Paper and Watermarks

January 15th, 2013 § 1 comment

I was able to put some questions about paper and watermarks to Neil Harris and Peter Bower. Professor Harris is the Director of the Department of History and Conservation of the Cultural Heritage at the University of Udine, where he teaches courses in Bibliography and Library Science. An outline of his scholarly career can be found here at the University’s site. His work Paper and watermarks is available online through the site of L’Institut d’histoire du livre. Peter Bower is a forensic paper historian and paper analyst. He has published two books on the papers used by J.M.W. Turner–Turner’s Papers: A Study of the Manufacture, Selection and use of his Drawing Papers 1787-1820 and Turner’s Late Papers: A Study of the Manufacture, Selection and use of his Drawing Papers 1820-1851. Many thanks to both for their informative answers.

LV: Was the paper used for books also used for drawing and printmaking?

Neil Harris: No, is probably the general answer. Paper for printed books seems to have been different in some respect (though we don’t know what, possibly with less sizing). Paper for artists on principle may have been different; but then artists, especially when short of money, will draw on anything that happens to hand, so Yes is also a possible answer.

Peter Bower: For most of papermaking history in Western Europe paper was made for three basic uses: writing, printing and wrapping. All three types of paper were made on the same moulds, from the same kind of rags, the main difference between them being the degree of sizing used. Drawing papers as such were not specifically made until the mid-late 18th century. Artists drew and painted on hard sized papers made for writing, or in the case of coloured papers, wrapping. Printmakers would use similarly sized sheets to book printers.

LV: Can you say something about how artists bought paper?

Neil Harris: Not really. It depends how much money they had.

Peter Bower: Papers were stocked by stationers and artists’ colourmen and could be bought as single sheets, quires or half reams and reams. Stationers and colourmen stocked what they thought their customers would like.  Some artists did buy paper from mills but this was not common.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527-93) – Self-Portrait in Paper – Pen and brown ink, brush and brown wash on laid paper – 442 x 318 mm – Musei di Strada Nuova – Palazzo Rosso, Genoa


LV: Watermarks can often help in dating and placing a piece of paper, but what about a piece of paper without a watermark? Are there some general pointers about century and place?

Neil Harris: Yes, there are elements, and a piece of paper without a watermark may have been cut from a larger sheet.

Peter Bower: There is always a huge amount of information about the date and origin of a paper within the sheet. The type of mould used, the wire profile, felt impressions, the method of pulping, ie: stamper or Hollander, the blend of fibres used, the colour and tone, all contribute to narrowing down an identification.

A single-faced mould is a papermaking mould on which the wire forming surface sits directly on the supporting ribs, this produces an increased density of pulp either side of the chain wires, which show as slight shadows when viewed in transmitted light. A double-faced mould has a second set of wires, beneath the forming surface, lifting it off the struts.

The Wire profile describes the relationship between the Laid Lines, tightly spaced parallel lines seen in laid paper when it is held up to the light and the Chain lines, parallel lines visible at 90° to the laid lines, usually an inch or so apart. The wire profile also includes any watermarks or countermarks present in the sheet. In wove papers the wire profile details the gauge and number of wires used for the warp and the weft of the woven wire cloth.

Felt impressions are the marks left in the surface of the sheet when the newly formed wet sheet is transferred from the papermaking mould to the woven woolen blanket, called a felt., caused by the fibres used to make the felt. These vary from area to area, country to country and over time.

Stampers are an early form of a machine for making pulp, consisting of several sets of large wooden hammers, driven by a waterwheel, falling into mortars, filled with rag. Often leave tell-tale traces within the pulp, such as small hard nuggets of dried pulp that didn’t get cleaned out of the mortars.


Hydraulic Mutiple Hammer Mill – 18th Century – Fabriano Paper Museum

LV: Are there watermarks which are solely tied to one area?

Neil Harris: Successful watermarks will be faked or imitated in other areas, but generally they can be broken up on national lines. There are characteristics that tend to identity particular ways of making moulds, for instance the supplementary unsupported chainline for the watermark is a characteristic of Fabriano; the use of a countermark is Lake Garda; tranchfiles are French or Dutch and so on.

Peter Bower: Watermark designs do relate to specific areas, but they were often copied by mills in other areas or countries. A good example is the Dutch ProPatria mark which was also used by many different English makers.


Six-Pointed Star Above a Cross Watermark, 1412 Document on Loan from City Archive, Fabriano Paper Museum


LV: I‘ve read something about encircled object watermarks being Italian. Is this true?

Peter Bower: This is not strictly true, circled watermarks are found in use in Britain, Holland, Germany, Poland, Spain, Russia, etc

LV: I’ve read that J. Whatman paper was faked in Germany? Was counterfeit paper common?

Neil Harris: I think so, but of course “counterfeit” only really comes into play when paper-makers start using their names in watermarks and this only really happens from the 18th century onwards.

Peter Bower: In the 18th century several Italian Mills in the Veneto and also near Naples faked Dutch papers, including D & C Blauw, Cornelis Honig, Jan Honig & Zonen. They could charge more for “Dutch Paper” than their own products

Several famous makers’ initials were appropriated by other makers in Western Europe as a mark of quality, common examples include

WR         Wendelin Richel from Strasbourg. His initials are found as pendant marks all over western Europe for three hundred years or more.

IV         Jean Villedary. Several generations of Jean Villedarys worked mills around Angouleme in France as well as a mill at Hattem in Holland. The IV initials were very common as a countermark in English-made paper.

LVG         Lubertus van Gerrevinck of the Phoenix Mill in Holland. His initials were used by many other makers, either as a pendant mark or as a countermark.


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