I quickly realised that the Guardian, although founded in 1821 the ‘Manchester Guardian’ didn’t become a national paper, based in London, until 1959. The Times have their own archive which I subscribed to but couldn’t find any of the stories from February 1861. I had once again drawn a blank. The Daily Telegraph was included on the British Newspaper Archive website however, there was a strange anomaly around the dates that I was looking for. Although founded in 1855, a few years were missing from the BNA website, their digitised copies started from 1869. I wasn’t sure if there was simply an omission of digitising and OCR processing these for the website or whether those physical newspapers were missing from the British library. So, I contacted the British library, found that those newspapers did indeed exist and arranged to view them when I was next down in London which was to be in a couple of weeks’ time.
In the meantime, I worked up some ideas that I’d had towards final artwork and sent them off to my client via email and WeTransfer on 17th October 2019:
“I’m including my thoughts around these ideas for you to consider but I think it would be good now to chat through some of these possibilities over the phone. This is not an exhaustive list and something more defined or even totally different might come out of a discussion.”
I was working on the grouping of the newspaper washers that were most interesting in terms of their story content. I was battling with the idea of arranging eight washers – thinking of an octave – but seven go together for more pleasingly within some kind of frame.
These are all of the visually interesting washers arranged so that the negative white space is kept to a minimum. I intended to crop the washers around the edge to imply that there are many more beyond the edge of the frame, as there are, if all of the plain ones are included. I’m trying to create the arrangement so that the different shades and tones of the individual washers aren’t too similar side by side and that the overall image is well-balanced.
Layering of the washers so that the ones with the most interesting stories to tell are laid on top and the others, sometimes the reverse of the top ones, lie underneath slightly out of focus.
All of these ideas are mock-ups of the potential artwork rather than them being the finished item. This particular idea may look quite different if it is taken to artwork because at the moment it is clear to see the white edge of the washers on the top. This was very important when I originally photographed the washers Individually, in fine detail, because their fine edges had wonderful textual detail where the paper fibres were starting to displace, and I wanted to make the most of this information in the images – harsh crop of their edges would devoid them of life. if this idea is taken to artwork, I would need to re-photograph them all in a single image using glass sheets to separate the layers of washers and so giving a similar effect.
Pairing the front and backs of the most interesting washers. I’ve included four examples in this one image and my idea is that there would be several pairs of washers framed.
We might like to discuss mounting, framing, displaying etc over the phone as there are many options here.
Ideas 5 & 6
Grouping of washers whose stories would be filed under the same category – in this case ‘crime stories’. Image 006 is the washers on their own grouped as an equilateral triangle but in 005 my intention was to make the image look as if one is noticing, and focusing on, the crime stories as all three washers are slightly raised and in sharp focus, whereas the other parts of washers in the image are slightly out of focus and not quite as bright.
I have been really hoping I could match up a washer with the actual text from the newspaper it came from and then crop a portion of the real paper as a background to the washer itself. I’ve included this idea as it was very much one that I wanted to pursue but I feel that it is just not going to happen! This example (see thumbnail image) is the absolute closest match that I found of a washer to the newspaper it was printed in. It would be hard to believe that this washer wasn’t cut from the Morning Chronicle of Thursday, the 7th of February 1861, the font is the same, if you look at my example image 007 (see previous blog for more) you can see that the text starts to line-up exactly and it finishes lining up almost exactly in the line ‘Mr Wontner in the course of’, which suggests that the column width was the same the font size in relationship to the line height is the same; but it still doesn’t match! I even attempted to add the text myself (see screenshot above) so that I could fine-tune all of those sizes but it doesn’t follow any of today’s standards and so I had to finish that idea somewhat defeated!
Simply a number of large images of single washers. It feels like going backwards to move forward but these are still strong images in their own right and the single washers now have far more weight with the complete stories that can be attached to them (not in a literal artwork sense!).
