

A: I was really taken by his process to make this piece; every tile is glazed red, yet each tile is individual in its composition. When trying to create cadmium or magnesium reds, Lane had a lot of burn off during the firing process—that’s what caused the blackness on the tiles. The red was really hard to achieve, and so he embraced that, and it became part of the artwork. It was a study of red but also a study of chance.

The other wonderful aspect of the piece was how he displayed the thousands of individual tiles. He chose a very modernistic, linear approach, lining up the tiles—roughly 32 tiles high and 150 tiles wide—to study this variation in red. He also varied the dimensions of the tiles to add texture.

I have great appreciation for the ingenuity it took to construct the entire mural. He had to perfectly fit the tiles onto each panel, which must have been very challenging to do because of the variations in the tiles’ widths. I imagine that he laid the tiles out dry on each panel to see how they would fit, then removed them, inventoried them, and finally glued them in place. And he did that for not just one panel but for 22 of them. I understand the kind of obsessiveness that required.

It makes you realize that sometimes the simplest thing to look at is the hardest thing to create.

Doyle Lane’s signature on Mutual Savings and Loan Mural. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

Doyle Lane’s signature on Mutual Savings and Loan Mural. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

You can read more about Doyle Lane and this mural in “Three Artists, Three Visions” by James Glisson, Bradford and Christine Mishler Assistant Curator of American Art at The Huntington, in the current issue of Huntington Frontiers (PDF version here). You can find an animated GIF of various views of the mural on our Tumblr.

Kevin Durkin is editor of Verso and managing editor for the office of communications and marketing at The Huntington.

A Hollywood Master Remembered

In this watercolor, ca. 1935, Kay Rasmus Nielsen (1886-1957) depicts a Swiss hotel room for Act 2 of Zoë Akins’ play The Human Element. Art critics saw the influence of English illustrator Aubrey Beardsley (1872–1898) in Nielsen’s work, along with elements of Chinese art and the Art Nouveau movement. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

In this watercolor, ca. 1935, Kay Rasmus Nielsen (1886-1957) depicts a Swiss hotel room for Act 2 of Zoë Akins’ play The Human Element. Art critics saw the influence of English illustrator Aubrey Beardsley (1872–1898) in Nielsen’s work, along with elements of Chinese art and the Art Nouveau movement. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

For Americans looking for respite from the Great Depression and later World War II, the entertainment industry provided welcome relief. Los Angeles in the 1930s and 40s was a hotbed of film and theater production, attracting a great number of actors, screenwriters, filmmakers, and other artists to help satisfy the demand. Danish illustrator Kay Rasmus Nielsen (Kay rhymes with “eye”) was one such artist, traveling to California to work on a stage production of Everyman at the Hollywood Bowl in 1936.

Few people today recognize Nielsen’s name. He gained renown in Europe in the early part of the 20th century during the Golden Age of Illustration, when advances in technology had made it possible to reproduce drawings and paintings accurately. His exquisite illustrations are ethereal and fantastic, with fine detail and a sophisticated use of color and shading. Nielsen is best known for his children’s book illustrations, and particularly for his depictions of fairy tales, such as East of the Sun, West of the Moon (1914) and Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales (1924).

Nielsen, a scion of a theater family, brought his talents to Los Angeles during Hollywood’s heyday, settling in Altadena and finding work with a number of clients, including the Walt Disney Company. The Huntington has several original illustrations by Nielsen in the archive of Hollywood screenwriter Zoë Akins, the bulk of whose papers arrived here in 1952. Akins was an accomplished playwright, poet, and author who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1935 for her stage adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novella The Old Maid and went on to write films starring Claudette Colbert and Greta Garbo, among others. She and Nielsen met sometime in the late 1930s and remained friends for life.

Kay Rasmus Nielsen, set design for Act 1 of Akins’ The Human Element, the Duke of St. Erth’s house in London, watercolor, ca. 1935. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

Kay Rasmus Nielsen, set design for Act 1 of Akins’ The Human Element, the Duke of St. Erth’s house in London, watercolor, ca. 1935. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

The highlight of The Huntington’s Nielsen holdings is a set of watercolor illustrations for stage sets, produced in preparation for Akins’ stage adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s 1930 short story The Human Element. Charting the foibles of the human heart, The Human Element tells the tale of a socialite (the daughter of an English duke) and her admirers, and reveals a secret love between the daughter and a household servant.

