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A Brief History of Marbling

Modern-day paper marbling has its deep roots in 15th century Persia and Turkey.  Paint was floated on a thickened liquid, called ”size”, then raked and combed into patterns. Paper was laid down on the floating paint and the design was transferred.

The papers were used in calligraphy, incorporated into artworks, or used as backgrounds for official documents, to prevent erasures or forgery.

As marbled papers moved into Europe in the 1600s they became an essential element of bookbinding, with the papers being placed as end sheets and used as covers in fine books. 

Marbled papers were expensive, and bookbinders were always trying to discover the marblers’ secrets. To prevent corporate espionage, marblers closely guarded their techniques, and often did their work at night in hidden laboratories.  Even apprentices were taught only small steps in the process until they had worked for decades.

In 1853, Charles Woolnough, anticipating the demise of marbling in the age of mass production, wrote an instruction manual called The Whole Art of Marbling. He was vilified for it by his colleagues, but his efforts managed to save the art from obscurity.  Marbling would already be extinct if not for Woolnough and those who followed in his footsteps.

Even so, paper marbling is considered to be a critically endangered craft, due, in part, to the loss of skilled practitioners, to the lack of public awareness about the craft, and to the rise of digital printing.  However, a quick internet search will reassure you that modern-day marblers have the craft well in hand. Such artists as Jemma Lewis, Garip Ay, and Robert Wu will send you down the marbling rabbit hole. Enjoy the journey!