I think that whatever final artwork is decided upon it would also be worthwhile to have a small archival box file, which I am going to order, to safely store the washers. They will be held in sleeves that are designed for archival coin storage, as they are a similar size and value. I’m thinking that a set of images of the single washers could also be added to this file, approximately 10 in.². This would give you a handy reference and would be a lovely object on its own. A copy of all of the newspaper stories could also be added to the file.”
It seemed right at this point to open the dialogue up to include FaceTime video conversations, to progress the commission through live meetings. Some of those discussions follow my clients words in italics:
“Concerning the art work, I am thinking you should perhaps focus on several ideas. Although you said it wasn’t really working, I think you MUST incorporate the “background” newspaper into your design. To me, the newspaper IS the story and without it as a background, there is no context for the washer. The background newspaper should show the name of the publication along with the date of course. I don’t think it really matters if that requires some cropping or whatever. I visualize something similar to No. 7 in your ideas with perhaps a larger (landscape) newspaper in the background with the “washer” exhibited similar to what you have now. Again, I don’t think it matters that much that the washer is not an exact match. Just try to get close.”
“I think a second track would be how to present one of more of the washers photographically and I really like much of what you sent. My view generally is “less is more,” so that maybe even one washer with the right background and enlarged to the right size would suffice. I really like the “Czerny” washer for obvious reasons (Carl Czerny as in Beethoven’s student.)”
It was clear that my client was very keen on this particular washer because an earlier 1803 piano model had been Beethoven’s choice for 8 years. I had found the advertisement, relating to the text on the washer, in The City Press of 9th February 1861. It was for the ‘279th Edition of Hamilton’s Modern Instructions for Pianoforte enlarged and fingered by Czerny’. But it had little of the graphic quality present in the actual elusive newspaper source.
We talked around different print media, Giclee, aluminium, canvas, glass and of shape and size of finished artwork. I arranged the printing of a washer on the German fine-art Paper, Hahnemuhle Photo Rag, so that my client would get an idea of the print quality achievable.
“I’d like to see the “final version” of FOUR washers with newspaper backing. Do we have 4? How about the Czerny? I can see framing and hanging four of them in my studio, OR just one larger poster. Haven’t decided yet.
I personally don’t find the glass appealing but I’ve never seen a sample. BUT how about multiple washers (6?) “under” glass in approximately 8 inch squares? Might be very cool.
Appreciate your continuing thoughts.”
I WeTransfered draught versions of the ‘Czerny’ washer and three others whose stories had been paired up with newspaper articles that had been found. Although at this stage only the ‘Southern trade’ washer in the Morning Advertiser of the 7th of February 1861 is close to finished. I made it clear that these were just indications of what might be but that I thought it best to leave them as they are until I got back to the British library, in a couple of weeks’ time and saw the Telegraph newspapers from Feb 1861.
“The two police stories, ‘John Cummings’ and ‘the dog’ that I have paired up with the morning Chronicle of February 7, 1861 might work as they are, but the washers certainly don’t match like The washer does for southern trade. I have indicated where the washer would be within the articles (although it is not the actual washer that I am using) so that the viewer of the piece would be able to read the article and understand the relationship to the washer.
The washer about ‘the dog that never touched him, it did not go within nine or 10 yards of him’, is an almost match, in terms that the beginning of it and the end of it match up but there is a mismatch in the centre. So here I conclude that it may well be from this newspaper but might be from a different edition or the mismatch might be due to production shaking, rattling, of the presses. Therefore, we could decide to just have this washer with the morning chronicle of the 7th of February and put the ‘John Cummings’ washer with another article of the same story from a different newspaper, if the actual one doesn’t turn up in the Telegraph.”
Copyright was potentially going to be an issue, if the artwork was created through a combination of the washers and the newspaper, so I contacted ‘Images Online’ at the British Library explaining what I was doing and how I wanted to use the material. I got a very quick and thankfully positive response back:
“If you found and downloaded the image from British Newspaper Archive, you are free to use the copy, the fees have been waived. Please credit the Library as the original source.”