Nielsen’s watercolors possess a dreamy quality, evoking both resplendence and intimacy. The first act takes place in the duke’s house in London. Nielsen’s treatment of the scene shows finely wrought detail and delicate hues that suffuse the furnishings and décor with soft afternoon light. From correspondence in the collection, we know that Nielsen and Akins worked closely to match the arrangement of the furniture to the action.

The second act takes place in a hotel in Switzerland. Nielsen’s design makes clear the resort locale, equipping the room with antlers, steins, a cuckoo clock, and distant mountain peaks that appear in the single window. His meticulous brushwork crafts the embroidery on the chairs, the scroll patterns on the curtain, and carved accents on the wood paneling.

Kay Rasmus Nielsen, set design for Act 3 of Akins’ The Human Element, The Isle of Rhodes, watercolor, ca. 1935. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

Kay Rasmus Nielsen, set design for Act 3 of Akins’ The Human Element, The Isle of Rhodes, watercolor, ca. 1935. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

In the third act, the full truth of the lovers’ scandal is revealed. Akins wrote that she wanted to retain the “ominous quality” of a nighttime scene. Nielsen’s stunning illustration captures this feeling beautifully. A midnight-blue darkness fills the windows that open toward the largely unseen exotic location beyond the stage, the Greek island of Rhodes.

Clippings and letters discuss a planned opening of The Human Element, possibly at New York’s Empire Theatre, but sadly the production never got off the ground. It was the first of many disappointments for Nielsen.

After World War II, the art world embraced naturalism and realism, and Nielsen’s fantasy style fell out of favor. As a result, Nielsen found less and less work in any medium, although friends did help him gain a few commissions for murals in Los Angeles. He also remained in touch with Akins, asking her in 1954 to help him explain one of his murals: “Poet—do write something for me explaining my idea of the picture in your way . . . what I [wrote] is so hopelessly awful.” Despite receiving the occasional commission, Nielsen was penniless when he passed away in 1957.

A photograph of Kay Rasmus Nielsen, around the time he designed the sets for The Human Element. Photographer unknown. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

A photograph of Kay Rasmus Nielsen, around the time he designed the sets for The Human Element. Photographer unknown. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

In later decades, Nielsen’s work experienced something of a renaissance. The Unknown Paintings of Kay Nielsen, published in 1977, garnered acclaim for a series of previously unpublished illustrations of the Arabian Nights. Then, in the 1980s, the Walt Disney Company uncovered some concept sketches Nielsen had produced for an adaptation of fellow countryman Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. The designs had languished for years. When rediscovered, they so inspired modern animators that Nielsen received screen credit in the 1989 blockbuster animated film.

Original designs and books by Nielsen are now considered valuable examples of the Golden Age of Illustration. The Huntington is pleased to preserve a part of this legacy in a few delightful examples by an underappreciated master.

Natalie Russell is assistant curator of literary manuscripts at The Huntington.

Conserving a Classic Book on Sunspots

Depiction of sunspots in Rosa Ursina sive Sol, an illustrated astronomical text published by Christoph Scheiner in 1626. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

Depiction of sunspots in Rosa Ursina sive Sol, an illustrated astronomical text published by Christoph Scheiner in 1626. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

On my last day as the Dibner Conservator for the History of Science collection at The Huntington, I want to share one of the more interesting and complex conservation treatments I’ve completed here—rebinding George Ellery Hale’s copy of Rosa Ursina sive Sol. Christoph Scheiner, a German Jesuit renowned for his studies of sunspots, published this beautifully illustrated astronomical text in 1626. It remained the standard text on sunspots for a century after its publication.

George Ellery Hale (1868-1938), the founder of the Mount Wilson Observatory, was a solar physicist who made the discovery that sunspots have magnetic fields. He donated his copy of Rosa Ursina to the Mount Wilson Observatory library before it came to reside at The Huntington, along with the rest of the Mount Wilson collection.

