In the Conservation Studio

Erin Murray was our summer 2015 book conservation intern. In this post she tells us about a children’s movable picture book that was recently donated to the Special Collections Centre. Erin is currently working towards a Masters degree in Conservation at Camberwell College of Arts at the University of the Arts London.

As the Special Collections Centre’s summer book conservation intern, I have had the pleasure of working on a number special and interesting materials from Special Collections over the past couple of weeks. However, it is one book in particular that I find particularly fascinating. Not for its age, monetary value or greater impact on society. No, the book was made for and apparently used by very enthusiastic children. The book in question is The Surprise Picture Book and it contains within it very marvellous pieces of early technology.

Transformation Volvelles: The Surprise Picture Book

The Suprise Picture Book
Cover: ‘The Surprise Picture Book’ by Lucy L Weedon, (Shelfmark: J Wee) Image Copyright University of Aberdeen

Written by Lucy L Weedon, illustrated by Hilda K. Robinson and printed at the beginning of the 20th century in Bavaria, the book is comprised of poetry, small line illustrations and a set of transformation volvelles. The poetry and small illustrations are sedate items printed in brown ink while the transformation volvelles encompass the page filling it with bold patterns, bright colours and mysterious transformative imagery.

The volvelle, a structure appearing in the west around the 13th century, is a paper disc fastened to a primary support at a central point so that the disc may rotate freely. Initially appearing in astronomical, mathematical and philosophical texts, the volvelle has survived and continued on into the modern era by evolving into the world of movable and pop-up books.

The mechanical structure that appears in The Surprise Picture Book is certainly a volvelle, but it has been modified to entertain children instead of performing complex calculations as it once did. Instead of simply rotating around a central point the two layers (the primary support paper and the secondary disc shaped paper support) have been cut in such a way that the two layers interlock with each other, but still allow rotation of the upper disc. This modification allows a large portion of the primary support to be revealed above the upper disc when rotated in one direction and then recede beneath the upper disc when rotated in the opposite direction. I’ve demonstrated this mechanism in the following model where the primary support is grey and secondary disc shaped paper support above is yellow:

Animated gif illustrating the mechanics of the transformation volvelles
Animated gif illustrating the mechanics of the transformation volvelles

As the transformation volvelle mechanism is featured on 5 out of the 16 pages of the picture book it is surely of high importance to the book itself, and therefore an important element to preserve into the future. You could say that the whole book was produced just to showcase these playful images.

The problem that faces these transformation volvelles is the same problem, regardless of paper type, that has plagued volvelles since their invention: they break easily. Their mechanism is meant to be used, and used often. Over-handling can lead to tearing of the primary and secondary paper supports, thus rendering the mechanism non-functional. As far as problems go, overuse is one of the better ones to have and focuses potential repair of the volume on restoring the functionality of the mechanisms, therein allowing the book to be accessed as it was originally intended, movement included.

It was through my exploration into potential conservation treatments for ‘The Surprise Picture Book’ that I created the above model. Creating models can assist in understanding the object, planning of treatments and even during repairs to the paper to ensure that functionality is maintained.

I’ve provided the images below that illustrate the design of the upper disc and lower primary support of the transformation volvelle. The red and blue lines are drawn in as guides and the black lines are cut.

Hint: The primary paper support laces through the upper disc and is glued to the underside of the star on top.

If you would like to attempt to make one yourself, you will need two pieces of paper (preferably heavy weight 150 gsm to 200 gsm), and a needle and thread to combine the elements at the pivot point. I recommend using a scalpel or craft knife to do the cutting.

I hope that you all go and try and make a transformation volvelle of your own! If you are interested in learning more about the history of the volvelle these sources are a useful starting point:

Blog post from ‘The Collation’ hosted by the Folger Shakespeare Library:

An Article by R Cunningham:

A Short History of Pop-Ups:
The Movable Book Society:


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