Marbled paper

In its broadest sense, marbling is a decorating technique that involves dipping paper or cloth onto water or oil-based pigments to create a colorful design. The pigments are swirled into a gum tragacanth or carragheen moss liquid solution before the paper is laid on top of the liquid base (Suarez & Woudhuysen 2:913; Glaister 314). The subsequent transfer of color to paper creates this unique marbling effect. While the origins of this technique are not completely clear, there is evidence of its practice in Japan dating as far back as AD 800. By the 1400s, the Persians were using the technique of marbling on the end-papers of their books, thus marking the beginning of the practice’s role in book production (Glaister 314). After the import of Persian marbled paper into Europe, other countries began experimenting with the art form; Germany and France began producing their own marbled paper in the early 1600s with production in England and the Netherlands following around a century later (Suarez & Woudhuysen 2:913).

Fig. 1

Fig. 1

In terms of book production, marbled paper was a popular technique used for decorating both endleaves (Fig. 1) and the boards of bindings between the 17th and 19th centuries (Suarez & Woudhuysen 2:913). When studying marbling, it is important for the bibliographic scholar to be aware of the difference between a marbled pattern and marbling as a means of production. In ‘The Bibliographical Description of Patterns,’ G. Thomas Tanselle notes that it is crucial for bibliographers to indicate when a marbled pattern is original or has been reproduced in some way. Since each pattern is unique, reproduction of specific patterns can only occur by copying the original rather than replicating the process. Thus, Tanselle suggests that bibliographers reserve the term “marbled paper” only for originals and label all reproductions as “marbled-pattern paper” (85-86).

The technique of paper marbling has implications beyond the physical construction of the book; when analyzed in conjunction with the text itself, its use can reveal meaning and intent that is deeper than the purely aesthetic. In ‘Representation, Anxiety, and the Bibliographic Sublime,’ Robert N. Essick examines the use of marbled paper in Laurence Sterne’s 1760 book, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. The nature of the production of marbled paper ensures that no two patterns are exactly alike; thus, no two copies of any book that incorporate marbling into their design can ever be identical. According to Essick, Sterne capitalized on this quality, using marbled paper as a statement about the way he wanted his works to be analyzed and interpreted by his audience (521-522).

Essick, Robert N. ‘Representation, Anxiety, and the Bibliographic Sublime.’ Huntington Library Quarterly. 59.4 (1996): 503-528. Web. 22 Feb. 2013.
Glaister, Geoffrey Ashall. Encyclopedia of the Book. 2nd ed. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2001.
Suarez, Michael F., and H. W. Woudhuysen. The Oxford Companion to the Book. Oxford: OUP, 2010.
Tanselle, Thomas G. ‘The Bibliographical Description of Patterns.’ Studies in Bibliography. 23. (1970): 71-102. Web. 22 Feb. 2013.

Hardiman, James. The History of the Town and County of Galway. Dublin: W. Folds and Sons, 1820.

Contributed by Emily Hornsby.


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