Bodleian Libraries apply space age imaging to conservation research

16 September 2014

Iris GermanicaA conservation research team at the Bodleian Libraries are about to embark on a scientific study using a state-of-the-art imaging tool to decipher the early 'painting by numbers' system used by the Austrian botanical illustrator Ferdinand Bauer (17601826).

The Bodleian's research team will use advanced hyperspectral imaging technology, initially developed by astrophysicists to study the colour of stars, to analyse material in the Libraries' unique collections. In particular, the new instrument, funded by the University of Oxford Fell Fund, will allow the researchers to identify previously unidentified pigments in Bauer's paintings and uncover minute details of his illustration techniques that are currently invisible to the naked eye. Through funding from the Leverhulme Trust, a researcher based in the Bodleian will spend the next three years investigating Bauer's work.

Bauer's botanical and zoological paintings are considered to be among the finest in the world. Works such as the Flora Graeca, a 10-volume publication based on his ground-breaking expeditions to the eastern Mediterranean in the late 18th century, had a profound impact on English horticulturalists. Bauer is also known for his unusual painting technique. He recorded colour information about specimens by annotating preliminary pencil sketches with numerical colour codes and then painted the sketches at a much later date by referring to a painted colour chart.

David Howell, Head of Conservation Research at the Bodleian Libraries, said: 'Thanks to the generous grants from the University of Oxford Fell Fund and the Leverhulme Trust, we will be able to increase our understanding of how late 18th-century natural history artists worked in the field and studio, and the particular materials they used. In particular, we aim to rediscover Bauer's lost colour chart for Flora Graeca. Bauer had an astonishing memory for colour and through discovering where his paintings have faded and degraded, and in some cases the differences in inks and pigments he used, we should learn even more about the techniques he used and their accuracy. It will be exciting to see the impact the hyperspectral imaging will have on our wider collections as well, and what other details that have been lost over time that we will be able to rediscover.'

Hyperspectral imaging technology imageHyperspectral imaging uses an advanced type of camera capable of analytical imaging through extremely accurate and high resolution colour measurement. In addition to decoding Bauer's 'painting by numbers system', the new hyperspectral imaging tool will allow the conservation research team to measure colour changes over time and take action before any perceptible degradation. The team will also use the equipment to study other Bodleian Libraries' treasures including the Bodleian's unique Gough Map, the earliest medieval map of Britain, and 2,500 year old letters held in the Bodleian's Arshama collection.

Funding from the University of Oxford's Fell Fund will also finance a 3-year DPhil studentship with Science and Engineering in Arts, Heritage and Archaeology (SEAHA) EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training, to investigate new experimental and image processing techniques using hyperspectral imaging. This investment will allow the doctoral researcher to make full use of this equipment with all SEAHA institutions (University of Oxford, UCL, and University of Brighton) and their related heritage partners.

Through the three-year project, the researchers hope to learn more about the application of hyperspectral imaging to conservation research, and plan to share their results with the wider research community through publications, lectures and exhibitions.

Professor Melissa Terras, Director of UCL's Centre for Digital Humanities, Co-Investigator of SEAHA, and a curator of the University of Oxford Libraries, said: 'Having access to such advanced imaging equipment, and also funding for a studentship, will allow us to investigate how best to apply hyper spectral imaging in the cultural and heritage sectors, providing best practice advice and guidelines and allowing us to study, in a systematic way, how we can best image damaged and abraded documents that the human eye has problems in reading. This investment places the Bodleian at the forefront of Heritage Science and imaging'.

The Bodleian Libraries' Leverhulme-funded researcher and SEAHA student will be based in the Bodleian's Weston Library, which opens in March 2015 following an £80 million renovation.

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