Conservation of a first edition A Christmas Carol

I was rather humbled by a client recently who entrusted me with the restoration of their first edition A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. The first run, published by Chapman and Hall on 19 December 1843, was a huge success and the initial run of 6000 books sold out within days. Dickens wanted a lavish binding and the originals were bright red with gold lettering and edging as well as four woodcut printed plates inside. Due to this expensive binding Dickens only made around £230 from this initial run and his woes were added to when a plagiarised version came out the following January. You can read more about the origins of the story in this excellent article.

The book that was presented to me was in reasonably good condition. The book block was still completely intact as were the fly sheets and the spine itself was good and solid with the original mull still intact and tucked beneath the fly sheets. However, the cloth cover had taken some use and almost all of the red dye had drained away. Probable damage from being exposed to UV light on book shelves for over 170 years had rendered the spine extremely brittle and as I removed the protective plastic dust jacket the spine fell into several dusty pieces.

Having collected these up carefully in order to try to retain as much as possible, I set to work on carefully lifting the cover so that I could put a new spine onto the book for me to then re-attach the bits of the old spine in their original positions. Having lifted the edge cloth, which was also very brittle, I carefully used a thin paring knife to give me sufficient gap to insert a new spine, going up to the embossed lines on the cover to hide the bulge of the new book cloth.

I like to try to go under the old book cloth right over the edge of the cover board and back underneath the original fly sheet. (see image) This is, in my view, best-practice but can damage the fly sheet if care isn’t taken so this part of the operation took some time. Having secured the new spine I stained it down to something nearer the colour of the faded cloth and the old spine so that it didn’t show too much and then started to look at the fragments of the original spine.

Some were still attached to the original thick cardboard and leaving this on would have caused the new spine to be too uneven so I carefully removed the thickness of any old cardboard whilst trying not to damage anymore of the spine cloth. A delicate operation but worthwhile I think.

Finally, I laid out the fragments and, once I was happy that they were in the right places, stuck them down in the right order and in the right places. The original gold pattern made the top section relatively simple but the undecorated lower section was more challenging.

The client wanted a protective slipcase making and we had agreed the colours beforehand so using Kathy Abbott’s ( excellent instructions I made a slip case to match.

However, such an important book deserves the best and so I decided to also make a clamshell case for the slip case, protecting the book for another 170 years I hope. I love the precision required to make these cases exactly to fit and I must say, Iam pleased with the final outcome.

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