Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Spotlight on the Retreat archive: An unexpected find

This is the fifth 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 650,000 images have been created in total 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 Tracy Wilcockson, Conservator for the project discusses an image of York sculptor G.W. Milburn and links with other archives in our holdings.


I have had the pleasure of seeing many interesting documents pass through the studio as part of the Retreat Digitisation project and as a conservator it is not often that my interest in the image or text overshadows that of the physical makeup or condition of an item. But during my work on part of the Retreat archive, I was intrigued and excited to come across this.

Reference: RET/1/8/6/7/8

In the modestly sized silver based print on a paper support, I recognised a familiar face. Not of the York sculptor G.W. Milburn, as this was the first photograph I had seen of the famous sculptor, or of the patient Frederick Pryor Balkwill, whose records I had yet to assess and conserve. It was the statue of Queen Victoria that first caught my attention, having passed by this actual statue many times while walking in West Bank Park, Acomb, York, and knowing its sculptor to be G. W. Milburn.

The image shows the eminent sculptor working on the Queen Victoria commission in his studio, whilst his friend Frederick Pryor Balkwill looks on. The work was originally commissioned and sited in the Guildhall, but was moved to a number of locations before its final installation in West Bank Park.

I had a keen and personal interest in Milburn as prior to seeing this photograph, I had been fortunate to view Milburn’s Day book in a private collection, which documented many commissions for carvings in buildings throughout Yorkshire of architectural or ecclesiastical significance. Within this intriguing and fragile volume I had observed many of Milburn’s commissions but was delighted to recognise both concept drawings and photographs of final pieces from plans in the Atkinson Brierley Architectural Archive held at the Borthwick and recently conserved by our conservation volunteers, linking Milburn to another of our holdings. These carvings from Sherburn Church (possibly -in-Elmet), are just one occasion that we have speculated that Milburn’s work appears.

Reference: ATKB/6/98

Reference: ATKB/6/98

There is also evidence of his York firm in the 1930 additions and alterations to Harewood House (correspondence file ATKB/8/155) and estimates from his firm for the Canon Guy Memorial Stone in Fulford (correspondence file ATKB/8/156/7).

This is just a short example of where a single item within the Retreat Archive can provide unexpected avenues of personal interest and connection beyond the expected parameters of a mental health archive. The Retreat archive might not have been the first place (or even the tenth place) a researcher might look for an elusive picture of Milburn, but it displays quite eloquently the breadth of material now available and searchable for free online thanks to the Wellcome Trust funded project and how further research leading from the Retreat archive is supported by the wider holdings of the Borthwick.

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.

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