An Anthology of Decorated Papers

A new book from Thames & Hudson showcases over 250 decorated papers from the 16th to the 20th century, sourced from the British Library’s Olga Hirsch collection.

The Olga Hirsch collection is one of the largest of its kind in the world, containing over 3,500 decorated papers and 130 books with decorated wrappers and end papers. It was donated to the British Library in 1968, along with Hirsch’s reference library on paper making and decorating.

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19th-20th century Chinese block printing (left); 19th century German block printing, of the kind used to cover powdered medicines and sugar

Olga Hirsch was married to Paul Hirsch, who owned one of the world’s largest collections of music manuscripts and early works by composers including Mozart. After marrying Hirsch in 1911, Olga learned bookbinding to help repair works in his music library, but became fascinated with the decorated papers covering his manuscripts and spent the next 50 years researching and collecting papers.

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20th century lithography by Erich Büttner (left), created for writer Max Kretzer’s 1922 book Die Locke ; 19th century marbling known as Stormont
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20th century European decorated paper, made using block printing or lithography. Early 20th century lithography by Johann Vincenz Cissarz

An Anthology of Decorated Papers contains 256 papers from Hirsch’s collection, compiled by Philippa Marks, curator of book bindings at the British Library. Papers are grouped into key decorating techniques, from hand-marbled to brocade, paste, block-printed and mass produced, and hail from Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

The book also provides a brief history of decorated papers and the paper-making trade, and where possible, lists each paper’s intended use. As well as traditional book papers, there are paper backings for playing cards, wrappers for sweet foodstuffs and others made as souvenirs.

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20th century European ‘comb’ marbling
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19th-20th century European sunspot or ‘tiger eye’ marbling created using a caustic substance such as creolin; 20th century marbling in oil by Paul Kersten
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19th century marbling used for end-leaves; early 20th century marbling by G.W. Gwynne & Sons for the Doves Press

It’s a fascinating collection and the range of colours, patterns and printing techniques make for a useful and inspiring visual reference book. It’s also a loving homage to hand-crafted design, showcasing the beautiful patterns that can be made using just paper, ink and a few analogue tools.

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20th century European paper, produced using several techniques including sprinkling, the use of a stylus or utensil and the application of chemicals
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18th-19th century European block-printing
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19th century European moire marbling. Ripples have been created by rocking the sheet of paper backwards and forwards as it is placed in a marbling trough, or by moving the trough itself

An Anthology of Decorated Papers by Philippa Marks is published by Thames & Hudson on October 19 and costs £38.00. You can pre-order copies here.

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