Thursday, 16 February 2017

Halfway there... Conservation cleaning of the Atkinson Brierley Archive

As the program of work to clean the Atkinson Brierley Architectural Archive reaches its milestone of 50% completion - that is a staggering 3167 plans cleaned - we thought that it would be worth looking back over the past five years, to consider the significant achievements and beneficial impact of the volunteer program.

St. Mary Bishophill Senior (1872), ATKB/6/85

The original project was funded by the Shepherds Trust in 2011. Its aim was to grant a conservator the opportunity to treat the fragmented tracing papers that make up the most vulnerable plans in the archive and to establish a volunteer group in 2012 to surface clean the remaining 6334 plans not undergoing conservation in the Studio. The interventive conservation work paused in 2015, but we have been lucky enough to retain the volunteer program and from April 2017 it will be entering its fifth year.

One of our volunteers cleaning a plan
As professionals in conservation and archives know, it can often take years of small incremental steps to achieve vast programs of work. When considering the cleaning of the Atkinson Brierley Archive with its 6334 architectural plans, this is especially true. It was, and still remains, a monumental task for any conservation department to face. It was therefore decided to set up a volunteer project that would not only benefit the archive but would also have a greater community benefit to achieve this task.

From 2012 the recruitment process began and the project has since welcomed volunteers from a diverse background, each with a different motivation for volunteering on the project. Some have chosen to volunteer for the social element of the group dynamic, or they want to give back to the archive and/or the community; others are keen to interact with the archive material in a unique way or wish to develop new skill and experience in the field of conservation.

The sessions are rarely dull, as each new plan can throw up new interesting avenues for investigation and conservation challenges. The buildings the plans pertain to and equally the method of conservation needed to care for the physical material often provide easy focal points for discussion. As many of our volunteers are interested in pursuing or have had careers or long term interest in archives, art history, architectural history, archaeology, conservation and heritage, it has lead to some interesting debates.

A partially cleaned plan of Wistow Church, ATKB/6/85
The architectural plans date from the 19th century through to the 1950s and consist of a number of different papers with media comprising of pencil, pen, watercolour and photographic chemicals. The condition of the archive is varied and many plans have previously been subjected to fluctuating environmental conditions, alongside poor handling and storage leading to different levels of damage and vulnerability. Over 98% of the plans appear to be covered in layers of dirt and atmospheric pollution from their time in storage. These pollutants can increase the speed of deterioration of the paper and in places obscure interpretation of the plans. Removing these deposits through conservation cleaning is a key requirement for the long-term preservation of the archive. Each plan is assessed before cleaning and in many cases, selective cleaning is applied due to fragile media such as pencil marks or degraded substrates.   

Details of woodcarvings from Sherburn church, ATKB/6/98
The volunteers time at the Borthwick comprises of building skills, knowledge and experience to deal with these challenges. Training is undertaken on the handling of architectural plans, technical skill in conservation cleaning and the condition checking of the paper and media. The volunteers also spend time focusing and discussing the ethics behind conservation cleaning, when we might clean and when we might abstain and how we, as conservation professionals, work to know the difference.

The Borthwick has been fortunate to have a wonderfully engaged, inquisitive and dedicated group of volunteers during the project. Over that time we have seen over 20 volunteers come and go and we now have a core team of 10 volunteers attending regular weekly sessions for up to two hours a week. They have made a very real and positive long-term impact on the archive and I have felt privileged to be able to work with such a devoted group of people and look forward to seeing the 50% completion develop into 100.

-- Tracy Wilcockson, Conservation Volunteering Co-ordinator

For further information please visit the Atkinson Brierley archive Project pages.

County Hall, Northallerton, ATKB/7/4A before cleaning

County Hall, Northallerton, ATKB/7/4A after cleaning

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Spotlight on the Retreat archive: A splendid time is guaranteed for all!

This is the second in a series of blog posts celebrating the Retreat archive and our digitisation project as it nears completion. The Retreat is one of the most important institutions in the care and treatment of mental health patients. Over the last two and half years, staff at the Borthwick have been working through the archive, preparing the documents for digitisation, carrying out conservation treatments where appropriate and photographing each item page by page.

This has been a huge task. Over 600,000 images have been created so far and the focus has been on handling each item with care and capturing a high quality image efficiently and effectively. Of course there have been many items that have caught our eye along the way. In this series of blog posts project staff pick out some of the interesting items that they have encountered.

Here David Pilcher, one of our digitisation assistants introduces The Kirks.


It would be true to say that the Retreat archive contains a lot more than mental health records, correspondence and monthly accounts. Folders can be found that include artwork and poetry, landscaping and planting details in the gardens, various sporting activities, in fact a whole plethora of subjects.

