“All children should see themselves represented in the books they read”

Reading Race, Collecting Cultures

And so the day finally arrived – on 3rd August our Director and long-standing Education Co-ordinator Jackie Ould logged off for the last time and headed into retirement.


Jackie has been involved in our organisation since it’s inception. She originally met our founder Lou Kushnick when she was one of his American Studies students here at the University of Manchester.

In 1998 Lou was establishing the Resource Centre – an open access library of books about race and race relations, amassed during his academic and activist career. He asked Jackie, who by this point was a Black achievement and EAL (English as additional language) teacher for Manchester City Council, if she could help. She was, in her own words  ‘pretty sceptical really about how it was going to succeed’, but agreed to be involved and immediately started to think about the educational potential of the library:

I wanted to know…

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Taking the pith

Thanks to the Western world’s love of taking souvenirs, albums of paintings on pith being a prime example, the John Rylands Library has been provided with one of its hidden treasures.

They are sometimes mistakenly called “rice paper paintings”. The only common characteristic with rice it is its organic nature and, even though they come from a tree, the final sheet is not manufactured like paper.

Although China opened its market trade to the Western world in the 18th century, it was not until the early 19th century when Western commerce flourished. Canton was the only port, in all China, open to foreign traders at that time, and the demand for small and tasteful souvenirs increased. This led to the use of a large amount of the small trees, tetrapanax papyrifer (fig. 1), natively grown in the area.

Pith is the inner spongy cellular tissue of branches and stems of tetrapanax papyrifer and has been used in Chinese medicine, as well as production of hats, shoe soles and artificial flowers but also as a support for beautiful Chinese paintings, providing a semi-transparent and magical finish.

Figure 1. Drawings of the Tetrapanax papyrifer

Unlike paper, which is manufactured from wood or other fibres, the sheets of pith paper are cut directly from the pith. The trees were cut after 2-3 years of cultivation and then plunged in a pond to soak (fig. 2). The bark became tender and it was stripped off (fig.3), or the pith forced out with the help of a wooden or metal device. The pith had to be sundried quickly to retain its whiteness, otherwise they could discolour or stain easily.

Mastering the cutting of pith is a complex art. A special knife is slightly indented into the pith, kept steady and the pith is rolled, slicing away a continuous layers and a sheet is formed (fig 4). No scraps are wasted; the big sheets are destined for paintings, smaller ones to make delicate, decorative flowers and the shavings used as stuffing for pillows, among other uses.

The bigger sheets of pith are piled up making bundles. Once this process is finished they are ready to be painted and they are distributed to the artisans.


Figure 4. Cutting sheets of pith

The oldest known Chinese pith painting dates from the mid-1820s and they were popular until the 1860s. The themes of these paintings were aspects of Chinese life, an intriguing and attractive subject to foreigners. They depicted professions, arts and crafts, nature such as plants and insects, and the fine paintings of costumes of the Manchu emperors, empress and officials (fig.5).


Figure 5. Chinese Drawings 46 JRL.

The artisans in the workshops were painting the pith sheets using watercolours and gouache. Watercolours have more transparency and the particles of pigment are smaller than gouache. Sometimes they were used to paint details, like the faces, on the reverse of the pith, playing with its transparency, and to add the magical effect (fig.6). Gouache, on the other hand, contains chalk and is more opaque than watercolour; it was often used for the highlights in the paintings. In general, the palette was formed by quite vivid colours.


Figure 6. Chinese Drawings 44, JRL. Detail of the watercolour on the cheeks through a magnifying glass.


Once completed, each pith painting was traditionally placed on Chinese or Western paper as backing. The pith edges were held down with Chinese silk ribbon or coloured paper only adhered directly to the paper, not pith, due to its sensitive nature (fig.5 and 7). The pages were then bound between album covers most commonly in groups of twelve. Each album usually depicted a single subject.

Chinese 146

Figure 7. Chinese Drawings 146, JRL.

