Research Librarian, Martin Lewis, explains why he’s been losing his marbles over marbling…
One of the cool things about working in a 150 year old museum library is that you encounter amazing treasures and become obsessed about learning all you can about their construction, purpose or previous owners.
One of my jobs is looking after the library’s rare book collection (an obsession in itself) and most recently I’ve been obsessing over the rare books covers/endpapers and their production. The crazy magic process of marbling.
Where does marbling originate?
Marbling is an old art, imported to Western Europe via the East but also known in Japan as Suminagashi (墨 流 し) or ‘floating ink’.
Japanese examples are known from as early as 800 AD. According to one site I read, the Persians are considered to be the first to users of marbled papers in books, and examples of their work are found on the borders of some of their 16th century manuscripts.
Marbled paper was in use in Holland by 1598, but its earliest use in England dates from about 1655; in America it was in use by 1679.
By the 1670s it was in common use in England, although not in trade bindings (non-fancy plain covers, usually made vellum, calf or sheep skin).
The process was a strictly guarded secret passed on from master to apprentice. As demand grew marbling guilds became established, each with their own patterns and secret formulas.
I won’t go into the history further here, but will have few links at the bottom of this blog if you are interested to know more.
So what’s the marbling process?
I’m no expert so as any good research librarian does, I interrogated Google and Youtube and found that marbling is officially an aqueous (like or containing water) method of surface design.
Basically you put paint drops into a water bath and swirl it around to make distinct patterns, then lay paper, cloth or leather across it (or touch the edges of a book’s pages). This creates a highly distinctive and original pattern, different paints also give different looks and feels.
Another variant to the process is adding a thickening agent to the water bath, something like a plant gum derived of legumes or seaweeds. This version of the process enables more distinctive patterns to be created. It takes one water bath to create a sheet of marbled paper, so to create a stock of sheets would have been a mission.
Check this video out for an old school doco on the ‘Art of the marbler’.
Once you see the process you can also get a feel for why books were so expensive before the advent of mass production. It’s very dry but stick with it because the process of creating these brilliant kaleidoscopic designs is beautiful and looks deceptively simple.
Marbling in books
Marbling could be front or back cover, the endpapers (side of the front and back covers), or on the page edges.
From feathers to flames, faux marble to spirals and spots the pattern variety is endless. Every one made by hand, yet repeatable. Repeatable enough that you can pick periods by styles or companies by designs, though each is subtly original.
Have a look at the Payhembury Patterns site to explore difference styles of the years.
Our rare books show a wide range of patterns and styles. One of the fun things is working out what the pattern looks like to you!
I see blue marble or the inside of a soap bubble…
Spirals and spirals, big storms, plug holes or koru?
Swimming underwater (on another planet perhaps) you encounter water bubbling up from a hot spring…
You can judge a book by its cover here, this is a journal on Fungi. Note that this is marbled paper, not real fungi on a book!
What do you make of this one?
Is marbling still relevant today?
In just a quick search online you’ll see that marbling still has a big following and that has expanded beyond books is surprising ways.
This video I found by Black Light Visuals shows the way the ancient and the modern have come together and a great example of how this art still thrives.
Martin Lewis, Research Librarian at the Te Aka Matua Research Library, Te Papa.
Find out more about the library or search its catalogue. Or you can see some of the rare book collection in Collections online.