Judging a Book by its Cover: 18th-century hand-decorated papers in the Linnean Society's Collections

Artisanal hand-decorated papers were all the rage in the 18th century. Conservator Janet Ashdown combs our collections to see what examples we hold.

Published on 1st July 2022

Browsing the Society’s collections, you will often come across small compilations of pamphlets or theses bound in a variety of decorative papers. In many cases these papers stand out from the other leather-bound books on the shelves; our namesake Carl Linnaeus had several examples within his own library.

A short history of paper decoration

Printed paper lining, Grant of Arms

The decoration of paper has been taking place for almost as long as paper making itself, and its origins and geographic spread probably followed the same route: beginning in China in the first century CE, slowly spreading along the trade routes to the Middle East and Japan, and eventually leading to Europe. The block printing of patterns and designs on paper was in use in Italy by the 15th century, and by the 17th century this had spread across much of Western Europe.

There was a fiscal component to this method of covering and binding as well. Most such papers, especially where marbling was not involved, could be produced relatively cheaply, and the methods used could be replicated to produce decorated paper in greater quantities. The decoration itself may also have helped to disguise imperfections, meaning paper unsuitable for other types of printing could be utilised.

Hand decorated paper was very popular for use in bindings, end papers and wrappings until the early 19th century, when papermaking and printing began to be mechanised, and colours could be produced synthetically. By the end of the 19th century, hand decorating as a commercial industry had faded.

The Linnean Society Library has many examples of 18th-century decorated paper which has been used to cover pamphlets and books, as endpapers, and to line boxes.

(Note: Marbled paper is not included here because of its distinct nature and history. We hope to feature it in a later Treasure of the Month.)

Paste papers

Paste papers were a common form of decorated paper, being easy and cheap to produce. The coloured paste could be manipulated into different patterns, depending on the desired effect. Many bookbinders decorated their own paper in this manner.

Plain paste paper

Plain paste paper

Plain paste paper was simply the application of a mix of paste and dye (or pigment) with a brush or sponge (any paper could be used for this purpose).

Combed paste paper

Combed paste paper

Combed paste paper designs were achieved by dragging a comb, brush, or finger across the still-wet coloured paste on the surface. Also referred to as Herrnhut paper after the German settlement from where it originated, it is a technique established by the Moravians, a persecuted ethnographic group. A Moravian community would settle in Fulneck, near Leeds, in 1743, bringing the technique with them to the UK. It was the unmarried women of the community, or ‘Single Sisters’, who were responsible for the paste paper production (Potten 2018).

Other methods included placing two paste-painted sheets face to face, and then peeling them apart while still wet. The additional of use of string or felt during this phase added further interest to the rudimentary, free-hand designs.

Sprinkled paste paper

Sprinkled paste paper

Sprinkled paste paper displayed designs with a spattered or stippled effect that were made by loading a stiff brush with coloured paste and running it over a sieve or some coarse mesh. This paper was (and is) also known in Germany as Kiebitzpapier, or lapwing paper, named for the speckled eggs of this species of bird. Sprinkled paper was often used in ½ or ¼ leather bindings as a cheaper alternative to hand-marbled paper.

Block-printed papers

Block-printed papers find their beginnings in textile production; from the 12th century, the Indian subcontinent became famous for its stunning and intricately block-printed textiles.

Block printed paper covers

Block-printed paper covers in Linnaeus' library (© The Linnean Society of London)

Designs were made with a carved wooden printing block laden with paint, which was then evenly pressed onto the awaiting paper sheet. Numerous colours were possible with the use of multiple blocks, each overlaying a correlating design; metal pins pushed into the block were also used to create dots or lines. Block-printed papers reached their zenith in popularity in the 1700s.

Block-printed covers - Smith theses

These block-printed papers have been used to cover copies of our founder, Sir James Edward Smith's, doctoral thesis. (© The Linnean Society of London)

Dutch Gilt or Brocade papers

Dutch Gilt or Brocade papers date from approximately 1700, and were first used to cover music scores and pamphlets, and to line boxes. Thought to imitate the brocade designs of textiles, these papers were made in Germany and Italy. The term ‘Dutch’ may find its roots in the mishearing of ‘Deutsch’, or from being associated with the Dutch wholesalers who traded it.

Paper decorated with silver or gold was a luxury, but the use of cheaper metal alloys in the 18th century allowed for wider, more affordable use. Highly-decorated paper, commonly with animal, floral or themed designs, utilised techniques already used for embossing leather; the paper was embossed with a heated tool and a metal alloy, giving a bright, gilded effect.

Examples within the Society’s collections range from slightly crudely printed and gilded designs to more intricate and finely-executed patterns. (See gallery.)

Other examples really do reflect the opulence of a piece of brocade or damask fabric, gilded ornately with a raised pattern. Even the lining of our Grant of Arms is a stunning hand-decorated paper, with raised patterns of differing colours overlaying those beneath. (See gallery.)

The revolution in papermaking, bookbinding and printing that occurred in the 18th–19th century meant that the commercial production of hand-decorated papers became the realm of small-scale artisans and hobbyists. Though it waned in popularity by the end of the 19th century in favour of newfound industrialised processes, artisanal hand-decorated paper is still appreciated for its beauty, and the expertise needed to produce it, to this day.

Janet Ashdown, Conservator

Loring, R. (2007). Decorated Book Papers: Being an account of their designs and fashions (4th edition). Cambridge: Houghton Library.

Marks, P. J. M. (2015). An Anthology of Decorated Papers: A source book for designers. London: British Library

Potten, E. (2018). Decorative Papers at Nostell Priory. https://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/article/decorative-papers-at-nostell-priory Accessed: 27/05/22