Rosa Ursina, completely disbound. Many beautiful engravings appear throughout the book, often incorporating imagery of bears, a reference to the book’s patron, Paolo Jordano Orsini, Duke of Bracciano. Orsini is an Italianized form of the Latin word for “bear.” The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

Rosa Ursina, completely disbound. Many beautiful engravings appear throughout the book, often incorporating imagery of bears, a reference to the book’s patron, Paolo Jordano Orsini, Duke of Bracciano. Orsini is an Italianized form of the Latin word for “bear.” The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

Hale’s copy of Rosa Ursina was originally bound in brown calf over wooden boards, with ornate blind stamping on the boards’ faces. When the book first came to the conservation lab, it was completely disbound, making it impossible to handle safely. Many Huntington scholars had requested Rosa Ursina over the years, but they were unable to access it in its disbound condition.

The first step I took was to reinforce each gathering—a set of conjoint leaves—by adhering a thin strip of Japanese tissue along the fold. This gave the fold increased strength and ensured that the gatherings would be able to support the tension of the thread when I resewed the volume. The text block is more than four inches thick, and sewing it took a long time. I also mended tears on the first and last pages of the text block and filled gaps around the perimeter of the frontispiece.

I adhered a thin strip of Japanese tissue to the spine fold of each gathering. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

I adhered a thin strip of Japanese tissue to the spine fold of each gathering. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

Then I turned to the supports that held the text block together. The lower wooden board had somehow managed to retain most of the original sewing supports—thick pairs of linen cords around which the sewing threads were wrapped to provide the mechanical consolidation of the text block. As I worked to sew the gatherings back to the binding, I needed to incorporate this original material and also find a way to give the book an additional means of support.

I ended up threading thin, soft linen bands behind each of the original sewing supports so that, as the binding flexes, the new threads bear most of the tension. However, several cords were missing entirely. A colleague at The Huntington taught me how to cable new cords using linen thread and a cordless drill. You extend four strands of two-ply thread across the length of a very large room, with one person on one side of the room holding the strands taut, and another person on the other side of the room holding an electric drill and a hook attachment. You attach the thread to the hook, and as the drill rotates, the cord twists into a tight cable. Then you hold the cord to maintain the tautness as the cord folds over onto itself and finally rotate the drill in the opposite direction.

When done correctly, the thread locks into place and resists unraveling due to the opposing twist of the original thread. I was gratified to see that the cords were almost identical in diameter and density to the original ones. I frayed out the ends of these new cords and adhered them to the board behind the stubs of the originals.

The resewn text block incorporates both the original sewing supports and the newly cabled cord. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

The resewn text block incorporates both the original sewing supports and the newly cabled cord. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

Then I needed to sew the text block directly onto the boards. (Traditionally, a text block is sewn independently of the boards, which are then laced on at a later stage. But in this case, the first and last gatherings were still attached to the boards, and the sewing supports were still attached to the lower board.) So I set up the lower board on a sewing frame, tensioned the new cords and support threads, and began sewing. In rare book conservation, it’s unusual to have the opportunity to completely resew a text block, and this became my favorite part of the treatment. It took several days of methodical sewing and careful tensioning to complete this step.

After I closely examined the upper board, I realized that there was a small split in the wood. I mended the split by using a small brush to insert leaf gelatin—a natural, collagen-based adhesive—and clamped it overnight. Once I stabilized the board, I also sewed it on, and removed the book from the sewing frame. I then lined the spine panels with Japanese tissue and aeroplane linen—a very fine and tightly woven material originally used to cover the wings of airplanes. These linings extended onto the board edges to provide an additional method of board attachment. I also sewed new silk endbands over linen cords and adhered them to the head and tail of the textblock.

I used a new piece of toned calf leather to reback the text block, inserting the new leather directly beneath the existing leather. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

I used a new piece of toned calf leather to reback the text block, inserting the new leather directly beneath the existing leather. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

The final step of the treatment was rebacking the book with new leather. Rebacking entails covering the spine of a book with new material—often leather or toned Japanese tissue—when the original spine material is either missing or badly abraded. I pared undyed calf leather to a suitable thickness and toned it to approximate the mottled dark brown leather on the boards. The book had already been rebacked at some point in its history—likely in the 18th century. I wanted to maintain the evidence of this earlier restoration, so I inserted the new leather beneath both layers of existing leather.

The book now opens smoothly and can be handled safely by researchers. I feel very fortunate to have worked on such an important, complex, and engaging conservation treatment.

Huntington researchers can now safely consult the rebound book. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

Huntington researchers can now safely consult the rebound book. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

Today is Jennifer Evers’ last day as the Dibner Conservator for the History of Science collection at The Huntington. She will be joining the conservation staff at the Library of Congress.