If we look closer to the pith we can see clearly the porous structure of the cells (fig. 8). This is because the pith is composed of soft, spongy parenchyma cells, which store and transport nutrients throughout the plant. The sheet is not made by a mesh of fibres, like we find with paper, but a direct transversal cut of the plant, keeping the structure intact. Due to this characteristic, it creates a velvety translucent surface, allowing the paint to enter slightly into the cells creating a three dimensional effect which differs and makes it special from other supports.

The consequence for that uniqueness is that the structure is delicate; it becomes quite brittle with time and is very sensitive to changes in environment, tending to tear and stain easily with fluctuations of humidity and temperature that could rapidly deteriorate the object. With time it loses its flexibility and the pages of the albums are not safe to turn, they can’t be allowed to flex so need to be fully supported and kept rigid when turned, which it complicates its handling.

Detail 146

Figure 8. Structure of the pith. Detail from the base on the right at Chinese Drawings 146 JRL in figure 7.

Another obvious feature is the lines that tend to run horizontally through the surface of all pith supports (fig. 9). Within a sheet these lines are about evenly spaced but may vary between sheets. They are the result of the manufacture of the pith, which was cut with the steady held knife similar to the chain lines of paper but completely unrelated.


Figure 9. Chinese Drawings 45 JRL. Detail of the lines on the surface created by the special knife during manufacture.

The reason for highlighting pith paintings and the Rylands Chinese Drawings collection is not only to share and highlight the delicate and magical nature of these items but to explain why we took the pith out of the “Alchemy of colour” exhibition in The John Rylands Library.  The fragile nature of these drawings could not be safely displayed for the duration of the exhibit, however Collection Care wanted to share the intended page with you, and a few others.

The importance of Chinese Drawing 146’s opening is the detail in one of the bases at the centre of the painting (fig. 7), portraying several tools and brushes. It is an interesting feature which illustrates the type of tools used on the production of this type of drawings and it’s quite unusual to find this information depicted in this sort of painting.


Figure 10. Chinese Drawings 146, JRL. Detail of the tools from figure 7.

I would like to thank to Carme Miquel for the wonderful drawings from figures 1 till 4, the Heritage Imaging team for the great resolution photographs of Chinese Drawings 146, and the editing help of the Collection Care team.





CFP – (Dis)connections: Networks and Archival Absences

The deadline for abstracts for this workshop at the John Rylands Library has now been extended until August 19th, 2018.


(Dis)connections: Networks and Archival Absences – Call for Papers

18th September 2018, 13.00-17.00, Christie Room, The John Rylands Library, The University of Manchester

This Student Run Research Network proposes to consider the use of archives and collections as sources for the exploration of past intellectual and professional networks. A series of half-day workshops will discuss the production and circulation of knowledge within and outside traditional cultural circuits, and the development of aesthetic trends in the modern age (19th and 20th centuries). They aim to bring together PhD students and early career researchers sharing material-based methodologies, as well as scholars and professionals in cultural heritage institutions.

@netmat_nw welcomes paper proposals for the first half-day workshop, to be held at The John Rylands Library (The University of Manchester) on the 18th September 2018. This event will introduce the network themes, engaging theoretically and pragmatically with the use of archives and collections. Specifically…

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John Rylands at Manchester Histories Festival 2018

The 2018 Manchester History Festival was themed around Protest, Democracy, and Freedom of Speech, and was held at Manchester Central Library from the 8th-11th of June.

Jess, Dom and I managed a stall at the festival, on Sunday 10th June. We selected some choice items from the Special Collections, and spoke to over 100 people, engaging a wide range of audiences who are now more familiar with the John Rylands Library.

The items selected included: posters, articles and a digitised example from the Peterloo Archive, the Artis, and bespoke Top Trump playing cards.

When discussing the items from the Peterloo Collection, we touched on important points such as the upcoming centenary, and that the location of the Library was within the space of the massacre, and linked this with the over-arching theme of the festival.


