Joanna Wilk, Digitisation Assistant writes, just before the lockdown I had the opportunity to do some very interesting work behind the scenes in Special Collections. One task was taking photos of items in the John Evan Bedford Library of Furniture History to prepare material for my colleagues to work on remotely. In the process I came across many beautifully bound books with stunning examples of marbled endpapers.
Cloud and wind
The mesmerising technique of marbling is an ancient practice and originated in China, some 2,000 years ago. It is mentioned in Chinese writings 流沙箋 meaning ‘drifting-sand’ or ‘flowing-sand notepaper’. Later adopted by the Japanese as Suminagashi (墨流し), which means “floating ink”, it was popular in 12th-century Kyoto and is still practiced in Japan. Marbling techniques were also known in the Islamic World and widely used during the 15th-century in Persia and the Ottoman Empire. In Turkey the art is commonly known as ebru, an equivalent of the Persian term abri first documented in the 19th century. In modern Iran it is often called abr-o-bâd (ابرو باد), meaning “cloud and wind”.
The characteristic marbling pattern is created by paints floating on a liquid in a tray, which are then carefully transferred by laying the paper on the surface. The process is indeed fascinating and was often viewed as mystical, or even linked to alchemy, in the past. Marblers kept their methods a closely guarded secret.
The Turks have a pretty art of chamoletting papers, which is not with us in use. They take divers Oiled Colours, and put them severally (in drops) upon water, and stirre the water lightly; and then wet their Paper (being of some thicknesse) with it; and the Paper will be Waved and Veined like Chamolet, or Marble.
The expression used by Bacon captures characteristics of the pattern well, though I much prefer the poetic descriptors drifting sand, floating ink or cloud and wind, as these express the elusive and captivating nature of the technique.
By the end of the 17th century the art of marbling had spread across Europe. However, very few artists possessed the secret knowledge and skills required to master the technique. In 1853 Charles Woolnough, an English marbler, published the first edition ‘The Art of Marbling’. This is as an important and fascinating historic work and helped raise awareness of the practice in Britain. I recommend looking at ‘A pretty mysterious art’ by Woolnough, where you can find some fine marbling examples.
Marbled paper is still made today and the technique is used to create patterns on fabric or three-dimensional surfaces, as well as paper. Some artists explore marbling as a form of painting technique, or as an element in collage. Marbling has also been adopted for temporary skin/body art applications at workshops and festivals.
In the last two decades, marbling has been the subject of international symposia and museum exhibitions. Our Galleries have run several very popular ebru marbling workshops. We hope when the lockdown finishes, there will be another marbling event to join. Until then, there are many online tutorials and YouTube videos about marbling techniques, so if you fancy something different to break the lockdown blues, why not have a go!
Bacon, F., ‘Sylva sylvarum: or, A naturall historie: In ten centuries’. London, 1628.
Chambers, Ann, ‘Suminagashi: The Japanese Art of Marbling’. Thames & Hudson, 1991.
McGrath, L., ‘Contemporary Marbling Technique’, Batsford Ltd., 2019
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