Beware = Being Aware....
- 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
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....
Benson's Hand Bindery
Fine Custom Bookbinding & Conservation
Hand Marbled Papers
1319 B Summerville Ave.
Columbia S.C. 29201
[Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
- 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
- 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.