I was not entirely happy with all the close-up photographs of washers I had made in the studio. Don’t get me wrong they looked great, but enlarged to 100% I was noticing some issues with focus and clarity that I believed I could make better. I’m always happy to reshoot something, rather than feeling I could have done better, so another shoot was organised, this time using a close-up ring (instead of a macro-lens) and carefully focusing everything manually. I was really pleased with the results and sent one high quality picture via WeTransfer to my client so that he would be able to see it blown up to 100% on his computer screen and notice the wonderful fibres of the paper coming through in the image. This could be printed to 3 ft.² as a fine quality print.
My closing sentences from late October were as follows:
“I’m next in London on Tuesday, the 12th of November so I shall put everything on hold now until that date. Once I have looked at the Telegraph newspapers, I really will be able to conclude that all of the newspapers still existing will have been thoroughly searched.”
It’s interesting that through all my research I haven’t found one exact match to the newsprint on a washer. I’m curious to know why this is whether it’s because of those stories have come from newspapers that were never kept in the British library and have disappeared from history. Or whether there were many print runs and they were all slightly different.
It seems that the paper used for newspapers back in 1861 was woodpulp but, as would be evident in some of the close-up images I have created, there are certainly bits of coloured cloth, be it cotton or linen, within the paper pulp. Nick Wyatt, from the science museum was convinced that paper pulp used in newspaper production back then would have been recycled in a very messy way using old newspapers woodpulp and bits of various other things including rag.
From an email to my client dated Oct 15th 2019
From early October 2019 I became increasingly obsessed with finding the source of the newspaper washers. I was starting to find the stories from The British Newspaper Archive website, but the big puzzle for me was that some of the wording was different to the washers and when I found a close match where all the words matched there was always a slight mismatch of the print. But more than this, the online search enabled me to see all the pages of any specific newspaper and so I could surmise what the reverse of a washer should have on it, or what it should not. However, the closest, imperfect match for a single washer was from the Morning Chronicle of Thursday, 7th of February 1861 shown to the left with the washer printed to scale on top.
I took a trip to London in search for some answers. First stop was the British Library where I was hoping to find a greater range of archive newspapers than they had in their website archive. And this was the first question, that I asked at the Newspapers reception desk. Unfortunately, the answer given did not help me, I was told that most of their physical newspapers were held off site and anyway most had been digitalised and were on the British newspaper archive which I already had access to. I was pointed to a list of all of the newspapers that were in print during the 1860’s and I was welcome to search through the microfilm of those that had not yet been digitised. I set about this task but after an hour of finding no references I put that on hold. Another question I had was regarding the printing process back in the 1860s, was it possible that the individual letters set in the press could move (through vibrations etc) to a detectable degree in that the printed text on the washer would not match that from the archive copy of a newspaper? And what was newspaper pulp made from? A librarian showed me a section of books that related to the history of the printing press and with reference to newspaper printing in the second half of the 19th century, picking a couple of them out for my research. These were scanned through picking out specific chapters relating to my question and copying those pages using Microsoft Office Lens, that I had installed on my phone. This would enable me to read it through again later, just in case there was anything that I had missed. Again, I had no answers to my questions.
I headed across town to Exhibition Road, choosing to walk rather than taking a bus or tube because there was a long train journey still to be taken at the end of the day. As I approached Kensington, heading towards the V&A I was caught in a torrential cloudburst and hurriedly ran into The Science Museum, thinking that they might have some answers about printing presses. I was a little taken back by the enthusiasm to help that I received from a lady at the enquires desk. There was no exhibition of printing presses and no display of the printing process, but her mission was to find an answer for me and phoned up the head librarian at the dedicated Science Museum library. I was summoned straight away to go over to the library that was just around the block but would take around 10 minutes to walk. The rain eased and I set off only to find the heavens open once more. I arrived at the library soaking wet but welcomed in as if I were a VIP. The Librarian, Nick Wyatt, was able to identify the washers as ‘balance washers’ for pianos and that they can be bought commercially now, referring to a website with similar washers as the ‘plain’ paper washers from the Erard Grand. But he couldn’t find out whether they were commercially made or handmade in the 1860s. Nick Wyatt suggested that perhaps the Erard factory simply ran out of balance washers on the day that the keys were to be levelled and so rather than wait for another delivery made their own from whatever paper card and board they had lying about. It could also be that very thin washers were needed for fine balancing and so again they were made in the factory. Doing a Google search for newspaper piano balance washers we came across the following blog: http://cazzbo.blogspot.com/2016/09/punchings.html This was fascinating because it described with illustrations another example of an old piano with balance washers cut from newspapers.
