Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Rare Engraving Discovered in Rare Book Room - Not a Joke!

From The New York Times

Published: May 3, 2012

Day after day, a tall, shy woman weaves her way unnoticed through the earnest and learned campus swirl of Brown University. She enters the hush of a library, then promptly vanishes from sight.

Down goes Marie Malchodi, 48, who attended but never graduated from Brown, down to the library’s subterranean warrens, where she works as a “book conservation technician.” She sweeps her long dark hair into a bun, pierces it with a paint brush and starts her day, caring for ancient books and ephemera that are sensitive to the touch.

A few weeks ago, Ms. Malchodi opened yet another leather-bound book, one of more than 300,000 rare volumes in the hold of the John Hay Library. With surgical precision, she turned the pages of a medical text once owned by Solomon Drowne, Class of ’73 (1773, that is). And there, in the back, she found a piece of paper depicting the baptism of Jesus. It was signed:

“P. Revere Sculp”

Ye gods! Had Marie Malchodi, of Cranston, R.I., book conservation technician, just made contact with Paul Revere, of Boston, silversmith? Revere, who knew of the fiery need to share vital information, would have appreciated Ms. Malchodi’s galloping reaction, which was:

“I have to show this to somebody.”

Ms. Malchodi is more spiritually attuned to books than her Orwellian job title might suggest. She came to Brown as an undergraduate in the early 1980s, but life wound up demanding her study. Soon she was working in a College Hill bookstore rather than reading in a college library, and making cabinets rather than writing papers about her beloved Romantics.

One day she saw an advertisement for a bookbinding and conservation job at the university. She has been here ever since — though mostly underground — inspecting old books, submitting to their long-ago stories and vanishing to where now is then and then is now.

In the ensuing 20 years, gray has come to her hair and a husband and twin girls have come to her life, yet wasn’t it all just yesterday? When Wordsworth thrilled her heart? When Wordsworth lived?

A year ago, Ms. Malchodi was assigned to check the condition of thousands of rare books about to be shipped to an off-campus annex. In a basement room made smaller and louder by the air ducts looming from the ceiling, she tended to her task, sitting on a stool set beside a collection of dusty, rolled-up maps, all needing to be vacuumed, and all with titles like “Madeira and Mamore Railway Plan of the Rio Madeira at San Antonio.”

The job sometimes took longer than necessary because of that tendency of hers to get lost in things: illustrations in children’s books, brittle newspaper clippings and, especially, handwritten notes from the long dead. She feels the rush of intimacy as the distance in time collapses.

Now here, on a small cart, were 177 more books, all from the collection of Drowne, a doctor and polymath who distinguished himself during the American Revolution. “Watts’s Logick.” “Kalm’s Travels.” “Plague and Yellow Fever.”

Next up: an 1811 edition of “The Modern Practice of Physic,” by Dr. Robert Thomas, a champion of purgatives as a cure for disease. Ms. Malchodi examined the red leather cover, the gold tooling on the spine. Then she pulled out that piece of paper.

The engraving, titled “Buried With Him By Baptism,” shows John the Baptist raising Jesus from the River Jordan under a blazing sun, while people in vaguely Colonial attire watch from shore. And in the lower right corner appears the name of a Revolutionary icon.

Who knows how long this papery wisp lay hidden in the musty stacks at the century-old Hay Library? In the section reserved for the history of science. Near a microscope and a skull. Across from a copy of Darwin’s monograph on the “subclass Cirripedia” (barnacles, that is).

What Ms. Malchodi knew was that she had to sound the alarm. With some hesitancy — “because I don’t want to bother her” — she approached the raised desk of Rachel Lapkin, a library materials conservator who was immersed in stabilizing the leather of an 18th-century Chinese dictionary.

 Ms. Lapkin, who actually enjoys her colleague’s enthusiasm, studied the print and found it fascinating, even bizarre. “I think we should look into that,” she said.

The basement brain trust decided that the print must be shown to Richard Noble, the rare books cataloger, whose office takes some doing to reach. So, with the discovery safely inside Dr. Thomas’s celebration of purgatives, Ms. Malchodi began her journey through an underground labyrinth, carrying the volume as a deacon might carry the Bible.

Out of her basement work space and past some lockers. Past discarded wooden catalog cabinets. Down some steps to the subbasement. Past some metal bookshelves and a “Do Not Remove” sign. Down more steps and through the tunnel that crosses beneath College Street. Up to Mr. Noble’s office, in Cataloging and Acquisitions. Carefully carrying that Revere — if it was a Revere.
And Mr. Noble had stepped away for lunch.

An hour or so later, Ms. Malchodi returned. “She said, ‘I found this,’ and presented it to me with a big smile,” Mr. Noble recalled. “She let me discover what was inside. She let me have that much fun.”

Mr. Noble’s first reaction was to say that the engraving was just crude enough to be a Revere. Then he held the engraving up to the light as a test. It had the faintly ribbed look of paper produced from the slurry pulp made of rags, signaling that it was most likely handmade paper from the 18th century.

Yes. A Revere.

This could very well mean that the patriot — who had nurtured the seeds of rebellion with his engraving of the Boston Massacre of 1770 — had cut the scene into a flat copper plate; filled the grooves with ink, perhaps by pressing it in with the palm of his hand; wiped away the excess with circular sweeps of a small cloth; and used a hand-operated press to produce the engraving.

“That was a nice moment,” Mr. Noble said.

It turned out that Ms. Malchodi had uncovered only the fifth known copy of this particular engraving, which is “a bit of a curiosity in Revere’s work,” according to Lauren Hewes, the curator of graphic arts at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Mass. She said that while Revere carefully documented his prosperous and prolific career as an artisan, he made no mention of this piece, and so the exact date of the engraving is unclear.

“It sits outside of what we think of when we think of Paul Revere,” she said. “It wasn’t all patriotic topics — he did a lot more than that.”

How the engraving came to be in the possession of Solomon Drowne is still being researched; his descendants have some theories. And its monetary worth is probably only a few thousand dollars, but that is hardly what matters.

“It’s really a great moment,” Ms. Hewes said. “That moment of discovery.”

Ms. Malchodi made her discovery on a Thursday. On that Friday, she was back at work beneath the verdant Brown campus. Inspecting old books, vacuuming old maps, opening herself to time’s collapse.

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