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Beware = Being Aware....

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  • Jake Benson
    Thanks again Milena, for your insightful posting (and generous kudos)! I m not sure if anyone I have ever taught has gone on to hang out their shingle and
    Message 1 of 4 , Aug 17 6:56 PM
      Thanks again Milena, for your insightful posting (and generous kudos)! I'm
      not sure if anyone I have ever taught has gone on to hang out their shingle
      and teach. I think that by bombarding them with historic samples and
      images, as well as slides of contemporary work, the students get the
      picture. I always tell them that they need to take some time to develop
      what they're doing, and to investigate evidence for themselves.

      I must admit that I'm still embarrassed over comments I may have made 5-10
      years ago. There are so many points and bits of historical information in
      sore need of revision, which are unfortunately very appealing, pervasive,
      and extremely popular. I certainly helped to perpetuate many of these
      notions, for I believed everything that I was told, and more importantly I
      WANTED to believe certain things about marbling. However, when you try and
      collect and compile information, you have to set what you want to believe
      aside, and let the evidence tell the story for itself. This is why I'm
      putting together a database to help catalog and compile all these tid-bits
      of info.

      So let me relate an event that happened THIS WEEK in my quest. I was going
      to save this for the Gathering, but I think it should be shared with
      everybody on the list.

      For starters, I wanted early manuscript sources in the original languages,
      not only translations. Among other texts I want the CHINESE version of the
      Wen Fang Si Pu. So, I ordered it through interlibrary loan, got it, but
      don't read Chinese. So, I was referred to Ms. Nancy Tomasko, editor of the
      East Asian Journal at Princeton University to identify the passages in
      question. Ms. Tomasko is an excellent resource and teacher of Chinese
      bookbinding (this year she's teaching at Penland and The NY Center for Book
      Arts). I asked her to take a look at the original Chinese text of the Wen
      Fang Si Pu, which as it turns out is a COMPILATION (Nancy refers to it by
      the more scholarly term "Collectania" ) written by the Imperial Scholar Su
      Yi-Chien in the 10th century. The subjects that Su Yi-Chien wrote about are
      culled from other sources. While it makes reference to several types of
      marbling (including floating color on a bath thickened with flour or locust
      beans), we still haven't found the ORIGINAL source for the entry! So we
      still have something to look for....

      The Wen Fang Si Pu garnered attention when it was mentioned in:

      Tsuen-Hsuin, Tsien, Paper and Printing from Part 1, Volume 5, Chemistry and
      Chemical Technology , Science and Civilisation in China, Needham, Joseph.
      Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1985

      By the way, Tsien is pronounced simply "Chen". Dr. "Chen" unfortunately did
      not make a literal translation of the text in question. He gave a short
      "synopsis". Well, many writers since that time (including myself) have
      treated Dr. Chen's synopsis as a translation. There are many ambiguities in
      what Dr. Chen related. The transliteration standard he used is different
      from that used today. Please note the spelling changes in this email, as
      this is how it should be properly transliterated today. Dr. Chen's text was
      also made more confusing by his inclusion of 19th century decorated paper
      samples that are not necessarily the result of the marbling process
      mentioned in the text. Despite this, we still owe an awful lot to Dr. Chen
      for drawing attention to the passage in the first place.

      The very first thing that Nancy told me is that the entries about marbling
      are mentioned in the 3rd "juan"- meaning roll, scroll, and "Chapter", which
      is about paper: regional methods, materials, colored, block-printed,
      stencilled, cut etc etc. Within the 3rd "juan" the entries come under a
      heading about decorated papers in the province of "Shun". "Shun"
      corresponds to Modern-day SZECHUAN (!!!) Dr. Chen relayed this little tiny,
      fascinating, and important fact, but only at the beginning of his passage,
      before mentioning the passage about marbling. So it was easy to miss- but
      boy do I feel silly for not seeing it in the first place! Nancy also adds
      something to what Dr. Chen wrote- that another type of marbled paper is
      called "net" paper... as the design looked like a net. She also revises the
      tranlation of "Drifting -sand notepaper" as t is possible to confuse things
      and think that "Drifting Sand" refers to the Taklamakan desert in the north
      etc etc. "Flowing Sand" is also an acceptable translation.

      So- did marbling originate in the SZECHUAN region? Now we have to look and
      see if there is any evidence from that time which can relate to the text.
      There has been such an emphasis on the Silk Road, Central Asia, and recently
      Xinjiang, that we have failed to look beyond those boundaries. All of this
      has been based on speculation, fueled by rumor, then mistakenly crystallized
      into a "fact" in the minds of many marblers. I think that the Silk Road was
      an important CONDUIT- as trade happened amongst many different peoples, from
      different racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds for CENTURIES. The Silk
      Road was a "two lane highway" after all. It is probably true that marbling
      techniques went west VIA the Silk Road. But did it originate there as some
      have proposed? Can we consider the Su Yi-Chien as a credible source?
      Well, the way I see it, we need to check his sources too.

      I also now hope that at the event planned for Xinjiang, that participants
      will be kind enough to highlight this important reference. Nancy is
      visiting China in the fall, and hopes to lean more about contemporary
      decorative paper making.... Interestingly enough, I tried to email Oghuz
      Han Tughrul at uygur13@... about this information, but it has bounced
      back. Does anyone have a current email for Oghuz Han? I'm sure he'd like
      to know this little tid-bit and about Nancy's work....