We also took a facsimile of the 12th-century illuminated manuscript Beatus, as an example of the John Rylands’ manuscript collections. Its lavish illustrations and comments on the Apocalypse intrigued many visitors.

Jess and Jass

Our most popular item on the table was the bespoke John Rylands Top Trump cards made by Jessica. It was a great way to engage all ages while showcasing other items in the collections.


We thoroughly enjoyed the chance to see some of the fascinating work and projects on the history of Manchester displayed by other organisations.

Catalogue for the Echoes of Service Archive



Graham Johnson writes:

In recent years major additions have been made to the important Echoes of Service Archive of missionary material held at the Christian Brethren Archive. The collection is now much larger and richer and presents fascinating insights into the activities of British Brethren missionaries from the late nineteenth century into the twentieth century. The additions have now been catalogued and the catalogue is available online.

The original collection, deposited in 2004, consisted of correspondence files containing letters between the Echoes staff in Bath and missionaries working in the field. These have been supplemented over the years and now contain 1,568 bundles of correspondence relating to particular individuals and married couples.

The files of two of these, Handley Bird the missionary to India, and Geoffrey Bull, in China and Tibet, have now been catalogued in detail to complement the fully catalogued papers of these individuals also held at the University’s Christian Brethren Archive. Geoffrey Bull was interned by the Chinese in 1950, and the correspondence reflects the build up to his imprisonment and the concerns of staff, relatives, friends and the Foreign Office regarding his whereabouts and circumstances following his capture. Complementing the correspondence files are facsimile copies the Echoes of Service ‘Candidate Books’ where staff reflected on the suitability of those applying to enter the mission field.

There is a large collection of items which the staff considered important enough to set aside as ‘Historical Documents’. These include printed tracts, correspondence and various records and reports.  The printed documents include early Brethren tracts, Echoes publications, and newspaper cuttings about Echoes and Echoes’ missionaries. The correspondence contains letters and bundles of letters relating to missionary work or the work of particular missionaries.

These include correspondence with Echoes of Service editors, often concerning controversial or sensitive issues. The records and reports consist of notes of talks and sermons, accounts of meetings and conferences, manuscript notes, collections of documents on particular themes, and a manuscript diary of Dan Crawford from the 1880s relating to his journey to Africa via Portugal.

There is a rich and extensive collection of photographic material including photograph albums, lantern slides, postcards, scrapbooks, 35mm slides, film strips and films.

The collection also includes a collection of personal papers relating to the life and work of Caroline Gates who worked as a missionary in China between 1887 and 1927. The material includes a published tribute to Caroline Gates, scripts and cassette tapes relating to a slide show and commentary, and printed extracts from letters by and referring to Caroline Gates. The Gates collection also contains 51 glass lantern slides and two boxes of 35 mm slides which include images of Caroline Gates and her fellow missionaries in China, her three adopted daughters, the areas she visited, local families and people at work.

Thomas Radford Medical Illustration Collection


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We have recently completed a cataloguing project on our medical archives, generously funded by the Wellcome Trust under its Research Resources in Medical History programme. In her final blog post, archivist Ginny Dawe-Woodings writes:

Thomas Radford (1793-1881) trained as an apprentice to his uncle, a surgeon attached to the Manchester and Salford Lying-in Institution, a maternity hospital. This first-hand experience with obstetric patients inspired Radford to become one of the nineteenth century’s eminent obstetricians, and gives him a proud place in Manchester’s rich medical history.

Before the eighteenth century, the care and treatment of pregnant women in Europe was an almost exclusively female pursuit which rigorously excluded men. The presence of a male doctor at a birth was a rare event, and only occurred when the midwife had exhausted all normal means of managing a complicated delivery. Having men deliver women of their children was seen as offending female modesty, and the medical community was suspicious of men entering the field. However, with the advances of the eighteenth century, such as the introduction of obstetric forceps, and the founding of lying-in hospitals, men entered an area formerly controlled by women.  Male obstetricians became an important section of the medical community, and by the late nineteenth century the delivery of infants by doctors had become normalised and popular.

