Welcome to the Kenneth Spencer Research Library blog! As the special collections and archives library at the University of Kansas, Spencer is home to remarkable and diverse collections of rare and unique items. Explore the blog to learn about the work we do and the materials we collect.
In 1974, the University of Kansas Libraries acquired a remarkable collection of bound business manuscripts from the Orsetti family of Lucca, in present-day Tuscany, Italy. Containing 294 bound volumes; 84 individual, hand-drawn maps; and five boxes of unbound accounting and family records, the Rubinstein Collection, as it is now called, comprises a rich archive of business accounts and legal documents of the Orsetti family’s commercial enterprises of agriculture, real estate, and textiles, as well as personal expenses. The collection of account books, business letters, legal documents, and inventories spans the late 12th century to the early 19th century, with the heaviest concentration dating from the 16th to 18th centuries.
The Orsetti family originated in San Donnino di Marlia, a rural village located near the Tuscan city of Lucca, where they relocated at the beginning of the 15th century. Lucca was a center for silk production and trade. By the mid 17th century Orsetti family members owned the second-largest textile workshop in Lucca, with ninety-five looms. Their companies thrived in Italy, as well as in Germany and Eastern Europe, especially Poland. Their silk trading company, Filippo Orsetti e Compagnia, flourished between 1695 to at least 1744. As the silk market declined in the 18th century, the Orsetti liquidated those assets and focused on their land holdings. Other noble families acted similarly, transforming the ruling class of Lucca in the 18th century from a group of merchants into wealthy landowners.
The Orsetti family of merchants used the accepted practices of their time to record their business and personal expenses and revenues. In 1494, Luca Pacioli, a Franciscan friar and mathematician, published his description of the Venetian double-entry accounting system, the treatise “About Accounts and Other Writings,” in Summa de arithmetica, geometria, proportioni et proportionalita. Pacioli’s work was translated into many languages, and that the style of bookkeeping became standard practice across Europe. In many ways, his descriptions of double-entry accounting are still used today. Pacioli recommended different types of books for different accounting purposes, and that practice is reflected in the Rubinstein Collection and in this exhibit.
In addition to serving as an example of accounting practices in early modern Italy, the collection provides a rare opportunity to study bookbinding attributes from one family’s archive over centuries. From January to June 2022, I was awarded sabbatical leave to study the bindings in the Rubinstein Collection. A University of Kansas General Research Fund grant provided funds for raw materials to create bookbinding models to further understand how the books were constructed. Some of the models are also shared in this exhibit.
The Rubinstein Collection honors Joseph Rubinstein, the first curator of the Department of Special Collections at KU Libraries, from 1953 to 1963. After Rubinstein left KU he entered the rare book trade and was instrumental in helping the University of Kansas acquire the Orsetti family papers. Rubinstein died in 1973, while purchase negotiations were ongoing. When the Orsetti family papers finally came to Spencer Library the following year, the collection was named in honor of KU’s first special collections librarian.
by Jacinta Johnson, Associate Conservator, Mellon Initiative
Zapolote, also known as The Goose Woman is one of nine known lithographs by Kansas artist Mary Huntoon. Based on Huntoon’s notations, we know that this single edition print was made in 1923 while she attended the Art Students League in New York, NY. Zapolote is a mysterious image depicting the silhouette of a seated woman contrasted by a bright full moon surrounded by dark clouds. Huntoon used broad, arching lines to hint at the woman’s surroundings, which are generally abstract, and allude to a rippling pool at her feet.
This work is part of a large collection of prints, drawings, and watercolors by Huntoon at the Kenneth Spencer Research Library. Along with the Huntoon collection at the Helen Foresman Spencer Museum of Art, this collective holding at KU is regionally significant, connecting KU to other regional and national collections (e.g., Alice C. Sabatini Gallery in Topeka, Kansas; Mulvane Art Museum at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas; and the Philadelphia Museum of Art).
I prioritized this print for conservation treatment during a condition survey of Huntoon’s collection of works because the print had sustained significant pest damage (see images 1-2). The entire upper right corner was lost as well as a few other smaller areas across the top edge. Tiny bite marks were visible along the edges and a long strip of the remaining top edge of the sheet was at risk of tearing off during handling.
Conservators use several techniques for filling paper that is lost. The most common approach is to attach a new piece of paper with a similar thickness, color, and texture that is cut to fit inside the loss like a puzzle piece. The downside to this approach is that the search (and creation) of such a fill is often time-intensive. Even when the edge of the fill is beveled or butt-joined, a small seam is usually visible. The rough and jagged edges created by the hungry pest along this particular loss further complicated the shaping and stabilization process.
