Paper and Watermarks

January 15th, 2013 § 1 comment § permalink

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.


Season’s Greetings

December 21st, 2012 § Comments Off on Season’s Greetings § permalink

and best wishes for 2013


Cupid and Psyche

April 26th, 2012 § Comments Off on Cupid and Psyche § permalink

Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo is hosting the exhibition La favola di Amore e Psiche. Il mito nell’arte dall’antichità a Canova. It makes sense that the exhibition should be held there because of the building’s Perino del Vaga frescoes figuring Cupid and Pysche. The frescoes decorate the apartment, specifically the bedroom, of Pope Paul III (Alessandro Farnese). The show has objects of all types: sculpture, ceramics, paintings, prints, and drawings.

There’s a magnificent Raphael drawing from Lille for a pendentive at the Loggia of Cupid and Psyche at the Farnesina, and another drawing from Turin for the same project. The exhibition was a bit disappointing because there were so few drawings. One of the exhibitions I’ve only known from the catalogue, and always regretted not seeing, was the 1981 show Gli Affreschi di Paolo III a Castel Sant’Angelo. Progetto ed esecuzione 1543-1548, curated by Filippa Aliberti Gaudioso and Eraldo Gaudioso. The catalogue has close to 150 drawings and to have seen them in the rooms next to the frescoes for which they were made, must have been a thrill. Knowing of this earlier exhibition sharpened the disappointment.

Still, there were two Raphael drawings. And then there was a very surprising black ink on papyrus drawing of Cupid and Pysche. She’s on the left and has butterfly wings, and Cupid with bird wings, is on the right. There’s no text on the papyrus and it may be that it was made as an independent work of art. If the dating of the papyrus drawing is right, it would mean that it’s contemporary with Apuleius’s Golden Ass, which narrates the story of the lovers. The papyrus was found in Egypt, but looks more Roman or Greek in style. The drawing is also amazing for its size–250 mm or about 10 inches across.

The exhibition opened on 16 March and closes 10 June 2012.



Amor and Psyche | AD 100-199 | Black ink on papyrus | 150 x 250 mm | Inv. PSI 8 919 | Museo Egizio | Florence

Box and Boxwood Drawing Supports

July 31st, 2011 § 1 comment § permalink

At Villa Lante, about an hour north of Rome, there are beautiful box hedges and parterre.  Box, like birch bark, has been used as a surface for drawing. Some of the box hedges at Villa Lante are very tall, and if you look into the center of the hedges, you’ll see trunks thicker than you would imagine–wide enough for small rectangular drawing supports.


Villa Lante | Box and Watercourse for Fountains | Bagnaia, Italy

Early draftsmen used boxwood to make model-books where they could record successful compositions, poses, and subjects for future use. Boxwood, because of its great density and because it could be smoothed to a high degree, was the wood of choice. Parchment, fig wood, and paper were also used. Cennino Cennini, writing in circa 1400, tells of how to prepare a boxwood drawing surface in Chapter V of his Libro dell’arte (English here) and and in Chapter VI he talks of fig wood, specifying that the fig wood should be old.  To make a little panel, he calls for pieces of wood as high and wide as “un sommesso.” According to the 1612 Crusca dictionary, a sommesso is the width of a fist with the thumb extended, as in the hitchhiking gesture. For me, that is about 6 inches (I’ve seen some translations of Cennini say 9 inches, which seems too much. There’s a limit to box trunk width.) Whether box or fig, he says to clean it well, smooth with a cuttlebone, dry, and then coat with well ground bone dust and spittle.

There are too few examples of model books, and especially boxwood ones. I don’t think there are any early drawings on fig wood tablets. The drawing on box just below is given to a Jaques Daliwe. The attribution to Daliwe is based solely on an inscription on one of the 12 pages that make up the Berlin model book. The inscription might also refer to an owner of the model-book. There are a total of 22 drawings, mostly in metalpoint with white heightening. A couple of the drawings are based on illuminations of the Limbourg Brothers, though this one is not. If boxwood grew to be bigger, would they have wanted larger drawings, or were they happy to have a book that was so easily transportable to bring along to their various jobs?


