Preserving “The Eyes of Texas”
By Charley Binkow
The Harry Ransom Center recently treated a document near and dear to its home. The original manuscript for “The Eyes of Texas,” the alma mater for The University of Texas at Austin, was in need of conservation. The Texas Exes, the alumni organization which holds the manuscript, brought the framed artifact to the Ransom Center’s conservation lab for treatment.
In 1903 Lewis Johnson helped produce a minstrel show for the benefit of the school’s track team at the Old Hancock Opera House just south of campus. Johnson asked his roommate, John Lang Sinclair, to pen a parody number for the performance. Sinclair, who was editor of the school’s literary journal, a member of the glee club and marching band, and a football player, quickly penciled lyrics on a piece of brown laundry bag paper. That song, written at the comedic expense of then-University President W. L. Prather and set to the tune of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” became one of the most famous songs in the state and the official spirit song of the University: “The Eyes of Texas.”
That piece of brown paper, now discolored to beige, has been cared for for more than 110 years. It came to the Ransom Center framed behind ultraviolet-filtering acrylic glazing. Previous conservators had adhered a long-fiber Japanese paper, or washi, to the document to replace missing areas along its edges. These repairs eventually curled and became a distraction to admirers viewing it at the alumni center. The manuscript itself was checkered with fold lines and small tears. The penciled writing, although slightly faded, remains legible.
Ransom Center paper conservator Heather Hamilton treated this Texas heirloom. The framed piece had been mounted sturdily to the wall of the Texas Exes lobby to ward off possible theft from rivaling schools. The framed document was removed in a way that would not tear up that wall. The work was then brought to the Ransom Center where Hamilton unframed and unhinged the manuscript from its supporting backboard. After she freed the piece from its housing, Hamilton meticulously trimmed the curling excess Japanese paper to match the shape of the manuscript. Then she humidified and pressed the paper for about a week to reduce the fold lines and flatten the paper. Finally, she hinged the document back onto its supporting backboard, and reframed it.
Now in more sympathetic conditions, the manuscript is back on display at the Texas Exes center on campus. With this modest conservation treatment, there are hopes that the manuscript will last “’till Gabriel blows his horn.”
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