26 February 2013

Marbled Paper

Hand marbled paper designs by Jemma Lewis in Wiltshire.
To see more of Ms. Lewis' beautiful work, click here.

Marbled paper designs by Leah of Art on Water in Ottawa.
To see more of Leah's wonderful work, click here.

One of the joys of running our bindery is working with exquisitely handmade papers like those shown above. There are very few artists who choose to work in this medium in the traditional way, as it requires a great deal of study and practice to achieve results as exquisite and consistent as those pictured here. Each sheet of marbled paper is unique, and while it's made according to traditional patterns and methods, it bears the signature mark of its maker. 

Marbled paper has a history as intricate and involved as its color patterns. According to Wikipedia,  "墨流し suminagashi, which means "floating ink" in Japanese is the oldest method of decorative paper made with floating colors that is known today. Author Einen Miura states that the oldest reference to suminagashi papers are in the waka poems of Shigeharu, (825-880 CE)."

A fan-shaped booklet of the Lotus Sutra, Vol. 8, 12th century Japan, with suminagashi decoration.
Via Wikipedia.

As long ago as 986 CE, a process of aqueous surface printing was described in a Chinese compilation  entitled 文房四谱 Wen Fang Si Pu or "Four Treasures of the Scholar's Study" edited by the 10th century scholar-official, 蘇易簡 Su Yijian (957-995 CE). 

In the fifteenth century, artisans in Central Asia developed a technique of floating inks on the surface of a viscous liquid made using various plant materials. Workshops in Safavid Persia, Ottoman Turkey and the Mughal and Deccan Sultanates in India produced  beautiful designs, but it's unknown whether these artisans were aware of the Chinese and Japanese techniques that preceded them. 

A verse from the Qur'an (14:7), written on marbled paper, consistent with other examples
from around the16th century. Via Wikipedia.

Two hundred years later, Europeans travelled to Central Asia and collected examples of these papers and bound in books, forming alba amicorum, or books of friendship-- can you imagine how impressive it must have been for these lucky few to see and collect such beautiful papers? Eventually, the techniques for producing the beautiful marbled designs arrived in Europe, where they were produced for use in book covers and end papers, just as we use them today. 

Tools of the trade: from l'Encyclopedie of Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d'Alembert. Vol. IV p. 275-6 (1768).

                                                             Via Wikipedia.

For me, the most interesting thing about these papers is their seemingly magical manufacture, so I invite you to enjoy these short videos, chronicling some very talented marbling artists from around the world. The first is a short history of the various techniques described above, and the following videos feature three very different but equally talented artists at work.  


14 February 2013


A French chinoiserie inkwell, ca. 1880 April's painting for the
Parvum Opus 2013 desk calendar
Happy Valentine's Day All! Today, in honor of the day, I'm sharing the painting I did for the month of April in the Parvum Opus 2013 desk calendar along with several other Valentine-hued chinoiserie pieces. April's painting features a 19th century French chinoiserie inkwell of painted metal, or tole, with beaded gilt metal fittings.  As you can see in my illustration, this inkwell is a bit on the shabby side, with some chipping to the paint and dents to the fittings.... But that color! I simply couldn't resist including it in this year's collection, and from what I hear so far, many of our clients have chosen it as their favorite.  

A  similar 19th Century French inkwell, with smooth gilt fittings,
recently sold on 1stdibs
In the preface to her inspiring book, Chinoiserie (Phaidon, 1993), Dawn Jacobson writes:
"Chinoiserie is an oddity. It is a wholly European style whose inspiration is entirely oriental. True chinoiseries are not pallid or incompetent imitations of Chinese objects. They are tangible and solid realizations in the West of a land of the imagination: an exotic, remote country, fabled for its riches, that through the centuries remained cloud-wrapped, obstinately refusing to allow more than a few foreigners beyond its gates."

A French chinoiserie inkstand by the same maker as the inkwell in my painting,
from Susan Silver Antiques
Ms. Jacobson continues: " Those few travellers to make the long voyage to Cathay, as China was known in the Middle Ages, returned with tales that surpassed the imaginings of their fascinated audience in Europe. This fanciful vision of a quasi-mythical land was fuelled by the inimitable nature of those few objects brought to the West by the returning adventurers who had penetrated Cathay's mysteries. The notion that China was a land unlike any other, inhabited by people  whose manners and conduct were unknown elsewhere, found fertile soil in the western mind. In the seventeenth century, evidence of the Orient's prodigious wealth buttressed western imaginations. Porcelain, lacquer, ivory and silk, unloaded from the great ships of the East India Companies, filled the wharfs and warehouses of Europe's maritime powers." 

An English red lacquer chinoiserie chest, 1850-1900,
from Susan Silver Antiques

"To meet the growing demand for Eastern imports, inventive artists and craftsmen from all over Europe began to produce their own alternatives--chinoiseries-- which while evoking the products of China did not imitate them. Indeed the means of imitation were not at hand. So pottery factories throughout Europe strove to produce versions of blue-and-white Ming porcelains, local 'japanners' lacquered furniture with wayward designs, English needlewomen reproduced the Indian Tree of Life design in crewel embroideries, and imaginative tapestry makers represented the life of the Chinese emperor. The taste for chinoiserie became ubiquitous and affected every area of the decorative arts from complete interiors to needle-cases..." 

An English lacquer tea trolley, ca. 1880,
from Susan Silver Antiques

"In the nineteenth [century], chinoiserie's high point was furnished by the Prince Regent's Royal Pavilion at Brighton, and the adoption of a new style by the new middle classes invigorated and extended its role."

The Banqueting Room at the Royal Pavilion,
from John Nash's Views of the Royal Pavilion, 1826
"Chinoiserie continues to flourish. Its ability to bob along with the changing tides of fashion has made it an abiding, if often unrecognized leitmotif in the design of everyday objects. When we drink tea from a blue-and-white china cup, choose paeonies and plum-blossom to flower on our curtains, or conceal the television behind a lacquered screen, we are its unconscious heirs, followers of the passion for the arts of China that consumed the West for hundreds of years and led its artists and craftsmen in an exhilarating pursuit of its charms."

If, like me, you can't get enough of the exhilarating pursuit, you may enjoy perusing Ms. Jacobson's thoroughly researched and beautifully illustrated book...and don't forget the tea, of course!