Wednesday 4 March 2015

marbled pages

Vintage 19th c. marbled paper, Gloster pattern. A

Continuing my theme on printing techniques and methods of production I'm going to write about marbling. While being beautiful it is also really interesting and most of us I imagine are familiar with seeing it as endpapers in books. 

Marblers at work and illustrations of marbling equipment. B

The basics of marbling is to float coloured inks on water and then manipulate them into a pattern. Paper is then applied to the surface of the water and a print is taken.

Two pages of waka poems by Ōshikōchi Mitsune (859?-925?) C

One of the oldest examples of marbled paper is from this manuscript. Here are two pages of waka poems by Ōshikōchi Mitsune (859?-925?). 20cm height, 32cm wide. Silver, Gold, Color, and ink on suminagashi paper. From a copy of the Sanjurokunin Kashu or "Thirty-Six Immortal Poets" kept in the Hongan-ji Temple, Kyoto. It was presented to the Emperor Shirakawa on his sixtieth birthday in 1118 C.E. 1.

An early possible reference to marbling is found in a compilation completed in 986 CE called: 文房四 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). 
This compilation contains information on inkstick, inkstone, ink brush, and paper in China, which are collectively called the four treasures of the study. The text mentions a kind of decorative paper called 流沙箋 liu sha jian meaning “drifting-sand” or “flowing-sand notepaper" that was made in what is now the region of Sichuan. 2.

Sheets of silhouette and marbled papers from an Album Amicorum, Prague 1600. D

Fast forward to the 17th century and marbled paper comes to Europe through travelers from the middle east who collected marbled papers in books called 'Album Amicorum'. These albums acted like scrapbooks or travel journals and contain a wide variety of Turkish of Persian marbled papers. 3.

Album Amicorum of Marcus Conrad von Rehlingen E

The art of marbling became increasing popular by the 19th century and books were published exploring this art form like: Charles Woolnough's: The Art of Marbling (1853).

The Whole Art of Marbling as Applied to Paper, Book Edges, etc. Charles W. Woolnough, 1881 F

As well as its purely decorative use marbled paper has some interesting and creative outlets in book arts and in literature. One most famous one is Laurence Stere's 'The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman'. One marble page appears in the book. This mysterious page at the time must have been sensational. In 1759 peoples contact, especially in Britain to marbled papers would have been very limited,  'commercial production in England did not begin until the 1770s' 3.

The marbled page from the first edition of Tristram Shandy. G

But the marbled page has significance to the book, in the page opposite sterne tells the reader that the next marbled page is the 'motly emblem of my work'—the page communicating visually that his work is endlessly variable, endlessly open to chance." 4.

Various editions of Tristram Shandy, showing the variety of the marbled page. G

In each edition of the book the marbled page is different. "Each marbling is unique, as is each reading of Tristram Shandy. It is fitting that your copy of Tristram Shandy is different from mine, since your subjective experience of the book is different." 5.

For more information on the variety of marbled papers visit: who hold a great digital resource of marbled paper types. 



1. Chambers, Ann (1991). Suminagashi: The Japanese Art of Marbling. Thames & Hudson
2. Su, Yijian. (2008). Wen Fang Si Pu. Shi dai wen yi chu ban she
3. Wolfe, R. (1990). Marbled Paper: It's History, Techniques, and Patterns: with Special Reference to the relationship of Marbling to Bookbinding in Europe and the Western World.
4. Sterne, L (1759) The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
5. De Voogd, P. Laurence Sterne, the marbled page, and ‘the use of accidents’,” in A Journal of Verbal/Visual Enquiry


B.  l'Encyclopedie of Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d'Alembert. Vol. IV p. 275-6 (1768).

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