Thomas Radford was arguably Manchester’s leading obstetrician in the first half of the eighteenth century. He was effectively in charge of the Manchester and Salford Lying-in Hospital (which became St Mary’s Hospital), and taught obstetrics at the Manchester School of Medicine. In the course of this work, he created a large and unique collection of medical illustrations. This collection has been in the custody of the Library for many years, but it is only recently that we have studied the collection, and realised its significance.


Radford 54: Watercolour and pencil illustration of blood vessels.

The collection contains over 250 individual images, created in a variety of media, including watercolour, gouache, pencil, ink, and oil paint. The illustrations are mounted variously on board, paper, canvas, or designed as posters; they range from postcard size to over 2 metres in length. Radford may have made some of the images himself, but most are evidently the work of trained illustrators and artists.

His commitment to pioneering obstetric techniques is reflected in the images. Radford was one of the first surgeons to advise abdominal section. He was present when Charles Clay performed his first ovariotamy and supported John Hull’s pioneering work on the caesarean section. There are numerous images in the collection of abnormal ovaries which have been removed post-mortem or have possibly been removed via ovariotomy. Similarly there are multiple examples of successful (and non-successful) caesarean sections featured. Aseptic surgery was still evolving during the nineteenth century and the high mortality rate associated with caesarean section meant the technique was rejected by the mainstream medical community.

These images were used as a teaching aids by Radford for his lectures in midwifery.  In addition to being medically and physiologically significant, the pictures are also distinctly artistic – the fine watercolours show rich,  detailed features contrast while some of the developmental diagrams are bold, abstract, almost Miró-like in appearance.


Radford 44: Diagram showing embryo development.

The Radford collection of medical illustrations is a useful, beautiful and captivating collection which is beneficial not solely for the study for the history of obstetric medicine but also the histories of anatomy, medical illustration, art and printing.

Letterlocking workshop at the John Rylands Library


On the 14th of June, a practical workshop about letterlocking was organised at the John Rylands Library by the John Rylands Research Institute. Jana Dambrogio, conservator at MIT Libraries in the US and Dr Daniel Starza Smith, Lecturer in Early Modern English Literature at King’s College London, shared their knowledge and research about letterlocking. More information about letterlocking can be found on the Letterlocking – Unlocking History website: http://letterlocking.org/

History and introduction to letterlocking.

Starting with some history and background context, we learned that within the 1440 to 1944 time-frame, up to 75 different ways of folding letters have been recorded. Specific ways of folding letters can be linked to specific individuals, but one person can also use different variations on the fold depending on the type of letter (business letters, love letters, or friendship letters) to be sent! Some letters show evidence of “planning”, leaving blank spaces in preparation of some folds or seals to be applied later, or not.

And in practice? How can you “reverse” the fold in an open, historic document? Obviously, the original is not to be touched or played with when it comes to understanding how a letter was previously locked. So what’s the trick? Jana demonstrated how, using a blank piece of paper of the same dimension of your item, and by carefully studying every single mark or fold and reproducing them on your dummy, you could go back in time and solve the mystery.

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During the following session we discussed letter security. Of course, a damaged seal would be a quite obvious way of a breaking in a private letter. There is more to look for, such as, changes in chain lines in the paper used for the lock and the main body of the letter, mismatching pieces of paper between the lock and the letter, impression in the paper that is different from the current visible seal on the letter…and so much. If you know how to proceed, your letter could become a high-security vault for your message!

Time for us to play; Jana and Daniel had prepared for each participant a beautifully crafted package with four letters, each sealed in a different way.

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Using these as practical examples, we opened them up, discussed about their mechanic and security level, before reproducing them following the tutors’ detailed explanations. At the end of this session, we could also have a go at sealing our models with wax, using various stamps.

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The last part involved a discussion around multiple examples of locked letters, created by queens, kings, soldiers and… basically everybody. Creative, elegant, complex, the variations are endless, depending on the individual.

