The application of an aqueous surface design onto paper or other items, which can produce patterns similar to smooth marble or other kinds of stone. This entry refers to the making of extremely complex repeatable patterns which require very high levels of skill.
|Historic area of significance|
|Area currently practised||UK|
|Origin in the UK||17th century|
|Current no. of professionals (main income)||11-20|
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
|Current no. of trainees||1|
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
|Minimum no. of craftspeople required|
Marbling consists of floating ink or paint on a surface to create a pattern. The colour may be simply dropped on to create random blobs or the ink/paint may be blown or swirled using an implement to create a pattern. A sheet of treated paper is then carefully placed on the paint and the pattern transfers to the paper. The process was thought to be first developed in China and Japan, before travelling to Central Asia, India, Iran and Turkey, before reaching Europe in the seventeenth century. Now there is evidence to suggest it actually developed independently in Persia and didn’t necessarily come through from Japan.
In Europe, marbled paper was used both for book covers as well as for the endpapers. The patterned paper ensured that slight damage due to constant or rough handling wasn’t so obvious than if the cover had been plain.
Marbling became popular as a handicraft in the nineteenth century after the publication of the The Art of Marbling by Charles Woolnough in 1853. A second book in 1893 by Josef Halfer was also popular and included a section on marbling book edges, a practice that was used a great deal on ledgers. The idea was that if a section of the ledger was removed or pages added or altered, the marbling would be interrupted or damaged, thus showing visually the evidence of tampering.
Each sheet of paper produced by marbling is unique and workshops developed a number of different patterns.
The tools and materials used for paper marbling are relatively simple. A watertight tray is filled with a substance that will hold the ink on the surface. Water will do this, but to control the marbling effectively, something more viscous is better. Irish carrageen moss produces a gel which is ideal. One or more colours of paint is then dropped on to the surface and allowed to spread for a random pattern, or combed or twirled to produce more controlled patterns. Paper which has usually been treated with alum is gently laid on the surface and the pattern on the gel transfers to the paper. The paper is then carefully lifted and washed to remove excess colour (Lovett, 2015). See here for an explanation of the process by Jemma Lewis for the Folio Society.
The paint type chosen for marbling can have a big effect on technique and the finished product. Water-based marbling can look quite different to oil based marbling, and some effects cannot be achieved with some paint or ink types. The most common are water-colour/gouache, acrylic, or oil paint.
- Marbling of book edges – Commonly seen on large format ledgers which were handmade in 18-19th centuries. They are still made but not with hand-marbled edges but transfer printed. Some of the older, time served apprentice bookbinders are teaching these specialist marbling techniques.
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
- Rise of digital printing
- Fewer traditional bookbinders
- No big marbling houses left to train apprentices
- Costs of raw materials, specifically the Carragheen moss
- Marbling from developing countries (India, Malaysia etc) entering UK market at lower prices (fairly recent development)
- Interest has been/is still increasing due to social media (visual nature of craft helps here) and publicity (Red List), but ultimately if marbling can’t find a more sustainable niche than book-related arts, it may wane again. Especially as digital printed reproductions and cheaper alternatives enter the market in response to interest.
- Perceived value, or lack of education (around the craft at the higher levels, i.e. the time and skills it takes to produce certain patterns, those practitioners such as myself creating their own paints and pigments in traditional ways instead of buying ready-made inks, etc. It is still seen as something that is done at primary school, often with oil based inks on water, which does not resemble ‘traditional’ marbling at all.
- Lower quality and/or other arts promoted as ‘marbling’ when it is in fact not, eg. acrylic paint pouring.
- Brexit – I this has now become much harder due to customs and shipping fees.
- The International Marblers’ Network (USA)
- The Society of Bookbinders
- London Centre for Bookarts
Craftspeople currently known
- Victoria Hall
- Lucy McGrath, Marmor Paperie
- Louise Brockman, Brockman Bookbinders
- Kate Brett, Payhembury Marbled Papers
- Jill Sellers
- Solveig Stone, Compton Marbling
- Freya Scott, Paper Wilds
- Simon Goode, London Centre for Book Arts
- Gulizar Subay, marblingebru.com
- Jemma Lewis
- Rachel Maiden, Maiden Marbling
- Bade Kafadar
- Julia Cooper
- Ebru Kocak
- Dina Fusi
Chris Rowlatt has retired in the past three years.
Businesses employing two or more makers:
- Marshall and Fuller
Cockerell and Son were well-known for their marbled papers, but their studio closed in 2012.
There now seem to be more workshops available on marbling than in the 1980s. In those days practitioners were very secretive about their methods so you had to teach yourself. There is not one set recipe for marbling so different practitioners will use different methods.
- Nevins, Iris, (1985) Traditional Marbling (Alembic Press), practical guide
- Maurer, Diane Vogel, and Maurer, Paul, (1991) Marbling (J B Fairfax), practical guide
- Schleicher, Patty, and Schleicher, Mimi, (1993) Marbled Designs (Lark Books), practical guide
- Medeiros, Wendy Addison, (1994) Marbling Techniques (Watson Guptill), practical guide
- Schmoller, Tanya, (2008) The Schmoller Collection of Decorated Papers (MMU), descriptive with some history
- Wolfe, Richard J, (1973) Marbled Paper (University of Pennsylvania Press), as above
- Loring, Rosamund B, (1973) Decorated Book Papers (The Harvard College Library), as above
- Wolfe, Richard J, (2009) The Mysterious Marbler (Oak Knoll Books), historical
- Haptmann, Joseph, The Art of Marbling (Atelier de Distelkamp), historical
- Easton, Phoebe Jane, Marbling a History and a bibliography (Los Angeles: Dawson’s Book Shop), encyclopaedic
- Loring, Rosamund, (2007) Marbled and Paste Papers, Rosamund Loring’s Recipe Book (Harvard College Library), historical
- Chambers, Anne, (1991) Suminagashi, The Japanese Art of Marbling (Thames and Hudson, practical guide
- Chambers, Anne, (1986) Marbling Paper, the Practical Guide (Thames and Hudson), practical guide
- Miura, Einen, (1989) The Art of Marbled Paper (Zahensdorf Ltd), practical guide
- Patricia Lovett (2015) Marbling paper
- Bedfordshire County Council, The Art of the Marbler (film)
- The Folio Society, The Art of Marbling (film)
- Scott, Freya (2020) Marbling: Practical Modern Techniques (Schiffer Publishing)
- McGrath, Lucy (2019) Contemporary Paper Marbling: Design and Technique (Pavilion Books)
- Kate Brett (2021) Traditional Marbled Papers (Crowood Press)