I had an opportunity, however, to use a simpler approach that would help stabilize the jagged edges and save time searching for the perfect fill paper: pulp fills. Pulp fills are a great method for filling paper because unlike the method described above, there is a much smoother transition between the original sheet and the fill. In this technique, wet paper pulp is dropped into the area of loss as a slurry, and can be built up to the same thickness as the print. This type of filling method can only be done if the entire print can be washed in advance because the print needs to be wet during this process. Fortunately, my testing confirmed that this print would be safe to wash.
Next, I consulted my small collection of pre-cast paper pulp, all from high quality papers that had been previously washed. I selected two different colored paper pulps to mix together to make the best possible color match (see image 3). Then the pulp was reconstituted into a slurry with water and mixed thoroughly (see image 4).
After the pulp was ready, I used a pipette to drop small amounts into the area of loss. This was completed on a light table so I could match the thickness of the pulp with the thickness of the paper. I used a vegetable scrubber and curved tweezers to tamp down and shape the pulp into a smooth mat. A sheet of cotton blotter and clear polyester sheeting was also used to control the amount of water in the pulp slurry and anchor and cast the pulp. In about thirty minutes, I had already filled the entire upper right loss (see images 5a-c).
Once all the fills were completed, I dried the print between cotton blotters under moderate weight. After the print was fully dry, I assessed the pulp fill. Since the loss was in an area that would be used to attach it for display and/or handling, I decided to reinforce it with a very thin piece of Japanese paper, called tengucho. This would add extra strength to the area, but not change its visual effect. Finally, the edges of the pulp fill were toned slightly with graphite pencil and colored pencils to match the color of the rest of the sheet. Now that the treatment is finished, the pulp fills help to complete the print and bring the viewer’s eye back to the image area and away from the damage.
Zapolote will be on view this fall 2021 at the Kenneth Spencer Research Library for the exhibit, Mary Huntoon: Artist and Art Therapist, and will feature several more examples of conservation treatments in this collection. We look forward to seeing you there!
We are periodically sharing some of the materials that are featured in Spencer Research Library’s North Gallery permanent exhibit. We hope you’ll be able to visit the library and explore the full exhibit in person! This week’s post highlights materials by and information about English ornithologist John Gould.
John Gould, an English ornithologist based in London, published large, lavishly illustrated books about birds of the world from 1830 until his death in 1881. Kenneth Spencer Research Library at the University of Kansas holds 47 large-format volumes published by Gould, as well as nearly 2000 preliminary drawings, watercolors, tracings, lithographic stones, and proof prints from his artistic workshop. Digitized a decade ago, our Gould collection has recently migrated to new Islandora software that makes searching for bird images within the volumes as easy as finding the separate pieces of preliminary art. The digitized Gould collection is accessible at the University of Kansas Libraries website.
The son of a humble gardener, John Gould had spent his boyhood in rural England. His youthful interest in birds and taxidermy would later grow into a career as a publisher of bird books. Hired in 1827 by the recently founded Zoological Society of London, his work maintaining their collection of bird skins enabled him to learn from member ornithologists. Gould and his wife Elizabeth, an amateur artist, ventured into ornithological publishing in 1830 with a book about birds of the Himalaya Mountains.
High-quality digital images downloaded from University of Kansas Libraries website are included here to help explain how the beautiful lithographic prints of birds that illustrate Gould’s books were made. Lithography was a chemical printing process based on the antipathy between grease and water. It involved drawing with greasy ink or crayon on blocks of fine-grained limestone imported from Germany. Invented in Bavaria about 1798 by Aloys Senefelder, lithography soon spread throughout Europe and beyond. By the mid 1800s lithography had replaced copper engraving as the preferred method for quality book illustration, because it was easier and faster (and therefore cheaper) to execute.
An initial rough sketch on paper, often drawn by John Gould himself, began the bird illustration process. The multiple lines and erasures on this sketch of two Asian ground thrushes (Pitta concinna) reflect Gould’s search for the best composition.
One of Gould’s artists, in this case William Hart, then developed the sketch into a detailed watercolor painting to be approved by Gould, who insisted on accurate proportions and coloring.
Next Hart copied the outlines onto tracing paper and blackened the reverse side with soft lead pencil. By laying the tracing paper on a block of limestone prepared for lithographic printing and re-tracing the outlines, he was able to transfer a non-printing guide image onto the printing surface.
Following the guide lines, Hart has used a greasy lithographic crayon to draw and shade the bird image on the lithographic stone. The stone had been rubbed with fine sand and water to give it a velvety texture or grain to which the crayon would adhere.
Close examination with a magnifier would show small irregular dots of crayon adhering to the grained surface of the stone. At normal reading distance, though, the viewer’s eye blends the tiny dots and perceives them as shades of gray.
