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New exhibit in Special Collections: Paint, water, and paper

Happy New Year! King Lear, when asked why he should have an entourage, bellowed: “O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars / Are in the poorest thing superfluous. / Allow not nature more than nature needs, / Man’s life is cheap as beast’s.” Now, while King Lear isn’t exactly a role-model (far from it), we have to admit that we agree with him here. It’s nice to have nice things, even if we don’t need them, strictly speaking.

In this case, it’s paper marbling, which like so many things in book- and papermaking serves no other purpose than to be beautiful. Marbled paper is made by sprinkling the surface of a vat of water with paint. The paint floats on the surface of the water, allowing a pattern to be created out of overlapping droplets of paint. The paint can be left as is, or designs can be drawn in the paint using different tools. Once the artist is satisfied, a sheet of paper is then laid onto the surface of the water and pulled away, carrying with it the paint and the pattern. No two marbled papers are exactly alike, though a skilled artist can recreate the same design multiple times.

We have three collections of samples on display for you through the end of February: The whole art of bookbinding / The whole process of marbling paper (1987), The Compton Marbling portfolio of patterns (1992), and A pretty mysterious art (1996).

John Henry Adams

John Henry Adams is a librarian in the Special Collections and Rare Books department. He provides instruction and reference for the history of the book in general, but especially for medieval manuscripts, early European printing, the history of cartography, and English and German literature.