Saturday, 5 March 2016

Baroque design and Marbled Paper

Bur. 03005 - John Cosin - Historia transubstantiationis papalis : Cui praemittitur, atque opponitur, tùm S. Scripturae, tùm veterum Patrum, & reformatarum ecclesiarum doctrina catholica, de sacris symbolis, & praesentia Christi in sacramento eucharistiae. Hanc autem disquisitionem historicam ante annos XIX scribebat, & demùm instanti mutorum rogatu excudi permisit paulo ante obitum Joh. episcopus Dunelmensis - London, 1675.

What a fine little book this is, printed in 1675, it's still in its contemporary trade binding and is almost as crisp as the day it was printed and bound.  The leather binding is red 'Morocco' Goatskin, with elaborate gold tooling and is typical of the period. After a generation of Puritan influence, with the Restoration in 1660 and Charles II's return to England from his exile in France, the English embraced all things French, particularly the prevailing French Baroque style.  All areas of the visual arts where influenced by this new French style, bookbinding included and you can see that in this binding.

The richness of the exterior of this book is continued when the book is opened.  The pastedowns to the front and back are made from decorated marbled paper, which has beautiful swirling and serrated patterns in red, yellow ochre and Cobalt blue paint.  This marbled paper is decorated using a technique that originated in the near East and came to Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth century.  The 'marbled' papers used in the English bookbinding trade from the 1660s, were not produced in England, but primarily in Holland and northern France and were imported into London. The pattern used here is a pattern that is known in England as 'Antique Dutch', indicating its continental origins.  The use of marbled paper in late seventeenth century English bindings was an embellishment that was as exotic and as Continental as the fashion for gentlemen wearing full bottomed periwigs.    

Making marbled paper is a complex and skilled craft and there are many variables that can go wrong.  Believe me I've made it and have many sheets of badly printed marbled paper to prove it! You begin the process by filling a large shallow tray with a size made from soaking and boiling up Carageenan moss.  You mix up your chosen colours using water based paint, to which is added a drop or two of Ox Gall.  The Ox Gall is an agent that enables the paint to spread on the surface of the size when it's dropped on it.

My marbling tray with rather murky looking size after completing a significant amount of marbling. 

The pigment is then dropped or sprinkled on to the surface of the size with a brush or a feather and will then spread out over the size.  Put too much Ox Gall in and it spreads too much, put in too little and the paint sinks!  Once the different colours are applied to the surface you can begin to create a pattern.  This can be produced by running the point of a stick through the paint to create swirls and curls, but to create the serrated patterns typical of the 'Antique Dutch' used in Bur. 03005, a special marbling comb must be used.  This comb is a wooden frame which contains a series of teeth made from wire and these are drawn through the size to create the pattern.  When the pattern is complete, a piece of paper treated with Alum is carefully laid on the top of the size and this then picks up the pigment.   Without this Alum treatment the paint won't be 'mordanted' to the paper and it just falls right off.   The paper is then rinsed and left to dry.          

The illustration above from a book entitled The Laboratory printed in 1740, shows the tools used in the process.  To the left are the pots of paint with the feathers used to drop the paint onto the size.  The bath of size is in the middle and the paint has already been dropped onto the surface of  the size, there are a series of light coloured droplets and a darker snake like band of paint.  Above is the comb ready to be applied to the surface to make the 'Antique Dutch' pattern.   Generally speaking once the paper was dry it was given a waxy coating, that gives it durability and could then be used by the bookbinder.  The paper in Bur. 03005 has been treated in that way.

Eventually this technique caught on in England and by the middle of the eighteenth century there were marbling workshops in London producing English marbled paper. Gradually a whole range of different patterns and forms developed and I may well illustrate some of these in a later post.

Below is a video on Youtube that shows marbling taking place in the 1970s in the studios of the Cambridge bookbinder Cockerell's.  It gives you a good sense of just how involved this extraordinary process is.


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