Findings in the Archives: Conserving a 1924 Letter of Patent & Diocesan Shield

Greg Farr, Diocesan Archivist

It all started when our Diocesan Archivist, Greg Farr, found a Letter of Patent & Diocesan shield from 1924 in the ECCT archive. The piece needed preservation/conservation and Greg has written a three-part blog examining the process. Come back to our blog every Friday for the next three weeks to read along.

Welcome back and thank you for returning to learn more about the conservation efforts employed to preserve the 1924 patent letter for ECCT’s diocesan Coat of Arms!

Last May, upon recognizing that the 100-year anniversary of this patent letter’s issue to the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut by the English College of Heraldry was soon approaching, I began the process of learning more about the history of this archival object and its significance for our diocese. I also continued to wonder if the reframing of this artifactual piece would be worthwhile, since its encasing wooden box-frame was worn and scratched, and its hardware was rusted. Further, as I had mentioned in last week’s article, the letter’s material, resembling some kind of textile, was visibly wrinkled and two of the three attached sealing-wax cannisters set below the letter in the case had somehow come loose from their brass mounting pins.

As a guide for conducting historical investigations, archivists frequently apply the principle of “provenance” to ascertain the original historical context of records and artifacts. To inquire about a thing’s provenance means asking about its origin or source, first determining who created it (either an individual or a corporate agency) and then learning what details can be found about its ownership or custodial history. Of course, the other essential fact-finding questions of where? when? how? and why? eventually follow. Fortunately, after learning a bit more about the UK College of Arms and discovering that the commissioned designer of ECCT’s diocesan shield, Mr. Robert H. Symonds, was a local parishioner at St. John’s, Warehouse Point in New Haven in the 1920s, I was able to locate some additional record correspondence in ECCT’s well-preserved archival holdings. These documents were specifically connected to ECCT’s acquisition of its Coat of Arms patent letter, the final official record denoting the process of obtaining a diocesan Coat of Arms, first initiated in 1921. From here, I found clues that led me to other publications that could help me understand the contours of this historic transaction, including our diocesan news publication from this time period, The Connecticut Churchman, our diocesan annual convention journals, and finally, a book publication authored in 1926 by Symonds himself, entitled, Ecclesiastical Shields for the Interior of Churches. There is much to share and discuss about these published resources, including the detailed information offered about the design elements of ECCT Coat of Arms and their particular historical significance. However, in this week’s blog, I would like to relate the unfolding story of the archival conservation of the patent letter, sharing some its various twists and turns.

Patent letter in original, open frame.

While I initially had hoped that I might simply open the box-frame containing the patent letter by unscrewing a few screws, and thereby merely reset the textile material under its mounting clips, I was quickly alerted to the fact that using a hand-held screwdriver to remove the twenty 3-inch wood screws set in around the perimeter of the box-frame would take quite a bit of work! And, after assessing the high degree of security afforded this artifact by its framing, I became concerned that perhaps finally breaking the seal of this case could potentially cause damage to the interior contents. So, at this point, I decided to contact an art-framing contractor with whom ECCT had worked in the past to get some professional assistance. I was confident that, at the very least, I would attempt to have the patent letter reframed, so I brought the letter in its box-frame to Collinsville, CT, to meet with Kristen Stevens. Kristen has been working as a professional art framer since she first worked in an art gallery at the age of 16. After dropping the artifact off to Kristen and discussing my intent to restore the piece in a new frame, I soon got a call from Kristen requesting that I stop by her shop again to discuss the work ahead. When I arrived back at Kristen’s workshop, the piece was still in its original case, but all the screws sealing the case had been removed, as was the glass panel that served as a cover lid to the frame. Inside the case, I could see the letter, as it sat stiff and still wrinkled in its case. As readers may have already surmised, the patent letter was not made of textile, but rather its medium is an animal skin membrane more commonly known as vellum. Due to temperature changes over the past century, the vellum material, which at this juncture felt like a thin sheet of dried rawhide, had broken free from its mounting clips and had contracted into a wavy, cockled shape.

With this discovery, Kristen informed me that flattening the letter would not be possible just by remounting and reframing the piece. Instead, the next step would involve finding a manuscript conservator who may, or may not, be able to restore the letter to its original condition. Luckily, Kristen was able to use her professional network to locate a paper conservator who operates a manuscript restoration business in Roxbury, CT. Incredibly, Jean Baldwin, a paper and rare book conservator with 20+ years of professional experience, working formally with both the Library of Congress and Yale University, was available to appraise the letter and to develop a plan for its restoration! Jean informed us that it may be possible to flatten the vellum out over an extended period of time, using the additional humidity of summertime to help the process. After conducting a microscopic inspection of the document, Jean also related that despite the wavy distortions in the vellum material, the colored illuminations on the document were all in pristine condition and exhibited little to no cracking or crazing. Further, Jean determined that the document could undergo further conservation given the chemical composition of the color pigments used by the early creators for these illustrations. The plan was to treat the vellum letter with gradual amounts of humidity and tensioning over an eight-week period, and, if the treatment successfully flattened the document, Jean would remount the piece on a cellulose matboard using Japanese paper strips to hinge and adhere the vellum so that it could properly expand and contract in its new frame that Kristen would provide. I then learned that the especially tricky part of this process would be in the transfer of the conserved piece to its frame, which would require a coordinated effort to quickly move the piece out of its temperature-controlled climate and into its new protective light-sensitive, air-tight museum frame. It was in the late waning summer weeks of September, that Jean and Kristen met for a full day to finalize this conservation project that had begun many months prior.

Vellum before conservation.

Please come back next week to celebrate Jean and Kristen’s amazing collaborative work restoring this unique ECCT artifact and to learn more about the meaning and use of our diocesan Coat of Arms!

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