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Paper from the Réveillon workshop in Paris (1745) (detail) (© 2016 The British Library)

In April of 1789, a few months before the storming of the Bastille, the paper factory of Jean-Baptiste Réveillon in Paris was taken over by labor protestors, who commandeered the machines to print paper in red, white, and blue. This early act of the French Revolution is just one of the intriguing historic moments in An Anthology of Decorated Papers by P. J. M. Marks, out this month from Thames & Hudson.

Cover of ‘An Anthology of Decorated Papers’ (courtesy Thames and Hudson) (click to enlarge)

A book about decorated papers doesn’t seem like it would be that compelling, but Marks, curator of bookbindings at the British Library, examines the evolution of the humble art form in the context of its time and place. The over 250 examples in the book are from the British Library’s Olga Hirsch Collection of Decorated Papers. Hirsch, who died in 1968, was a bookbinder, and much of the collection of over 3,500 papers focuses on book endpapers and other publishing ephemera. There are also wrappers, backs of playing cards, currency paper, wallpaper, musical instrument covers, and other examples of the medium, mostly dating from the 16th to 20th century.

Decorated papers as an art form haven’t been thoroughly researched, and being that they were often mass-produced, haven’t been traditionally of high value. Marks writes:

Decorated papers offer much more than a mere backdrop to the era in which they were created. There is still scope for discovery. Why did the English enthusiastically adopt marbled papers when the Scots preferred gold? Why, for that matter, did European marbling develop in such a different way from the Turkish style on which it was based? Fashion, access to materials (the astragalus plant, whose resin makes the water more viscous in Turkish marbling, is absent in Europe) and different cultural imperatives must be considered.

Pages from ‘An Anthology of Decorated Papers’ (photo of the book for Hyperallergic)

Pages from ‘An Anthology of Decorated Papers’ (photo of the book for Hyperallergic)

Pages from ‘An Anthology of Decorated Papers’ (photo of the book for Hyperallergic)

Brocade foil papers could decorate religious books in Europe, while in China a version known as “tea chest” paper replaced the toxic lead lining that had previously been used in packaging tea. Paper could also reflect cultural value and exchange, whether paper with swallow birds in Japan installed in homes for luck, or an 18th-century German paper showing an early interpretation of a crocodile, which appears a bit like a distorted bird, with two talons on each foot.

Importantly, decorated papers have long been accessible, whether handmade marbling, block printing, lithography, embossing, or mass-produced decoration of the 20th century. As Marks writes: “Unlike expensive oil paintings, decorated papers were available to all but the poorest in society,” and thus reflect the popular tastes of each age.

Comb-marbled end-leaf from John Evelyn’s gold-tooled leather prayer book, a present from his sister Elizabeth in 1685 (detail) (© 2016 The British Library)

18th-century German brocade paper on a green background (detail) (© 2016 The British Library)

Early to mid-19th century block printing, probably Italian, in blue and orange on a white background (© 2016 The British Library)

19th- to 20th-century Chinese block printing featuring birds and foliage (© 2016 The British Library)

Late 19th- to early 20th-century chiyogami featuring colored leaves, a common motif (© 2016 The British Library)

Late 19th-century chiyogami, with chrysanthemums symbolizing Imperial Japan, and red carnations suggesting romantic love (© 2016 The British Library)

18th- to 19th-century block printing in three colors (© 2016 The British Library)

19th-century block printing, likely Japanese, on crêpe paper (detail) (© 2016 The British Library)

20th-century lithography by Danish designer Axel Salto (© 2016 The British Library)

20th-century lithography by Danish designer Axel Salto (© 2016 The British Library)

19th- to 20th-century European paper, probably printed with lithography (© 2016 The British Library)

19th- to 20th-century European paper, probably printed with lithography (© 2016 The British Library)

19th-century European paper (© 2016 The British Library)

1904 metallic printing using heat by Otto Hupp, a German graphic designer and heraldry specialist (© 2016 The British Library)

20th-century lithography by Johann Vincent Cissarz (© 2016 The British Library)

An Anthology of Decorated Papers by P. J. M. Marks is out now from Thames & Hudson.

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...