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Whistler’s beehive watermarks

15 June 2018 by Alex Patterson

Keith our paper conservator working on the Whistler etchings before display

For a curator the best part of any exhibition, is the first time you properly look at the objects. This is a time when you can make discoveries and investigate objects beyond their normal scope. When I first began work on the Whistler & Pennell: Etching the City exhibition, Keith our paper conservator analysed the condition of the prints. In doing so, he noticed a wonderful watermark on the paper used for James McNeill Whistler’s prints (1834-1903). It is a beautiful design with a central beehive motif surrounded by ornate scrollwork of leaves and flowers crowned with a fruit tree. It also shows the initials DEDB. I immediately wanted to learn more about where this paper came from and why it was used for Whistler’s prints so I could include it in the exhibition and share it with our visitors. This is what I found!

Drawn illustration of the De Erven de Blauw ‘beehive’ watermark from National Gallery of Australia

Apparently Whistler was very selective about what paper was used for his etchings. This wasn’t at all unusual; the etching revival had instigated a new interest in the aesthetic tone and structure of paper. Modern paper made in the early 19th century could be highly acidic and appear bright white after the introduction of wood pulp and chlorine bleaches into the paper-making process. Laid paper was also gradually replaced with wove paper which had a more even surface. Whistler, and indeed most printers, refused to use such paper as it affected the overall tone and aesthetic of the work. The modern paper created too much of a contrast between the inks and the white background. Also wove paper did not hold the ink in the same way as laid paper.

Following Rembrandt’s example, Whistler like most etchers’ and printers preferred to use ‘Old Dutch’ or silky Japanese paper. Throughout his life Whistler constantly searched stationers and old book shops looking for it, as large quantities could still be found in London, Paris and Amsterdam. Made from boiled and beaten rags, drained on wire moulds, ‘Old Dutch’ paper was high quality with a ribbed texture and creamy in colour. Japanese paper was alternatively made from the bark of a mulberry tree; it could vary in thickness and tone from pale cream to a pronounced yellow. These types of paper could be identified by their unique watermark.

Limeburner, etching by JM Whistler from the Lady Lever Art Gallery exhibition with watermark

A watermark is design or motif that is caused by thickness variations created by the wire mould when shaping the paper. The ‘beehive’ watermark that we found on Whistler’s print’s, shown in transmitted light, is not the mark of ‘Old Dutch’ papermakers as I originally thought, but it can be traced to Holland.

The ‘beehive’ watermark is associated with the Honig (honey) family of Dutch papermakers who owned mills in Zaandijk, North Holland. The coat of arms was widely copied throughout the Netherlands and came to represent Dutch papermaking more generally. Whistler’s ‘beehive’ watermark is a variation belonging to the De Erven de Blauw papermakers from the 1820s, which explains the initials DEDB within the design (there were alternate versions of the De Erven de Blauw watermark also shown)

Alternative beehive watermark from Whistler’s portrait of Sculptor, J Becquet.

We would have never known that these watermarks existed on the Walker Art gallery’s prints before as they are not visible under normal lighting conditions, it was crucial to photograph our findings through transmitted light to document the work. This research and photographs of all the prints which contain the watermark are permanently available for everyone to view on Watermark, our online collection of works on paper.

 

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