Jaques Daliwe | Head Studies | Metalpoint, brush and white heightening on grounded boxwood panel | 89 x 130 mm | Liber picturatus A 74 Staatsbibliothek Berlin

Blue Paper | Carta Azzurra

February 18th, 2011 § 1 comment § permalink

Soon after the introduction of paper, artists were applying chalky colored grounds to create metalpoints and tinting the surface of paper for ink and chalk drawings.  The earliest European papers are white or cream or ivory, depending on how one sees them. The earliest drawing on a piece of blue paper, blue through and through, is a drawing in Dresden (detail below).  The drawing is by Giovanni da Modena, who, most notably, painted frescoes in Bologna’s San Petronio. It’s dated to around 1410-20 and has been gone over, or reinforced, by later hands. Still, there’s a lot to the drawing. It’s on a single piece of paper, measuring 460 mm across, which makes it extraordinarily large.

Giovanni da Modena | Procession, detail of | 1410-20 | Traces of black chalk, pen and brown ink, brush and brown wash, white heightening, on blue laid paper, with some pricking | 342 x 460 mm | Kupferstich-Kabinett | Dresden

Ceninno Cennini was writing his manual for artists shortly before the Giovanni da Modena drawing was made, and speaks at length about carta tinta, but not about dyed paper. His method for tinting paper blue, what he termed carta di tinta indica involves mixing white with indigo, 2 fava bean size lumps of indigo. Indigo, as it sounds, was imported from India, and had been since antiquity. The Giovanni da Modena drawing’s blue also comes from indigo. Other sources of blue dye available then came from the woad plant and litmus, made from lichens. The earliest blue paper might have come from ragged blue clothes, and dye a later refinement.The photograph just below is of two blue overalls hanging to dry in a nearby piazza, and it would be nice to think that their ancestors were recycled into drawing paper. Synthetic indigo was introduced by Adolf Bayer in 1880.

Blue Work Clothes | Rome

Carta azzurra is most associated with Venice. Vittore Carpaccio was an early user of blue paper. Albrecht Dürer took up using blue paper for his drawings during his 1505-07 stay in Venice and is credited with introducing the paper to artists over the alps. The Venetian printer and publisher Aldus Manutius was the first to print books on blue paper. Blue paper, really any colored paper, is often used with two media, such as black ink and white liquid heightening, or black chalk with white chalk heightening. The blue is the middle value which the dark and light play off. Since it’s such an appealing color for drawings, artists everywhere have used blue paper.

Vittore Carpaccio | Portrait of a Young Man | c. 1500 | Brush, brown ink and white heightening on blue laid paper | 260 x 185 mm | Christ Church | Oxford


December 18th, 2010 § Comments Off on Watermarks § permalink

S e a s o n ‘ s   G r e e t i n g s

Deer's Head Watermark | Briquet 15541 | Brabant 1449

While the Chinese, Arabs, and Spanish all had paper before the Italians, they were the first to watermark paper. Watermarks are areas of the paper where an identifying mark is left by bent wire in the screen mold. The marks range from a simple circle to the most elaborate escutcheons.  Almost all catalogues of prints and drawings published in recent years have an appendix with watermarks. Researching watermarks has become easier now that the standard reference books Briquet and Piccard are online.   The table below, with links, shows several online resources. For a discussion about the ways of recording watermarks, here is a link to an article published by Nancy E. Nash in an American Institute for Conservation publication. Neil Harris’s work Paper and watermarks, published in 2010 and available online, is very engaging and full of important information and references for the study of watermarks. It seems beta-radiography is one of the best ways of recording watermarks, but this is impractical for most people. With my drawings, I use my laptop as a light table, position a ruler near the drawing, and take a photograph. I should also say that it is very, very seldom that I successfully match a watermark.