Turning the drawing on stone into a printing image was a chemical process. First, the crayon drawing was lightly etched with a gum arabic solution, which adhered to the non-image areas and made the bare stone surface there more water receptive. The crayon image was then washed out with turpentine, which formed a thin coating on the image making it receptive to the greasy printing ink.
Next the printer placed the stone on the bed of a lithographic printing press. Before inking, the stone was wetted, so the greasy black ink would adhere only to the crayon image. A blank sheet of paper was then placed on the inked stone and pressed against it by a scraper bar to transfer the black ink onto the paper, forming the printed image.
After the ink had dried, the print was hand colored with watercolors, copying a colored master print (called a pattern plate) that had been approved by Gould. Gould’s colorer was Henry Bayfield, who employed the female members of his family to help with adding watercolor washes by hand to uncolored prints. The washes not only tinted the black print but also blended visually with the lithographic shading to convey the shape, color and texture of the feathered bodies of the birds.
Above, in the middle, the print of a pair of ground thrushes (Pitta concinna) illustrates Gould’s book about the Birds of New Guinea. On the facing page is Gould’s scientific description of the bird, set in metal type and printed by the relief letterpress process. After being printed separately, the parts of the book were issued in installments to subscribers, who had them bound as volumes once complete.
In vogue during the middle decades of the 19th century, such hand-colored lithographic prints of birds were superior in quality to the earlier hand-colored copper-engraved prints they had replaced. Although succeeded in the second half of the 19th century by color-printed chromolithographs, in the early 20th century by four-color process halftone photolithographs, and in the late 20th century by digital images, Gould’s hand-colored lithographic prints are still esteemed as quality bird images.
However, the Gould example is only one of the stories that could be told about lithography’s impact on the production of graphic images during the 19th century. This is because lithography’s versatility as a chemical process meant that it was not just one new technology but rather a cluster of image making technologies that could be used separately or combined in innovative ways. As well as drawing on grained stone with a crayon, early practitioners drew on polished stone with pen and ink, “engraved” (more accurately “scribed”) lines in a thin coating of gum arabic, or drew with lithographic ink on coated transfer paper. After the mid-19th century these were combined with new methods of transferring images to the printing surface and of printing in color (chromolithography) from multiple lithographic stones or (later) from metal plates. A ground-breaking example of chromolithography is Owen Jones’ book, Plans, elevations, sections, and details of the Alhambra (London, 1842-1845. Drawing flat areas of color on lithographic stones, one stone per color, he printed multi-colored illustrations in remarkably exact registration for his book, but this is a single example. The story of all the many technologies associated with chromolithography would fill a book, one which, in fact, has been well told by Michael Twyman in his 728-page book, A History of Chromolithography: Printed Colour for All (London: The British Library and New Castle, Delaware: Oak Knoll Press, 2013).
Established in 1905 in response to the threat of racial violence and a decades long effort to exclude African Americans from the city’s high school, Sumner High School was created by exempting Kansas City, Kansas, from the state law prohibiting racially segregated high schools. However, the local African American community resisted further efforts to further diminish their children’s opportunities to achieve academic excellence. Their relentless push for the school’s curriculum to emphasize college preparation earned Sumner High School’s membership in the prestigious North Central Association of Secondary Schools by 1914. Under a federally mandated plan for racial integration, Sumner closed in 1978.
Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the 2020 national convention of the Sumner High School Alumni Association of Kansas City, Kansas, has been postponed until next year. In anticipation of the convention – and in honor of the new school year – here are a few highlights from the Sumner High School Alumni Association of Kansas City, Kansas, Collection, established in 1986. Additional donations of materials are welcomed.
The film clips below show various aspects of Sumner High School. The first features scenes from a football game in 1931. The second clip, from the 1940s, introduces viewers to the new building, the principal, and staff members; it also shows students arriving for school. There’s no need to turn up the volume on your computer or phone; neither clip has any sound.
See Spencer’s online exhibit “Education: The Mightiest Weapon” to learn more about the active role African Americans in Kansas played in our nation’s past struggle with laws and practices of racial segregation in public schools.
Deborah Dandridge Field Archivist/Curator, African American Experience Collections Kansas Collection
Kenneth Spencer Research Library’s North Gallery houses a permanent exhibit highlighting materials from the library’s various collecting areas: the Wilcox Collection, the Kansas Collection, Special Collections, and University Archives. While the library is closed to the public, we hope you enjoy the periodic exhibit highlights we’ll be sharing on the blog. Once Spencer reopens, we hope you’ll be able to visit the library and explore the full exhibit in person!
The University Archives portion of the North Gallery exhibit showcases materials related to University Chancellors, faculty, athletics, and student life. In one interactive part of the exhibit, visitors can peruse a timeline of highlights from nearly 150 years of KU’s history.