Repairing The Great Seal of the Realm

This is a guest post by Liz Peirce. Liz is an objects conservator in the Conservation Division of the Library of Congress. She works on a wide variety of materials and collections within the Library, including wooden artifacts, leather, metals, ceramics, plastics, and stone.

As the new conservator of objects to the Library, one of the first pieces to come across my bench was this Treaty between Great Britain and Cuba. Signed 117 years ago on June 3, 1905, the treaty is an excellent example of royal correspondence and diplomacy. There is only ever one great seal of the realm of Great Britain at any time; each monarch has a new seal designed once they ascend to the throne. As the eldest son and heir of Queen Victoria, King Edward VII was a very popular monarch, well-known for his diplomacy and charisma, ruling for a brief period between 1901 and his death in 1910. Acquired in 2012, the treaty is part of the Rare Books collection held by the Law Library.

Treaty box closed

Treaty box closed. Photo credit Liz Peirce, 2022.

The treaty is bound in a blue goat skin portfolio with gilt decorative edges and a center heraldic crest. It is stored in a wooden box covered by green pebbled cloth embossed with the royal cypher of King Edward VII. The written text is on parchment in both English and Spanish, the native language of each country. Extending from the spine of the treaty are two red and silver cords that travel down through a cutout below the support for the treaty. Moving the treaty and lifting its support reveals a large silver skippet – or seal box – decorated with the coat of arms of Great Britain and two large silver and red tassels. Inside the skippet is the great seal of the realm, a large wax seal used by monarchs of Great Britain as their seal of approval for important documents relating to matters of state.

Box open showing bound treaty on the right side. The cording runs from the upper left corner through a cutout to the skippet below.

Box open showing bound treaty on the right side. The cording runs from the upper left corner through a cutout to the skippet below. Photo credit Liz Peirce, 2022.

While the wax seal was in good condition at the time it was accessioned, it was severely damaged during transit to Washington, D.C. The extensive shattering of the wax seal was the driving force that brought the treaty to the lab, but it also offered an opportunity to address other areas of damage or concern. The main aim of the treatment was to stabilize the piece to prevent further damage or loss, with the secondary aim to make the piece presentable should it be displayed in the Law reading room.

In some cases, the use or movement of the object has impacted its condition – particularly the ribbon used as a lifting tab on the support for the treaty, and the silk and metal cording that has begun to fray on either side of the skippet. Repeated use and bending has weakened the fibers in these areas, causing breakage and loss of material, leading to the potential for further breakage or loss. For these areas, I focused on stabilizing and protecting the fibers to prevent further damage. Nylon netting is a lightweight, mostly transparent fabric that provides additional stability and protection without drastically altering the appearance of the piece. Netting can be used to create sleeves that hold the fibers in place, preventing further fraying and loss of the cording, or be stitched to fraying ribbons as a support fabric, distributing the tension over a wider area when lifting and preventing further tearing.

I also stabilized other areas of damage, including rethreading the gathered thread at the bottom of one of the tassels to hold it together, and tacking down loose areas of the pebbled green cloth. The fabric cover had been scraped away and worn in some areas, leaving pieces lifting off that needed to be tacked down to prevent further loss.

Seal skippet and tassels are revealed once the treaty is moved and the support is lifted.

Seal skippet and tassels are revealed once the treaty is moved and the support is lifted. Photo credit Liz Peirce, 2022.

The most obvious and concerning damage, however, is the shattered wax seal. Wax is inherently difficult to repair for many reasons, particularly because most adhesives don’t like to stick to wax. Additionally, wax seals are generally made of a combination of materials: the wax itself and then a resinous component that helps give it additional structure. However, most of the conservation adhesives that I would normally turn to are soluble or carried in solvents that would soften the resin component, damaging the wax seal. General conservation ethics guide conservators to use materials that can be reversed without additional damage to the object, limiting the adhesives that can be used to those that can be carried or reactivated with water. For some of the smaller fragments, a water-based starch paste or isinglass (a form of collagen obtained from the dried swim bladders of fish) is strong enough to hold the chips in place. However, for the four larger areas where the seal has snapped clean through, a stronger adhesive was needed. I selected a water reactivated polyvinyl acetate (commonly known as wood glue, PVA, or carpenter’s glue), which swells when wet to allow the pieces to be pulled apart. In order to create a barrier layer that would aid in disassembly in the future if needed, the glue was brushed out on one side of a Japanese tissue and allowed to dry. It was then reactivated with water and adhered to the one side of the break. Once set, more adhesive was brushed on and the opposite piece pressed in place to dry. The tissue acts as a physical barrier and as a wicking agent to draw water farther into the crack should the join need to be reversed in the future.

Because the wax had shattered into so many tiny, unidentifiable pieces, it was not possible to fully reconstruct the seal with all of the original elements. Once reassembled and the pieces that could be reattached were set in place, I photographed the seal to have an accurate record of what was original. I then used a new wax mixture, softer than the original wax of the seal and with a lower melting point, to fill the losses. I chose a softer wax both because it would be easily identifiable as different from the original wax, and because it had excellent working properties to allow me to model the fill to match the surrounding areas. I found references online of how the seal should look which helped give more information for how the final reconstruction should look. Now that the seal is whole, it can be returned to the Law Library to be put on display or used for research.

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