DatabaseCoordinating OrganizationBased on Tracings or FilmDetail
Briquet OnlineÖsterreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Kommission für Schrift- und Buchwesen des Mittelalters (Wien) and the Laboratoire de Médiévistique Occidentale de Paris.TracingsOngoing digitization of Briquet volumes (eventually all 16,112)
Thomas L. Gravell Watermark CollectionUniversity of Delaware and Bibliothèque de GenèveFilm and TracingsContains 29,000 watermarks from Briquet archive in Geneva which were never published
Le filigrane degli archivi genovesiUniversità di GenovaTracings
NIKI Nederlands Interuniversitair Kunsthistorisch Instituut - Dutch University Institute for Art History FlorenceFilmSign in as guest, search button in upper right. Watermarks of papers used for prints and drawings from c. 1450 to 1800.
Piccard OnlineHauptstaatsarchiv StuttgartTracings
Watermarks in Incunabula Printed in the Low CountriesKoninklijke Bibliotheek - National Library of the NetherlandsFilm

Some Roman Graffiti

October 28th, 2009 § Comments Off on Some Roman Graffiti § permalink

In Rome, until 17 January 2010, there is a beautiful exhibition of ancient Roman painting at the Scuderie del Quirinale. The exhibition is called Roma: La Pittura di un Impero. One of the earliest paintings is a detached fresco from Pompeii. It is in the Architectonic or Second Style (combining architectural elements and views) and dates from around 40 – 30 BC.

Detached Fresco | II Style | House of the Cryptoporticus | 40 – 30 BC | Pompei

Detached Fresco | Style II | House of the Cryptoporticus | Pompeii | 40 – 30 BC

Below the garlands there are examples of Roman graffiti and I’m posting three photographs showing just a small part of the graffiti. The scratched (getting back to the meaning of the word graffiti) drawings are of animals, hunted animals. Because the graffiti is low down on the wall, there has been thought that they were done by children, but a seated adult seems just as reasonable. When the graffiti was made is unknown, but it would have been before the earthquake of 62 AD.

Graffiti of a Deer and Horse | Detail of Detached Fresco from House of the Cryptoporticus | Pompei | Before 62 AD

Graffiti of a Deer and Horse | Detail of Detached Fresco from House of the Cryptoporticus | Pompeii | Before 62 AD

 Goat (?) Cryptoporticus

Graffiti of an Oryx | Detail of Detached Fresco | House of Cryptoporticus | Before 62 AD | Pompeii

Graffiti of a Boar | Detail from Detached Fresco | House of the Cryptoporticus | Pompeii | Before | 62 AD

Graffiti of a Boar | Detail from Detached Fresco | House of the Cryptoporticus | Pompeii | Before 62 AD

Titian Drawings in Ancona

September 27th, 2009 § Comments Off on Titian Drawings in Ancona § permalink

Here I’m posting some photographs I took of the back of Titian’s 1520 painting “Madonna and Child with Saints Francis and Alvise with the Donor Alvise Gozzi” from Ancona’s picture gallery. While the photographs aren’t great, I thought I’d put them up because I haven’t seen any others on the web. The black chalk drawings are on the reinforcing panels behind the picutre panel and have been known since 1948 – 51, when Giovanni Urbani restored the picture.
Titian | Detail of Back of Ancona Altarpiece | Black Chalk on Wood Panel | 1520 | Pinacoteca | Ancona

Titian | Detail of Back of Ancona Altarpiece | Black Chalk on Wood Panel | 1520 | Pinacoteca | Ancona

Titian | Madonna and Child with Saints Francis and Alvise with the donor Alvise Gozzi | Oil on Panel | 320 x 260 cm. | 1520 | Pinacoteca | Ancona

