Unique account of Aberdeen cathedral’s 19th centuary restoration gets its own revamp

A book that details the 19th Century restoration of a historic Aberdeen landmark has now been restored too.

All of the shields on the heraldic ceiling of St Machar’s Cathedral were repainted during the 1867/1868, project.

And the painter GR Taylor penned his book while the work was going on.

The University of Aberdeen’s special collections team have now restored the book, St Machar’s Cathedral, Aberdeen: Restoration Papers, which has been in the university’s collection since 1938.

It includes all of Taylor’s writings and drawings of various decorative and architectural features of the cathedral.

The only public record of Taylor himself is that he was registered as a painter and decorator in the city.

The book had deteriorated with pieces coming loose, parts of the leather missing, one end-band lost and only half of the other remaining.

Brannah Mackenzie, one of the special collections conservators helped with the restoration, along with joint acting head of the team, Andrew MacGregor.

Andrew said the book had been in need of some “tender loving care”.

“GR Taylor was a registered painter and decorator on Skene Street. Of course a painter and decorator in that day is very much different from how a painter and decorator is classified today; he was very much a high quality painter,” he said.

“It has a lot of watercolour painting and just wee bits of history that he noted from the cathedral just to have a remembrance of what he did.

“He sketched the church and the shields he refurbished. He probably did it because of his interest in churches and the book is a good historical reference for the church, the university and Old Aberdeen.”

The procedure for restoring the book included softly brushing it down, then consolidating the leather by using chemicals to improve its condition.

The leather was lifted with a small specialised spatula, and its loose and detached parts were then re-sewn with endbands added.

Due to the book being made from stiff paper and the fact the original spine was quite brittle, its structure needed changed. This was done by wrapping the spine in Japanese paper and attaching a new linen replacement. The original leather was then added and the book was wrapped in bandages until the adhesive had dried.

The restoration means the precious book is back in one piece and its contents can be easily viewed.

Andrew said: “We presume GR Taylor wrote this book for himself, for his own collection and he did it in his own time as some parts were not finished. We know he wasn’t commissioned to do it.

“We understand that, from a newspaper article while doing the refurbishment work at the cathedral on the shields, it was overlooked by the Court of the Lord Lyon.”

The Court of the Lord Lyon is the Scottish authority that deals with coats of arms and heraldry.

Andrew and Brannah are part of the Special Collections Centre in the Sir Duncan Rice Library which houses historic books, manuscripts, archives and photographs.

Andrew added: “It took Brannah about 24 hours, but with a couple hours a day to complete each step.

“It takes an incredible amount of patience and to be very precise but that is what conservators do.

“It was in need of restoration and so it can now be fit for purpose for another 150 years.”

Session clerk for St Machar‘s Cathedral Alan Clark said: “We are delighted that the church’s treasures are being remembered. It is very much a unique place and we are very proud of it.

“We are happy that the history of the church is being celebrated.”