City & Guilds Summer Placement: Emily Stuart

Emily Stuart is currently studying for a BA in ‘Conservation: Book and Paper’ at City and Guilds of London Art School. From 28th August to 6th September, Em worked with us at Green’s Books on a student placement. The following are Em’s reflections on her time with us…

As a trainee conservator, there is an enormous amount to learn. Beyond the array of practical techniques and hand skills required, the care and repair of objects to a high standard requires an understanding of their history, the scientific makeup of the materials involved, and the complex ethical considerations of present-day interventions into valued historical objects. The more I’ve learned, the more I’ve come to realise how important having a solid foundation on which to bring all this knowledge together is, and my placement at Green’s Books this summer provided me with an incredible insight into what those foundations should be and how to begin building them into my own practice.

During my time with Arthur and Anna, there were three key elements to their attitude and the way they approach their work which made themselves immediately apparent, and which I’ve dubbed the Three Cs: calm, consistency, and confidence. Working in a professional studio where the work space and habits have been so carefully considered and designed, was incredibly eye-opening.

Consistency was perhaps the biggest underlying theme at Green’s Books. Whilst every object has its idiosyncrasies and there’s no ‘one size fits all’ solution, using consistent habits, materials, and approaches limits the variables, and ensures that differences in treatment are always conscious decisions made in response to the object and its needs.

At Green’s Books, consistency is most apparent in Arthur’s approach to materials: selective when ordering stock, he gets to know materials and the ways they respond, and then tailors them to the intricacies of each object and treatment rather than relying on mountains of different papers, leathers, and cloths etc. in the hope of matching every eventuality. This familiarity with your materials allows you to feel confident in how they’ll react in a given context, and dramatically reduces the likelihood of unintended reactions or discovering part way through a treatment that things aren’t working as planned: consistency leads to confidence which leads to calm.

Consistency was also apparent in other practices; sometimes it’s a simple habit that allows you to offload the thinking part of routine tasks in order to focus more on the intricacies of the work, and sometimes it’s simple organisation and planning ahead. One of the simplest examples of the former was keeping the head of the book to your left. It’s a very small thing but developing that habit eventually means you don’t have to think about it at all: it becomes muscle memory, and because it’s the same every time you lower the risk of things going on upside-down.

Perhaps my favourite example of forward-planning arose when we were toning Japanese paper for repairs to cloth-covered adhesive case bindings. As standard practice, Arthur and Anna always tone three times the paper they should need for the repairs. If all goes well on the first attempt, then they have a surplus of pre-toned paper to draw on for future repairs. If there are any complications during the repair itself, they have more than enough material to try again without having to start the whole toning process again. As this is an established routine (the toned paper folder is carefully stored and always checked before any new toning is undertaken), the initial outlay of material saves time in the long run. It also provides breathing room for that necessary calm: knowing you have the material you need to make another attempt if you make a mistake eases the pressure that is bound to make mistakes more likely.

Scribner’s Monthly: A cloth covered case binding before conservation.


Scribner’s Monthly: After conservation by Em, with the spine of the case repaired with toned Japanese paper.

Fundamentally, all of these things are about making life as easy for yourself as possible so that you can focus on what is on the bench in front of you. My time at Green’s Books, where things have been so carefully organised, made me realise how much of my time and mental space I’d spent re-inventing the wheel and worrying about where materials were or what I was doing next. Working in an environment where those supportive foundations were already established was an incredibly refreshing boost to my confidence as an emerging conservator, and provided me with the tools and understanding to carry that confidence back into my own practice.


Emily Stuart, December 2023