Titian | Madonna and Child with Saints Francis and Alvise with the Donor Alvise Gozzi | Oil on Panel | 320 x 206 cm. | 1520 | Pinacoteca | Ancona

Titian | Back of Ancona Altarpiece | Black Chalk on Wood Panel | 1520 | Pinacoteca | Ancona

Titian | Back of Ancona Altarpiece | Black Chalk on Wood Panel | 1520 | Pinacoteca | Ancona

Titian | Detail of Back of Madonna and Child with Saints Francis and Alvise and the Donor Alvise Gozzi | Black Chalk on Panel | 1520 | Pinacoteca | Ancona

Titian | Detail of Back of Madonna and Child with Saints Francis and Alvise and the Donor Alvise Gozzi | Black Chalk on Panel | 1520 | Pinacoteca | Ancona

Titian | Detail of Back of Ancona Altarpiece | Black Chalk on Wood Panel | 1520 | Pinacoteca | Ancona

Titian | Detail of Back of Ancona Altarpiece | Black Chalk on Wood Panel | 1520 | Pinacoteca | Ancona

Titian | Detail of Back of Ancona Altarpiece | Black Chalk on Wood Panel | 1520 | Pinacoteca | Ancona

Titian | Detail of Back of Ancona Altarpiece | Black Chalk on Wood Panel | 1520 | Pinacoteca | Ancona

Titian | Detail of Back of Ancona Altarpiece | Black Chalk on Wood Panel | 1520 | Pinacoteca | Ancona

Titian | Detail of Back of Ancona Altarpiece | Black Chalk on Wood Panel | 1520 | Pinacoteca | Ancona

The most worked up head is probably a study for the Christ Child, and not one of the flying putti, because of the hint of halo. Its direction differs from both Christ’s and the putti heads. The other heads, usually in profile, are more doodle caricatures. Harold Wethey thought that the Christ Child’s head and the head of a woman should be considered autograph and the others school. Bert Meijer, with slight reservation, thought the drawings all by Titian. This seems more sensible. Great masters shouldn’t be precluded from the great fun of doodling.

References –

Giovanni Urbani, “Schede di restauro,” Bollettino dell’Istituto Centrale di Restauro, Nos. 9 – 10, 1952, pp. 61 -79.

Bert W. Meijer, “Titian Sketches on Panel and Canvas,” Master Drawings, Vol. 19, No. 3 (Autumn 1981), pp. 276 – 353.

Harold E. Wethey, “Titian’s Drawing of a Christ Child in Ancona,” Burlington Magazine, Vol. 124, No. 950 (May, 1982), pp. 294 – 290.

Two 15th Century Drawings

August 29th, 2009 § 4 comments § permalink

Two amazing 15th century drawings are Jan Van Eyck’s St. Barbara (Royal Museum, Antwerp) and Giovanni Bellini’s Lamentation (Uffizi, Florence). Both are on gesso covered panels and painted with fine, fine brushes. The Bellini is a large work and measures 74 x 118 cm., and the Van Eyck small at 31 x 18 cm.  They are often referred to as grisaille paintings. To me they are much more drawings than paintings, and if I were a drawings curator at the Uffizi or in Antwerp, I’d surely agitate to have them in my department. The limiting of drawings to paper or animal skin supports seems too arbitrary.

Jan Van Eyck | St. Barbara | 1437 | Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten | Antwerp

Jan Van Eyck | St. Barbara | 1437 | Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten | Antwerp

Giovanni Bellini | Lamentation | c. 1490 | Galleria degli Uffizi | Florence

Giovanni Bellini | Lamentation | Tempera on Panel | 74 x 118 cm. | c. 1490 | Galleria degli Uffizi | Florence

Bellini | Lamentation | Detail

Bellini | Lamentation | Detail

Scholars are undecided as to whether these are finished or unfinished works. To modern eyes, it would seem insane to do such detailed works, only to be covered with paint. (The colored paint in the sky of the Van Eyck work was added later, not by Van Eyck.) Fifteenth century painters were meticulous in their preparation, but to this extent?

