Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The Great Vellum Scare - and what happened next

Some of you will have heard that Parliament was proposing to do away with printing laws on vellum. This raised all sorts of very understandable concerns amongst artists using vellum about whether the loss of the Parliamentary contract would cause business problems for the UK's oldest vellum supplier William Cowley - and consequently cause problems for the supply of vellum to artists in the UK

This was the report - Report: The use of vellum for recording Acts of Parliament.

The only firm in the UK that makes vellum

The good news

It appears that the reaction to news about the change has led to the following:
  • queries have been raised about the notional cost-saving of £80,000
“The vellum cost varies from year-to-year depending on the number of Acts passed. The average over 15 years is £46,000. When you think about the MP expenses scandal, they can claim a duck house costing £40,000 but we can’t preserve our history for a similar amount. So many people are unhappy about this, we are hoping the Lords will backtrack on it.”
“The figures quoted for printing on vellum are actually more than the cost of the vellum itself. This is surprising as no specialist printer or printing press is necessary. We print on vellum here every day, at William Cowley's on an ordinary office printer with archival ink and have no specialist printing knowledge. When was the last time the House of Commons put out a tender for printing the Acts of Parliament because they no doubt would have found a much more reasonable, and comparable with printing on paper, cost?”
  • a very enthusiastic social media campaign to save the use of vellum started using the hashtag #savevellum - supported in no small part by various artists who use vellum
  • Cowley & Sons have revealed that the Parliamentary contrast is only a small percentage of their business
  • MPs started to ask questions in parliament
  • it turns out that the laws of the land are actually printed on parchment not vellum
The original parchment acts of Parliament are sometimes called vellums. Vellum is a high quality calfskin but in fact the parchment used is from goatskin or sheepskin
As a result the Cabinet Office have offered to pick up the bill from the House of Lords and it looks as if the use of vellum by Parliament will continue (see references below)

Which means all artists using vellum can now stand down and breathe...... :)

More about vellum

  • traditional vellum is made from the skin of very young calves or the skin of the foetus of an aborted calf. It is treated and stretched under tension to produce a smooth and very durable surface which accepts and displays colour well. It is most appropriate for those wanting an archival surface as it can last for centuries - medieval manuscripts are written on vellum and still survive while later paper documents have deteriorated. 
  • modern-day vellum is vegetable vellum. Basically this is plasticised cotton
The word vellum is derived from the Latin vitulus (calf), and its diminutive vitellus.
  • Calf skin is both smooth and durable because it doesn't have hair follicles which create dimples in the skin. The treated skin of young/unborn goat (kidskin) or lamb (lambskin) is sometimes also referred to as vellum. 
  •  The finest vellum is "uterine vellum" made from the skin of stillborn or unborn calves. In the UK this very fine vellum is known as Kelmscott (the home of William Morris who was a strong proponent of the Arts and Crafts movement).
Painting with vellum is a bit of a problem. Vellum should not be wetted as it will buckle.  Consequently using it for drawing or painting involves the use of dry media or dry brush work if painting.

Getting hold of vellum is also a bit of a problem as there are very few suppliers of genuine traditional vellum. The standard sheet size is 6" x 4" or 7" x 5" and typically costs in excess of £11

The Art Bloggers

  • Saving the Art of Vellum - Shevaun Doherty - the new tutor for painting on vellum for the Society of Botanical Artists' Diploma Course - produced an excellent blog post yesterday commenting on the importance of retaining vellum as a medium for artists.
This reminds me that I need to get on and get my information about paper and supports transferred to a new website as I've got a lot more information about vellum sitting on my computer at present.


The Press - reaction to the proposed change

The Press - the good news

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