It seems like I had spent a lot of research time travelling many corridors but finding that they all lead to dead ends. Every door that was open shut down as I approached it. Surely when one door closes another one opens for you? Then I had a lightbulb moment which I relayed to my client on October 18th 2019:
My research skills maybe aren’t so great as it just dawned on me that the British newspaper archive doesn’t include The Times, The Telegraph or The Guardian. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if an exact match of the paper washers’ text can be found in one of these newspapers. At least I’ve pinned down the day, or couple of days that the stories would have been printed. The plot thickens…
With the washers safely in my studio my first concern was in their preservation. They had been packed well in a box in bags and with plenty of bubble-wrap, but I felt as soon as they had prolonged time under daylight the paper would start to yellow like any contemporary newspaper would. I transferred the most important washers into some unused archival slide bags and I ordered some more suitable clear archival bags that would usually hold stamps or coins, endeavouring to keep the washers in darkness when they weren’t being photographed.
Looking back through old emails I came across this one sent to my client on 22nd September:
“I’ve been doing some preliminary tests on the paper washers over the last couple of weekends. I thought I’d start by getting a good accurate digital copy of the more interesting ones – newspapers and some of those from the ledger. I’m really loving the quality of the paper from the newspapers, like today’s handmade papers, very textual and full of unexpected colour. I’ve been using flash lighting and also a light box so that I can see both the surface texture, the printed information, and something of the reverse in the resulting picture. I’m happy now with the optimised focus that I’ve achieved and lit quality throughout.
I thought it might be a good idea to make digital copies of the most interesting washers, both sides, in this fashion to start off with. What do you think?”
I added a WeTransfer link to the email enabling my client too access a high quality file of one of the washers, that already seemed to have an interesting story attached to it. Throughout the project I was very keen to keep my client informed and able to give suggestions where appropriate so that he would feel part of a collaboration and we would be taking the journey together.
Right from the start I was drawn toward the two faced nature of the newspaper, of the news, transparency and hidden. The similarity of a newspaper sheet to a photographic negative, both of which would make an image in contact with photographic paper. I was free of the need to accurately record something, like I might have done if I was digitising the newspaper as a historical document in the context of the museum collection. I was, rather, in the process of making artwork, something of beauty, from these tiny newspaper washers containing snippets of information, fragments of stories from long ago.
Getting a balance between the readable side of the washer and the reverse I found was most important. Being able to access the story through the words contained was paramount. Getting a sense of the papers texture and fibres was also important to me because this old, yet still commercial and mass produced, newspaper rag was still far more interesting in close up than the equivalent broadsheet stock of today. I was amazed to find microscopic fragments of coloured fibre within the paper, demonstrating how indiscriminately paper pulp was made in the 1860’s.
“I’m really getting to grips with the washers now having photographed all of them except for the plain ones. I’m trying to catalogue them a bit to so that they all have a unique file number and so I and they don’t get muddled.
Have all of the newspapers/stories been discovered/researched yet? I looked through past emails from you and you had identified, I think, a couple of them but there are many washers from the newspapers with text on that I have no information for, regarding which newspaper or article they came from. If you have the information please send it, if not it would be useful for me to do some. I will be in London in a couple of weeks’ time and could spend some time in the British library for this. Alternatively, and perhaps as well, I could spend some time researching the newspaper archive website that you were using, let me know the URL of that again please.
