Friday, 6 March 2009

Making an impression

Just occasionally one stumbles across a remarkable accident. Today was one such occasion, when, seated at my desk, some light fell at an angle across the Barnwood House manuscripts I have been working with of late. These are thin, unwatermarked pages torn off a writing pad - one of those with a lightly glued band at the top edge so that pages can be removed easily.

As the light fell across one of these pages, an imprint became visible: the outline of whatever it was that was written on the previous page. This may seem obvious, but it came as a flash of lightning to me! On first inspection it was very difficult to determine what was written in the imprint, and aside to the identification of the occasional 'Barnwood House, Gloucester' in the top right hand corner - happily further confirming their provenance - I began to resign myself to the fact that it would be impossible to determine any more, even after trying various ways of digitally enhancing a photograph of a page in Photoshop.

However, returning to the manuscripts I began making comparisons between the pages immediately to hand. Despite my initial scepticism, I discovered that in comparing the manuscripts directly one could identify blemishes (crossings out), the positioning of the imprint, and identify the occasional character, firmly placing the manuscript before that on which the imprints occur. This is, of course, helped by the fact that Gurney only seems to have torn away the page upon which he was working after the poem or letter was completed.

Here is an unusually clear sample of an imprinted page. Most of the imprints on other pages are overwritten in pencil with that page's own poem, destroying much of the evidence of the previous page's content.

Now, where I would not have known in which order within the bundles of manuscripts, the poems were written, more than likely having to bundle them together as a disordered block, perhaps hazarding some sort of order given common ideas within certain poems, I can for some of these manuscripts accurately determine which poem followed which!

Of course, some pages contain no impressions, either because they are the first in the notepad or because intervening pages were removed without being written upon; and others will contain imprints of pages that are no longer extant, but one can determine pockets of chronology within the poems with 100% accuracy (unless, of course, he interspersed use of this pad with other pads/papers). Whilst we know that the papers in the archive were moved around to a great extent by Joy Finzi and others, prior to the fixed order brought about by the first cataloguing of the papers, I can now see how much items have been moved even within seemingly coherent batches within the archive.

It may take a little time and careful observation in the right light, but when next I return to the archive I shall gather the rest of the poems and letters consistent with this paper type and determine as much of the chronology as is possible. This technique will be useable in some other parts of the archive, but it is reliant upon the type of paper being used. The paper in question here is so thin that it is practicable. A heavier paper will not yield so readily to the pressure of a pencil, transferring less of an imprint onto the sheet(s) below.

It's a good thing that I'm a very patient man!

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