The possibilities:

– Unfinished, meant to be completed with paint

– Meant to be exactly as they are

– Meant to be used as teaching/workshop models

Or, maybe we’re dealing with instances of “quit while you’re ahead.”

Linen and Paper

June 22nd, 2009 § 2 comments § permalink


Flax Plant (Linum Usitatissimum), Univ. della Tuscia Botanical Garden, Viterbo

The flax plant, or linum usitatissimum, is a key plant for the fine arts: linen rags to produce paper, linen canvas for paintings, and linseed oil as a medium for oil paints.

Flax was one of the first plants to be cultivated and easily adapts to different climates. (Archaeologists have recently found dyed wild flax fibers in Georgia that are about 34,000 years old. Here is NYT link.) Russia is now the largest producer of flax. Other countries with favorable cool climates where flax grows well are Belgium (known for the finest linen and artists’ canvas), France, the Netherlands, and Ireland. But, Egypt and Italy also produce linen and have for thousands of years. Turin’s Egyptian Museum has many beautifully preserved lengths of linen as well as the linen wraps of mummies.

Linen at Torino's Museo Egizio

Ancient Linen at Torino's Museo Egizio

The longest Etruscan text, the Liber Linteus Zagrabensis, is also the only example of an ancient linen codex. It dates to 250 BC and although Etruscan has not been deciphered, it seems the book is a liturgical calendar.  It’s thought that it was made near Chiusi, in Etruria, and from there somehow traveled to Egypt. It survived as mummy wrappings and has been reconstructed to its original form, an accordion folded codex. Both the codex and the mummy are in Zagreb’s archaeological museum.

Linen, the textile, as well as the paper made from linen rags, is exceptionally strong, very supple, and folds remarkably well. Although supple, it retains its shape, being inelastic. It has the ability to absorb water and still feel dry.   These characteristics, at least partly, explain why centuries old drawings can be so well preserved.

US banknotes are made from linen and cotton rags. Their lifespan, about 20 abuse-filled months (it’s estimated that a dollar bill can be folded 4,000 times before tearing), is a good deal longer than that of other currencies. Linen becomes stronger in water than when dry, and bills accidentally left in pockets launder perfectly.

Flax grows thigh high and has pretty blue to almost white flowers with five petals.  The plant reaches maturity in about 100 days. In Italy, it is planted in the early spring and harvested in June. In colder climates, it’s planted later. Egypt’s warmer climate would make flax a winter crop.


Flax in Flower (Linum Usitatissimum) at the Univ. della Tuscia's Botanical Garden, Viterbo

Once mature, the whole plant, with the roots, is lifted from the ground. The process in readying the fiber for weaving is very involved and it is hard to imagine that for millennia nearly all families grew flax, retted it, scutched it, spun it, wove it, and then created garments. By the Middle Ages, Viterbo, a city in Northern Lazio, had a thriving flax industry.  The area’s thermal springs originally attracted the Etruscans, and the Romans built elaborate baths there. Bullicame, the name of the springs and shallow pools closest to the city, those where prostitutes bathed according to Dante, were also used to rett or macerate flax stems. Retting frees the fibers from the woody center of the stem. The heat of the water accelerated the retting process.

Bullicame's 55°C Water Was Used to Rett Flax

Bullicame's 55°C Water Was Used to Rett Flax

Where water is unavailable, flax is allowed to rett in the field, the dew and rain act to release the fibers, just more slowly. After this the flax is allowed to dry and then it is scutched, or beaten. In the process the precious flax strands are separated from the tow, the shorter fibers.  I realized how right the terms “tow-headed” and “flaxen-haired”  were when I saw this photograph of Egyptian flax in the ad of an Egyptian online flax merchant.

Advanced Group Ad for Egyptian Flax

Advanced Group Ad for Egyptian Flax