The digital photo of the washer that I sent you in the previous email might be particularly interesting to you as the words ‘southern train’, ‘six states’ and ‘land commission’ and a figure in dollars: $12…. are all held within the article. – A USA story or perhaps a USA newspaper?”
A few days later I started using the website for the newspaper archive, it is:
This is a fascinating resource and you can lose yourself for hours looking through it even if you have nothing particular to research; but I was on a mission and started to feed in the often randomly collected words from each washer to see where that would lead.
On September the 30th I emailed:
“I’m feeling that the stories contained within the text on the washers will be far more interesting than finding the actual newspapers and making high-quality photographs from them. Even to find the story from a different newspaper would be useful because once we know the story then the washers containment of random words will suddenly will come to life.”
Each newspaper washer now became far more than simply a visual object, it was a clue to a story, an identity, every one was unique. Each one a jigsaw piece from a long forgotten puzzle, with no image to work from and with the vast majority of pieces missing.
I’ve continued my exploration of 3-D virtual modelmaking, endeavouring to forever improve my practice. Working at the Burton Art Gallery some weeks ago I was unable to include the bases of some of the big harvest jugs and delicately decorated puzzle jugs because turning them upside down, on a turntable, would have been too dangerous because their rims were very small in comparison to the weight of their bodies, they were uneven or extremely fragile. Simply lying them on the side did not work because their smooth rounded surfaces would not stay in one place and they would always dangerously wobble!
In my studio I found that using a rubber ring in the centre of the turntable would support a spherical object very safely. At first, I tried with rubber rings or rubber washers that I had in my toolbox. The largest of these, probably from a plumbing waste pipe assembly, worked very well with some jugs that I had at hand. I would need something bigger though for the harvest jugs that I intended to photograph. We were in lockdown so I searched various online shops with little joy. I had expected DIY shops just to be selling rubber washers as part of a set for a specific use. However, B&Q had a couple of very useful items; A 2-inch cistern coupling and something similar for toilet repair. The black pure rubber items were perfect for holding these valuable delicate jugs in place on a moving turntable.
The quantity and brightness of light for photogrammetry is really important because it is necessary for closing the lens aperture down and so helps in producing a well-focused object; this in turn makes a better 3D Model with a background easier to mask out. With this in mind I had invested in a new pair of 1000-watt studio flash heads.
Another day-shoot was organised for the Burton, just before they opened again to the public. I was keen to try out my new process on the historic jugs that had been most problematic last time, and to use my new lights. I constructed a studio with a jet black background and placed my heavyweight automatic turntable on the sturdy table. The 1000 Watt studio flash heads were directed towards the white ceiling to ensure a very soft and diffused overhead light. A small reflector threw some light back from the camera view into the shadow areas underneath the jug. Another first for this shoot was syncing my heavyweight turntable, which could take loads of up to 40kg, with my Syrp Genie Mini; which was itself synced with the camera and studio flash. The first object, a large harvest jug, was placed on the rubber washer on the turntable, and it was beautifully balanced as I had hoped. A QP card was used to ensure correct white balance. A full rotation off the jug was controlled, via a Bluetooth connection, by my Syrp iPad app. The process seemed to work seamlessly. The only problem I had was that the new flash heads tended to overheat after prolonged continuous use on full power. This was overcome by allowing them to cool every so often.
280 photographs of the Harvest Jug, shot in RAW, were transferred to my computer. I performed basic adjustments in Lightroom, white balance and exposure, then exported the files as HQ Tiffs to a folder. These were fed into Metashape photogrammetry software to create the 3-D virtual model. A decimated version was then uploaded to the Sketchfab platform.
The process was repeated with a Puzzle Jug, 212 photographs were taken in a similar fashion. The computer processing time required for the virtual model making was a good 12 hours; aligning the photographs, building the dense cloud, constructing the mesh and finally adding the texture.