Last discussion around multiple examples.

I would like to thank Jana Dambrogio, Dr Daniel Starza Smith, the John Rylands Research Institute and the University of Manchester for conducting this workshop and allowing me to attend it.

Introducing our community archive

Reading Race, Collecting Cultures

What is an archive? How does community heritage material end up in our archive? What do we do with it? Who uses it?

To encourage more BAME community groups to consider donating their heritage project outputs to our (or another relevant) archive, we’ve produced a short film to demystify the archive.

Many thanks to our dedicated Institute for Cultural Practices placement students Naomi Weaver and Yang Li for producing this. You can read more about how and why the film was made over on our Coming in from the Cold blog.

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The Children’s Book Collection in the Christian Brethren Archive


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I am pleased to announce that a collection of children’s books in the Christian Brethren Archive has been catalogued. The collection contains wonderful examples of religious fiction and non-fiction, aimed at children and young people, and also texts giving advice for Christian adults working with young people.

The covers of the books are equally interesting as illustrations of the development of visual design throughout the 20th century. A small selection of the more striking images have been digitised as part of the ongoing Christian Brethren Archive digitisation project, and can be found on our Manchester Digital Collections website.

The titles of the books are in some cases intended to be thought provoking, and straightforward, for example, A Call to Action, or How to Understand and Influence Children. Some are intended to be thought provoking, and ask questions such as Is Life Worth Living? There is material intended to give guidance and support those working to counsel and assist in difficult situations. Other books grab the attention in a different way; the title Cannibals for Christ is a particular favourite of mine, and it certainly made me look for the book’s blurb to learn more!

The provenance of this collection is something of a mystery, and unfortunately, it is not clear whether it was donated as a complete series, or is the sum of several smaller deposits. However, as it contains books predominantly aimed at children and young people, it has been catalogued as a self-contained collection, within the Christian Brethren printed material. We are keen to promote and encourage its use, as it is currently a lesser exploited element of the Christian Brethren Archive.

With thanks to the photographers and cataloguers of the Heritage Imaging Team for the digitisation work, and to Gavin Park of the cataloguing team, the Christian Brethren Children’s Books collection can now be found via the University of Manchester Library Search.

D. S. Who? Looking back at dom sylvester houédard


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Fran Horner, a postgraduate student studying the MA in Art Gallery and Museum Studies, in her final blog post  😦 tells us more about her internship at The John Rylands Library working with the dom sylvester houédard archive.


Fran Horner working of the little poetry magazines of dom sylvester houédeard.

In January 2018, I began cataloguing the collection of little poetry magazines in the archive of Benedictine monk and British concrete poet Dom Sylvester Houédard (he preferred to be known as dsh). The internship was organised through the Institute of Cultural Practice at the University of Manchester and was a requisite for a module on my MA in Art Gallery and Museum Studies.

On 2 July 2018, I FINALLY finished the catalogue. In total, I have catalogued 202 titles, over 520 individual items, putting in hundreds of hours of research!

I have thoroughly enjoyed learning more about dsh’s poetry and character through his collection of little poetry magazines. His typestract poems (see previous blog post) have been fascinating to study and document as visual works of experimental textual art. My work on this internship has enabled dsh’s poetry and archive to become more accessible and I hope that the rich material will inspire artists, writers and poets. Not only have I become fully immersed in the world of dsh, I have also gained valuable experience in the practices and responsibilities of professional archivists and rare book librarians.

If you have an interest in concrete poetry, dsh, little poetry magazines or independent publishing presses, the catalogue I created may be of interest to you. If you would like to find out more, please contact Dr Janette Martin at the University of Manchester Library, janette.martin@manchester.ac.uk.

To discover more about dsh, you can see some of his poetry in the exhibition Speech Acts: Reflection-Imagination- Repetition at Manchester Art Gallery. The exhibition, curated by Hammad Nasar with Kate Jesson, is free and is open until 22 April 2019.


Fran cataloguing the dom sylvester houédard collection.