Rare books and the marvellous art of marbling

Rare books and the marvellous art of marbling

Research Librarian, Martin Lewis, explains why he’s been losing his marbles over marbling…

Martin sits with a large book with a very detailed marbled end-paper
Martin with the book Voyage autour du monde sur la frégate La Venus, pendant les années 1836-1839, publié par ordre du Roi, sous les auspices du ministre de la marine – Atlas de Zoologie, 1840-1856, by Abel du Petit-Thouars. Gift of Charles Rooking Carter. Te Papa (RB000299)

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.

Martin shows one of the rare books in the collection with a marbled cover
A journal of a voyage to the South Seas, in his Majesty’s ship the Endeavour, 1784, London, by Sydney Parkinson, John Coakley Lettsom, Charles Dilly, James Phillips. Gift of Charles Rooking Carter. Te Papa (RB000268)

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.

Martin wearing his blue conservator's gloves shows a large book with a colourful marbled end-paper
Martin shows Prints to Cook’s Voyages, 1777, by William Hodges, John Keyse Sherwin, William Strahan. Gift of Charles Rooking Carter (RB001173)

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.

A grammar and vocabulary of the language of New Zealand, 1820, London, by Church Missionary Society, Professor Samuel Lee. Gift of Charles Rooking Carter. Te Papa (RB000001)

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…

Red binded book with big dark blue marbling pattern on the inside cover
Voyage autour du monde sur la frégate La Venus, pendant les années 1836-1839. Abel du Petit-Thouars. Gift of Charles Rooking Carter. Te Papa (RB000299)

Spirals and spirals, big storms, plug holes or koru?

Voyage au pole sud et dans l’Océanie sur les corvettes l’Astrolabe et la Zélée, exécuté par ordre du roi pendant les années 1837-1838-1839-1840. Jules Sébastien César Dumont d’Urville. Gift of Charles Rooking Carter. Te Papa (RB000275)

Swimming underwater (on another planet perhaps) you encounter water bubbling up from a hot spring…

Essay towards the history of Arabia : antecedent to the birth of Mahommed, arranged from the Tarikh tebry, and other authentic sources, 1824, by David Price. Gift of Charles Rooking Carter. Te Papa (RB000300)

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!

Green blotted marble cover on a yellow/gold leather bound book
Annales mycologici. (1919). Berlin: R. Friedlaender & Sohn. Te Papa (IM13000)

What do you make of this one?

Bright red marble covered book
Privately bound reprint of Deer of the World from The National Geographic Magazine, October 1939. Gift of Dr John Yaldwyn, Te Papa.

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.

Further reading

The Ancient Art of Japanese Marbling

A brief History of Marbling

Marbled Papers and their Use in Rare Books

Twenty frequently asked questions about the art of marbling

Paper marbling on Wikipedia

The Unsung Delight of a Well-Designed Endpaper

Bookbinding and the Conservation of Books, A Dictionary of Descriptive Terminology – Marbling




  1. Why are you hiding and distorting the facts?

    Why do not you write that the golden age of marbling is happening in Turkey and During the period of Suleiman the Magnificent, Ebru (Marbling) artists were given place in the palace and that they were valued so much ?

    Why do not you write that the world’s most famous Ebru artists grown in Turkey?
    Did this art, which came to Iran from Central Asia, came to Europe by itself flying from Iran?

    Why do not you say that the Ottoman state and the official paperwork that used in Marbling (Ebru) and European travelers of the 16th century (eg, George Sandy), they told us they saw in Turkey in the art of marbling books and conceal the truth?

    What is the reason for this jealousy?

    Whether you accept it or deny it by closing your eyes to the facts: Turkish people made the biggest contribution to Marbling (Ebru) art and lived its golden age.

    As an Ebru artist for 19 years, thank you for helping me share the facts. 🙂

    1. Kia ora Onur Y.,
      Thank you for taking the time in reading and feeding back on this blog, it’s appreciated doubly so as you’re a practitioner.

      I wrote from an non-expert, non-scholarly perspective back in 2017. Since that time I have learnt so much more and have evolved my discussions on the topic. (and bored my colleagues silly talking about it)

      But I am still far from an expert! So again I appreciate your comments adding more context to the blog, which since based on the museum’s collections, is very Western centric and lacking in Ebru context.

      I must and look into it more, thanks again for reaching out. Sayenizde çok şey öğrendim!


  2. Victorian marbling techniques did not use oil and water but gouache paint mixed with varying amounts of ox gall. This was sprinkled on a bed made from carrageen moss (a seaweed from off the coast of Ireland). The paper was coated with alum. It is a complex process but gives excellent control. Anne Chambers did a PhD on the subject and has written The Practical Guide to Marbling Paper.

    1. Thanks Annettte, I’ve been reading about this recently and am always amazed how people come up with these things, I mean who’d have thought to use ox gall like that? That would have been an unpleasant job to source/extract!! I’ve not been able to find the PhD you mentioned but am reading Richard Wolfe’s Marbled Paper: History, Techniques, and Patterns – this is a good one too.

  3. Nice ! Suminagashi is beautiful technique and also meditating.
    I was wondering if you would be interested by other contemporary artist book ?
    I am a japanese artist working in France, and we have over 700 artist book from 21 countries as collection. I thought it would be quite nice to have a collaboration with you.

    1. Hi Fumika, Te Papa’s library only collects in the area Te Papa works in. Unfortunately Suminagashi isn’t a research area (as far as I know) for Te Papa at the moment. Thank you for your kind offer though!

  4. I love your interpretations of the patterns, Martin!

    I recently noticed marbled paper for sale in Carly Harris on Cuba Street, and a sign advertising workshops – wonderful that this beautiful technique is being kept alive in Wellington.

    1. Thanks Victoria, I might have to check that out.

  5. Thank you Martin. I’ve been fascinated by marbling for many years but never actually attempted any myself. Your interesting blog has taken my understanding to a new level and piqued my curiosity even further!

    1. Thanks Nancy, glad you enjoyed it.

  6. Well done Martin. I specially liked the old clip of marbling at the Cockerell firm.

    1. Thanks Ruth! And yes it is a great video. This one also caught my eye on ‘Disappearing fore-edge paintings’ (1947) – we don’t have any in our collection but I am sure the Alexander Turnbull Library has some beauties.

  7. Well done Martin!

  8. I have always admired this art, marbling, nice to see a book donated by Charles Rooking Carter…. he had a lovely collection of books, by all accounts…left some in his Will for Carterton Library… I have some old books, must see if any have marbling, I love books. one of the traders on a site, has been trying to sell some books which belonged to CRC, wonder if they are marbled! I have one by Jonathon Swift…

    1. CRC donated some wonderful material to the library here, and museum in general. Have a look at link for a selection of books and objects he gave us. Carter is another obsession of mine so I may do a blog on him in the future.

  9. Great blog Martin – I loved the vintage video about marbling. I had a go at marbling and bookbinding once upon a time and it was quite satisfying.

    1. Thanks Denise, I’ve not tried it myself yet but do want to give it ago as well.

  10. So interesting! I have seen these beautiful endpapers in books also and now I am so much more informed about something I have admired. Another reminder of how books really are works of art!!! Thanks for the insights sir!!!

    1. No problem Dan, thanks for reading. I think I will obsess about covers and materials next. You are very right about these things being works of art in their own right.

    1. Thanks Michelle 🙂

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