Marbled Papers: A Brief History of an Endangered Bookcraft

If you have spent time in our Special Collections reading room with some of our 17-20th century books, you may have marveled at some of the patterns that form the endpapers of your chosen material. While probably not the reason you have requested the book, those papers have a unique history all of their own, worthy of its own consultation. They are in fact handmade patterns resulting from the art of paper marbling. Each print creates a one-of-a-kind pattern, meaning that while you may find marbled papers that resemble each other, each is an individual and unique print of its own.   

The art of paper marbling far outdates the marbled endpapers that line rare books. The technique is first seen in Japan around the 10th century. A method known as Suminagashi, which translates directly to “ink floating” involves sumi ink made of tree resin, oils, and animal glues, a combination which allows the ink to float on water. Creators would drop dots of ink onto the water’s surface and gently blow to create smoke-like patterns. Paper would slowly be laid onto the bath of water on which the ink was floated, and gently pulled away to reveal the print.

Five hundred years later, a similar process appears in Turkey known as ebru. Paint was used rather than ink, an oil paint to be precise, but the use of a heavier substance meant that the paints would no longer float on plain water. To combat this, “size” was developed: a surfactant made from tragacanth (a gum made from dried sap), which thickens the water and allow paints to float on the surface. The use of size came with a great benefit – paints would now float long enough for the artist to manipulate the pattern, which is how bookbinders came to have the intricate patterns that we see in rare books. Turkish marbling also uses an alum “mordant” (a chemical used for dyeing wool) to allow the pattern to adhere to the paper. Throughout the 16-19th centuries, paper marbling became an important part of European bookbinding, first in the golden age of French bookbinding, which retained the use of alum and size from the Turkish marbling process. From the late 19th century, size was created using carrageenan, a red algae commonly found here on the Atlantic coast of Ireland.

The art of paper marbling was elite: marble guilds were created, where paper marblers would take on apprentices who would be entrusted with keeping their techniques to themselves. Paper marblers were notoriously secretive about their methods until one paper marbler went rogue. Charles W. Woolnough, an English paper marbler published the book The Art of Paper Marbling in 1853, revealing years of marbling secrets. In 1881, he released The Whole Art of Marbling complete with a scathing preface discussing those who claimed he had wrongly revealed their secrets who had “given vent to their spleen by heaping upon him a variety of abuse” following his initial publication. Over 150 years later, it is partly due to the works of Charles W. Woolnough that such methods of paper marbling may be replicated.

Many of the patterns follow the same methods and techniques. Paint is dropped onto the size. When it hits the water, it floats in pebble-like shapes. If one adds a second colour, that colour interrupts the initial pebble-like shape, creating a vein-like pattern out of the initial colour. From here paper marblers use styluses or combs to manipulate the colour into a pattern of their choice. Different patterns are identifiable and have their own names, such as Turkish stone, tiger, gold vein, French curl, and Spanish wave to name a small few of a vast array. Spanish wave is a pattern that comes with its own lore attached. According to oral accounts, the wave-like method was created by a Spanish marbling assistant, who in a hungover state, attempted to lift a Turkish stone print with shaky hands, resulting in a disrupted wave-like pattern.

The process of paper marbling quickly found other uses beyond bookbinding. It became a common pattern on the fore-edge of financial ledgers, due to the fact that if someone attempted to remove pages from the ledger in an act of deceit, the pattern would be disrupted on the fore-edge, exposing the fraud. It was also used in the creation of paper currency as a security device, by the Bank of England in the late 17th century as it was deemed that if the paper on which the money was printed featured marbling that it could not be counterfeited. This technique only lasted a number of weeks, however, as a counterfeit was quickly discovered, made by a marbler who had been paid to create patterns for a well-known counterfeiter.

Unfortunately, as print demand heightened, the process of bookbinding became industrialised leading to the demise of marble guilds and the art itself. In recent decades, it has been revived by a small number of new professional paper marblers who use the technique for many reasons but also provide conservators with marbled endpapers to allow for time-appropriate rebinding of rare materials. Despite the revival, the bookcraft was listed as endangered by the UK’s Heritage Craft Association in recent years. Our Special Collections work to preserve the marbled paper of old while hoping that the craft continues for many centuries more.

Next time you consult UCD Special Collections, the library of the National Folklore Collection, or any home to rare books, spare a minute to gaze over the hand-marbled endpaper that may adorn the item you have requested.   

  • This post was researched and written by Laura Ryan, Library Assistant, UCD Special Collections and National Folklore Collection.

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Further Reading

Benson, J. (2019) Curious Colors of Currency: Security Marbling on Financial Instruments During the Long Eighteenth Century. American Journal of Numismatics. 2019 Dec 31;31:277–325, Plates 37–27.

The Heritage Crafts Association. Paper Marbling. (2021) http://heritagecrafts.org.uk/paper-marbling/

Miura, E. (1991). The art of marbled paper: marbled patterns and how to make them. Tokyo: Kodansha International.

Wolfe, R. J., & Berger, S. E. (2018). Marbled paper its history, techniques, and patterns: with special reference to the relationship of marbling to bookbinding in Europe and the western world. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press.

Woolnough, C. W. (1881) The Whole Art of Marbling as Applied to Paper, Book Edges, etc. London: G.Bell.

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