Thursday, 12 November 2020


Tony Cains R.I.P

Tony Cains R.I.P

We sadly lost one of the founding members of ICRI on November 4th 2020.  Maighréad McParland, also a founding member, gave this eulogy at his funeral.

Anthony Cains, R.I.P.

Thinking about how I might do justice to Tony’s lifetime contribution to conservation, I was minded of a stone cast into water, the ripples it makes growing wider and wider, spreading ever further and further.

He was apprenticed at the London bindery of E. A. Neale and studied at the London College of Printing. The philosophical underpinning of Tony’s concept of conservation was inspired by Wm. Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement. His early training as a bookbinder and designer brought him into contact with those who shared the same philosophy, including Bernard Middleton and Sydney Cockerell with whom he worked. He had his own workshop in St. Alban’s before going as part of the British team to rescue the flood damaged material in Florence.  It was there in the Biblioteca Nazionale  more than 50 years ago that Tony became my mentor. He died on the anniversary of the flood which occurred on the 4th November, 1966.

 He was technical director of conservation at the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze from 1967 to 1972 where he supervised a staff of ninety. Some idea of the challenges he faced may be learnt from the speech given by Sir Frank Francis, the former director of the British Museum, on the occasion of the opening of the conservation laboratory in TCD in 1974. He said that the  flooding of the Arno in 1966, when mud and water damaged over a million volumes in the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale in Florence “revealed the shortcomings of conservation techniques; there was a distressing  lack of information on how to treat damaged books, little was known about the historical development of ‘book structure’ and there was also a lack of universal acceptance of standards on the individual stages of restoration.”

The Keeper of Mss. in the Library of Trinity College at that time was Wm. O’Sullivan. He was acutely aware of the way in which the craft of bookbinding had been debased over the centuries, and the damage done to some of the books in the Library by earlier ‘restorers’.  However the Book of Kells and other illuminated Irish Mss. such as the books of Durrow, Dimma and Armagh, had been bound by Roger Powell, one of the foremost practitioners of the new philosophy of conservation to which I referred earlier.  O’Sullivan knew that Tony shared this philosophy. He described how he had gone to see Tony in Florence after the flood:

“Cains had already taken charge of the rescue operation when I went out to see him in 1967 with our planned library laboratory in mind. He made an outstanding success there not only in coordinating a team from both sides of the Iron Curtain but at the same time teaching restorers and conducting research into the values of traditional techniques and chemistry of old as well as new materials. In designing our laboratory, he has been able to incorporate a great deal of what he had learned from this Florentine experience.” 

Tony was appointed to establish the conservation laboratory in T.C.D. in 1972 and was Technical Director until his retirement in 2002. The Laboratory itself was opened by the provost, A. C. McConnell on the 29th May 1974.

He had a small core staff of three later increased, whom he encouraged to develop their own interests in conservation. Matthew Hatton developed and published his cleaning techniques using enzymes, Ray Jordan went to the USA in 1984 as a visiting conservator, John Gillis was seconded to the Delmas Bindery in Marsh’s Library in 1987 to equip the studio and train staff. Later he was seconded to the National Museum to conserve the Faddan More Psalter. In 2003, Jessica Baldwin was appointed as conservator to the Chester Beatty Library. In 1994-1996 Tony was involved in setting up and teaching in the European school of Conservation and Restoration in Spoleto. Subsequently John Gillis succeeded him.

Tony believed that it is better to prevent damage than to have to treat it later. In implementing this policy, he initiated the Long Room Project in 1980 whereby the damaging effects of too much light, heat and pollution are mitigated by applying protective film to the windows, dusting the books and shelves, doing minor repairs, making book ‘shoes’ and treating decaying leather with a dressing. His staff trained Library staff in correct handling techniques. Throughout his career, he kept in touch with conservators who were foremost in their field.

It is not an exaggeration to say that Tony’s renown was worldwide. Among the institutions in which he gave lectures or workshops were the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas, Iowa State Preservation Center, Des Moines, the Helsinki Conservation School, J. Paul Getty Museum, and the Library of Congress.  

Such was the reputation of the Conservation Department that interns came from the Public Record Office, N.I., the V and A, the National Library of Wales, the Library of Congress, Columbia University, the J. Paul Getty Museum, the University of Texas at Austin, the Walters Art Gallery, centres in Europe and Australia.

Tony also had a long list of publications to his credit. Thus I think you will agree, the analogy with the stone and the ripples it forms is apposite.

I first met Tony when I was studying conservation in the Istituto di Patologia del Libro in Rome in 1968 and told him of my interest in going to Florence to help in the rescue operation. He invited me to work there which I did for a little over 6 months. I learnt most of what I know about conservation from him, returning eventually to work as a conservator of prints and drawings in the National Gallery. I was on holiday in Florence when Tony contacted me saying that he had been offered the conservation post in the Library of TCD.  He and Elaine invited me to supper in their house above Florence. It was to have been the first of many happy occasions enjoying their hospitality. By a strange coincidence, it must have been early November as the ‘eternal’ flames were twinkling in the graveyards as we drove past. It was around the time of the feast ‘Tutti Santi’.

Once in Dublin, we maintained close contact. He taught me a mounting technique for large objects used in the conservation of the AE wallpaper, the Harry Clarke wall hangings, and the copy of the Raphael cartoon, the ‘Blinding of Elymas.’ He specified for 100 Solander boxes used to store the National Gallery’s old master drawings. He was always generous with his help and advice.

Tony was a member of the Irish Professional Conservators’ and Restorers’ Association and a contributor to its publication Irish Conservation Directory published in 1988. He was a founding member of the Institute for the Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (ICHAWI) and a director for many years. He also designed the logo for the Institute, not an easy task as there is no ‘W’ in Irish! The Institute is now the Institute of Conservator- Restorers in Ireland. In 2014 it awarded Tony its Lifetime award for his services to Conservation.

We shall all miss him.

Ar deis De go raibh  a h-anam uasal.

Maighréad McParland.

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