One of the cornerstones of the Retreat's care of the mentally ill was to provide educating and stimulating entertainments which were enjoyed in a shared environment by patients and staff alike and, by the beginning of the twentieth century, most calendar months had a programme of entertainment events ranging from lectures, puppet theatre, magic lantern shows, musical evenings and variety acts. Over time the information and correspondence collected for reference by the Retreat on these mainly travelling acts grew to a considerable amount and in itself has become a valuable potential resource for anyone looking at the history of variety and light entertainment.

Due to considerations of space here it would be impossible to write about all the many acts that aspired to make a living by travelling the length and breadth of the country with their often amusing and eccentric shows so I have chosen one such act to try and put across a flavour of what was on offer during the first half of the twentieth century.

I present, for your delectation and enjoyment ………… The Kirks!  

The Kirks cropped version.jpg
Publicity photo of The Kirks circa. 1924-28 (Ref: RET/1/5/5/7/9)

The Kirks were a double act comprised of Mr. M Wingate Kirk and his wife, who was referred to by her stage name of Madame. Both of them hailed from Scotland. Mr. Kirk performed the majority of the show combining such skills as magic and conjuring, illusions and even some ventriloquism using a kilt clad dummy called, at various times, either “Brown” or “Scottie”.   He had devised several sketches for himself and the dummy, one curiously entitled “A Cigarette and a Kiss”, possibly not the best of combinations by anyone’s standards!       

Madame usually made her appearance after the interval when the couple attempted a routine called “ Transference of Thought” sometimes named “Two Minds with but a Single Thought”. She was seated and blindfolded while her husband moved around the stage with items given to him by members of the audience which then Madame immediately and correctly described without any word spoken by her partner! Coins were named and even dated, rings were identified by size and colour and she would continue to amaze despite some of the articles being wrapped before presentation. It was, as the publicity material announced, A Baffling Exhibition of Instantaneous Telepathy!

The Kirks did their show at the Retreat on Friday, 24th November 1922, and for a show lasting 90 minutes were paid four guineas.  (Ref: RET/1/5/5/7/4)  

It also has to be noted that earlier in that year the same show was performed for HRH Prince Henry and the repertoire included The Cake in the Hat and My Stick.

The Retreat records reveal that the duo were booked several times during the years that followed and were obviously very reliable in providing quality entertainment for all.

In 1928 M. Wingate Kirk notified the Retreat that he would be in the area around October and would the Retreat like his services once more? The reply from the Retreat is strangely obscure in part

“if you can assure us that your programme will be somewhat changed from what you gave us two years ago we are willing to book you”. (Ref: RET/1/5/5/7/9)

Kirk wrote back with that assurance and suggested he include The Living Marionettes (new for the 1928-29 season!) and also “all the latest novelties which are suitably adapted to Hospital Entertainments”. (Ref: RET/1/5/5/7/9)

The Kirks performed once more at the Retreat on Tuesday, 2nd October 1928 and as well as the aforementioned Living Marionettes the act included The Library Problem (?) and The Organ Pipes. The show was traditionally closed with a stirring rendition of God save the King.

The last recorded mention I have been able to trace of the Kirks is towards the end of 1946 when M. Wingate Kirk sent the Retreat his latest programme with an accompanying letter asking about possible dates. (Ref: RET/1/5/5/7/15)

The ventriloquist`s dummy now went under the name of Sandy and the tricks and sketches included The Plume Illusion and the bizarrely titled A Seaside Experience (Pulling a Lady through a Keyhole). Sadly there was no mention of his wife or Madame in either the publicity or the related correspondence so one does wonder if she had passed away by then and Mr. Kirk was bravely soldiering on with the act. Interestingly the headed notepaper used at that time just names M. Wingate Kirk. (Ref: RET/1/5/5/7/15)

To conclude this particular thread The Retreat in their reply thanked Mr. Kirk for his offer of entertainment but unfortunately was unable to secure him a fixture at the present time.
Obviously, as the years rolled on variety acts in general were on the demise mainly due to the rising popularity of the cinema and then later, television. The Retreat had already acquired a cine projector and were hiring major titles for the entertainment of their residents so to coin a phrase …“variety was (unfortunately) dead”.  

In some ways the Kirks were unique in the style of entertainment that they provided. The material was accessible to children and also suited to an adult audience while the content was deemed to be “safe” for the residents of mental hospitals, of which they included many in their nationwide tours.

Never vulgar or crude in their delivery but possibly with a jocular element of cheek they amused and amazed audiences over almost three decades and certainly had a shared passion in their wonderful gift to entertain.   

More information about the Wellcome Library funded project to digitise the Retreat archive can be found on the project pages of our website. Digital surrogates from the Retreat archive project are available via the Wellcome Library.