Most of this was automated and could be left over night with the monitor turned off. However, with careful selection, it ought to be possible to half the time by halving the number of photographs.
Addition: Since writing this post I have gone through the Metashape construction process with almost halved the number of photographs, 147, and made an almost identical 3D Model. See it here Model from 147 images The first stages in Metashape, Aligning Photos and Building the Dense Cloud were still very long, but there was less background to clean up and the latter stages were considerably faster. Compare the 2 models and see if you can make out any differences.
I started blogging about this part of my professional arts practice in May. If you’ve got this far down the page you might also be interested in my previous blogposts on the subject; Photogrammetry and 3D Models of Museum Objects
Everyone remembers the last job they finished before lockdown in March 2020. I had been working on mine for over seven months and I was desperate to bring it to a close with a hiking trip to along the French and Spanish coast booked for early March. I never expected it to take half a year, I never expected it to start at all. But what would you do if you received an unsolicited email out of the blue starting:
I was referred to you by AHFAP.
I live in Houston, Texas
The email went on to describe at lengths about how an old Erard grand piano had been bought and restored and how the restorer had discovered the original balance washers underneath the keys which had writing on them, looking like they had been cut out of a newspaper. AHFAP is the Association of Historical and Fine Art Photographers of which I am a member. The email concluded with the interesting paragraph as follows:
I have attached just enough pictures to hopefully spark your interest. I only know AHFAP by reputation and I am neither a photographer nor an artist, but it seemed to me that there is a project here in the making. My original idea was to simply do micro-photography of some of the more interesting pieces and enlarge them to poster size. But after spending some time on-line I thought it worth the time and effort to ask someone with a creative and photographic background to give this some thought.
Would you be interested or do you know someone who might?
The email signature was that of a major partner in an international law firm. I was naturally suspicious, assuming this was some kind of scam or hoax or simply mistaken identity and yet I was also intrigued. I weighed up the pros and cons and could see little reason in ignoring it, so I responded enthusiastically looking for a little more information.
What followed was much email communication and the project became a commission. A day rate was agreed but a final outcome, end date and total budget was kept open. I could see that I was going to have to take more of a collaborative fine art approach to this commission than I would for a commercial job. The piano had been made in London by The French company Erard In the early 1860s, it had been bought almost a year ago from a seller in Italy where it had been sent to England for restoration. It was currently on a slow sea journey across the Atlantic to Texas. The newspaper washers, however, were already in Texas.
The photograph below, taken by the piano restorer, is an example of what was to be an interesting real life crime story from 1861.
My client had already done a little research to try and determine what source the washers had been cut from. Using the British Newspaper Archive online he had been able to search for the legible words on a washer using an approximate year date and had found some of the stories associated with the articles that they had been cut from. The precise source of these stories was to become a major part of this project and started with this story discovered through the British Newspaper Archive from “The Morning Advertiser,” February 7, 1861.
Three days after the first contact I included this paragraph in an email that I sent:
I’m sure you will have some kind of budget in mind and perhaps the best way to proceed, once I have the washers in my studio and I am able to make some preliminary sketch work; is to enable me a limited timescale to produce something that you are able to see, and therefore we are able to discuss. I have been reading through your emails again and some of the words that you have written are already inspiring some ideas: I’m interested that this incredibly highly crafted grand piano needed something to bring the keys to a perfect level, and that thing was a simple paper thin washer, cut with a pair of scissors from a London newspaper, which happened to be lying about in the studio. There seems to be something profound in that! I’m also interested in the two-sided nature of these newspaper washers; it may be appropriate to photograph them so that both sides appear in the same image as light is diffused through the paper.
I was going to be opening my studio up for public visits in late September so I organised the delivery of the washers so that I would have them to work on for that time. I was sent some details about the piano restorer in Northumberland with a link to a blog he had written all about restoring this specific piano: AA Piano Tuners blog
On the 13th of September I received a large knock at the door and a box was delivered via FedEx containing the washers.