      In many ways, I might think that what I'm trying to do is something similar
      to what Su Yi-Chien did. A database is a tool for compiling information.
      I'm really not a scholar- in this case I owe it all to Nancy. We need to
      work with scholars when we do research and make historical claims. Nancy
      isn't a marbler, and wouldn't have thought to look at the text if I hadn't
      mentioned it. The practitioners of the craft play an important roll in
      getting the qualified professional to look at these references and
      substantiate what is in them. It is also important to verify translations,
      as this has been some interesting and creative liberties taken in some
      instances. I can't tell you how many times I've run into this problem.
      Checking your source is an important part of scholarship- it NEVER hurts.

      Now I get to write Dr. Chen! and revise my summary and lecture for the

      This never seems to end! I'm always excited, surprised, and amazed at the
      complexity of the subject. It only keeps getting more complex, but also
      CLEARER with time. It also helps to use words like "perhaps" when
      discussing theoretical points in marbling history, lest someone get the
      wrong idea and come to believe that the theory mentioned is a fact... I
      certainly wished I used it more often 5-10 years ago....

      Jake Benson

      Benson's Hand Bindery
      Fine Custom Bookbinding & Conservation
      Hand Marbled Papers
      1319 B Summerville Ave.
      Columbia S.C. 29201
      Phone: 803.799.1853

      [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
    • Guffey
      Dear Marbling Enthusiasts... I agree that someone who has just learned how to marble should not go out and offer their services as a marbler instructor. It
      Message 2 of 4 , Aug 17 8:24 PM
        Dear Marbling Enthusiasts...

        I agree that someone who has just learned how to marble should not go out
        and offer their services as a marbler instructor. It takes quite of bit of
        experience to pass on the art of marbling. The biggest asset is knowing
        what to do when things "just don't work" and how to correct and solve the
        numerous marbling quirks.

        I also have been fascinated by the history of marbling as much as the
        execution itself. When I first started (1976) there was next to nothing
        written about the process, no "how-to" books available. You learned from
        someone else and then tried to perfect the methods yourself. I was
        fortunate enough to be working in a college library and had access to inter
        library loans. I borrowed every book I could find (there weren't many) and
        one that had been written in the 1800's gave a recipe for oxgall. I can't
        remember the exact quote, but it started with the statement that "you should
        find yourself a friendly butcher who would save you the gall bladder of a
        recently butchered steer..." I could just see me going into my local
        Safeway store and making such a request!

        This brings up the next point. How authentic do we need to be to preserve
        the true art of marbling? For years I boiled and strained Irish Moss to
        make my size. Authentic, yes, but straining through panty hose (very
        effective, by the way) is hardly historically correct! Needless to say,
        once blender carrageen became available I never boiled another batch of
        Irish Moss. Early marblers grinded their own pigments, I purchase marbling
        inks already made. I also use acrylics, which are not historically correct.
        If someone out there wishes to make their own colors, there is a store in
        San Francisco which sells pure pigments. You can view their web site at

        In 1984 I was in London and went to the Victoria and Albert Musuem. In
        their rare book department they had listed marbled papers from Douglas
        Cockerell. I asked if I could see them, and was surprised when I was given
        permission. All I had to do was provide identification. For some reason my
        California driver's license was sufficient! Anyway, they brought out a box
        with about 10 samples. At first I was disappointed because the colors were
        so dull, as compared with current marbling. But then I realized I was
        holding history in my hands and was a bit overwhelmed. It was at this point
        in time I began to appreciate the traditional marbling patterns and not be
        dazzeled by the wild colors and abstract marbling patterns that some people
        do. These modern patterns have their place, and I appreciate their
        creativity, but I am still drawn to the traditional. I love creative
        marbling, I just hope that the traditional will always be around as well.

        It was also on this trip that I contacted Sydney Cockerell and he generously
        allowed me to visit him at his home/studio outside of Cambridge. I was
        still rather new to marbling and didn't realize what an honor was bestowed
        upon me. I watched one of his assistants marbling (the French Boquet
        pattern) and afterwards I bought a set of his marbing inks and he personally
        wrote up the receipt, which I still have (I keep meaning to frame it!).

        Well, I'll get off my soap box for now. I'm glad we have this forum to vent
        our opinons.

        d. guffey
      • irisnevins
        Thanks for the post, Dolores.....I too remember those days. I had NO ONE to teach me in 1978 and would have appreciated ANY instruction no matter how crude. I
        Message 3 of 4 , Aug 18 4:28 AM
          Thanks for the post, Dolores.....I too remember those days. I had NO ONE to
          teach me in 1978 and would have appreciated ANY instruction no matter how
          crude. I had a xerox of that same book,(think it was Woolnough) and DID go
          to my local butcher and got a quart of bile....he thought I was mad!

          I nearly blew up the bottle of gall ....it builds up gases, and the load
          pop I heard when I opened the jar two weeks later, not to mention the
          stink....well, just a funny memory now.

          I get my best Stormont using plastic sqeeze bottles....very traditional,
          right? To give them up would be like going from a washing machine back to a
          scrub board. The old timers would have jumped at the chance to have our
          modern materials and methods.

          The part of maintaining tradition I do feel is important, is to arrive at
          the same look, as closely as possible, not matter how you get there. The
          old papers were amazing....and my main thing is the period from the 1600's
          though late 19th century. I come to this from a love ob books, so what was
          seen on the bindings is my orientation. I do artwork too with marbling, but
          just love getting the room filled with papers that look like the 1820's.

          The bulk of my work is recreating these papers for book restorers, matching
          as well as possible, the old papers.

          Iris Nevins
        • Gail MacKenzie
          Thank you, Jake. I am looking forward to your lecture!! Best wishes, Gail M. [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
          Message 4 of 4 , Aug 18 11:37 AM
            Thank you, Jake. I am looking forward to your lecture!! Best wishes, Gail

            [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
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