Conservation of the Weston Library’s Gilbert Scott furniture

An important element of transforming the New Bodleian into the University’s new Weston Library was the project to renovate the Library’s original Gilbert Scott furniture. Sir Giles Gilbert Scott was the architect of the New Bodleian and is renowned for designing the iconic red telephone box. The project involved the restoration of the Library’s numerous bookcases, 72 chairs, 50 small tables and 25 large tables.

The task of restoring the teak and mahogany pieces fell to the University’s skilled Joiners team, comprising one French polisher and seven joiners. Led by Supervisor Graham Hooper the team has, between them, clocked up over 120 years’ experience carrying out intricate woodwork design and restoration across the University estate.

Sitting down on the job

The chairs, being in constant use since 1940, were suffering from weak and broken joints. Many of the chairs were carefully taken apart and re-glued to repair them. All of them were then stripped and French-polished to their original rich depth of colour.  Specialist work to reupholster the 72 chairs in high quality leather was contracted out by A Stitch in Twine in Henley.

Turning the tables

The Library’s main reading room houses the six metre long reading tables. The joiners sympathetically widened the tables, integrating cables for both power and lighting, to make them a more appropriate size to accommodate computers.  The tables’ original rails were then removed as they were positioned incorrectly for today’s health and safety regulations.

The team also redid the original table veneers, which had warped, by heating up the original burr (the animal-based glue used to keep the veneer in place) and ironing the veneer down flat again.

Having borne thousands of pages of note-taking, the lino tabletops were damaged and past their best. The joiners replaced and re-edged all of the tops, keeping the tables’ original look whilst creating new smooth, practical work surfaces.

Casing the joints

The Library’s bookcases were removed from the walls to allow new heating systems to be installed.  Again, the years of wear and tear meant that the cases needed repairing, stripping and polishing. Some of the shelves were also made wider to accommodate the Library’s maps.     

Finishing touches

The new Weston Library, opened in 2015, now boasts three state-of-the-art reading rooms. ‘It’s been a time consuming project but it’s really good to see all the original furniture renovated and back in the building it was created for,’ says Graham.  

‘Although the Library now also houses some brand new chairs (designed by a competition-winner), it was important to preserve these heritage pieces for future generations and all the team members are proud to have been chosen to carry out this work.’ 

Richard Ovenden, Bodley’s Librarian says: ‘Wilkinson Eyre’s transformation of the Weston Library carefully blends old and new, retaining many of Giles Gilbert Scott’s original fixtures and fittings with modern upgrades. The 1930s bookshelves remain a perfect fit for the reading rooms, whilst the old chairs, now sitting alongside new oak chairs specially designed by Barber Osgerby, continue to provide comfortable seating for readers who might spend up to 12 hours a day consulting materials. The careful and sympathetic restoration of Scott’s original features over the course of the refurbishment ensures they will delight library users for many years to come.’

Published November 2015