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The Telltale Handprint: Paper as a Palimpsest of History

Winter 2017
Winter 2017
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Donald Farnsworth   received degrees from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1974 and from University of California–Berkeley in 1977; has taught at universities and colleges, including UC Berkeley, California College of the Arts, San Francisco State University, and University of Hawaii. Farnsworth is known as an artist, master printmaker, an authority on the history and manufacture of handmade paper, and more recently as an innovator in digital technology and weaving techniques. In 1979 he designed and led the building of a hand paper mill for Nyumba Ya Sanaa, in Tanzania. In 1981 he founded Magnolia Editions, a fine-art publishing company and collaborative studio in Oakland, California. Rarely have I encountered an entangled mat of cellulose fibers I did not appreciate in one way or another. Whether textured or smooth, precious or disposable, these hardy amalgams of hydrogen-bonded fibers have changed the world many times over. For centuries, human history has been both literally written on the surface of paper and embedded deep within its structure. Paper itself has a memory; the following tale serves to illustrate this point. It is a reminder that history is comprised of human lives, whose great achievements and regrettable missteps still linger beneath the surface of the treasured artifacts of the past, easily revealed by a modern-day detective armed with curiosity and a raking light. Generally speaking, we can recognize most papers by a few basic characteristics: they are typically thin, portable, flexible, and readily accepting of ink or inscription. There is, however, a particular sheet that is superlatively impressive, exhibiting an unintentional and unpretentious type of beauty. I refer here to the textured papers of the Italian Renaissance.

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In the linen and hemp sheets created in Italy between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, the paper's fibers have conformed not only to themselves, but to the larger matrix of the coarse wool fleece against which they were pressed, yielding a galaxy of fibers just waiting for a collaboration with an opportune stroke of chalk or splash of paint. My own journey toward re-creating sheets of Italian Renaissance paper in the present day has impressed upon me the fundamental contradictions inherent in the nineteenth-century Arts and Crafts Movement's approach to papermaking, one that continues to dominate our definition of handmade paper. It is difficult to reconcile William Morris's rejection of mechanized equipment and his advocacy for hand craftsmanship with our use today of giant Hollander beaters, automated sizing machines, woven felts, and steam-heated paper dryers. Increasingly, Morris's definition of handmade paper seems conveniently tailored to his particular production needs, i.e., letterpress and wallpaper. The Arts and Crafts Movement can also be held responsible for the ascension of cotton as the main fiber in Western papermaking. Until the Industrial Revolution, paper was made from linen and hemp. Arts and Crafts papermakers in both Europe and the burgeoning United States often substituted or blended in cotton rag instead. Made affordable by the American slave trade and the cotton gin,1 cotton lacks the critical bonding capacity of the hemicellulose found in linen and flax. Although cotton papers may demonstrate a similar permanence, they exhibit inferior tensile and tear strength. In the end, as the slave trade fueled American industry, cotton came to define fine art papers as did the homogenous textures produced by the use of woven felts.2 In 2016, seeking a first-hand reminder of the true nature of Italian Renaissance papers, my wife Era designed and scheduled a trip for us to numerous relevant study rooms and museums in New York, London, Windsor, Oxford, and Italy. Every felt maker, wool producer, museum director, conservator, curator, and archivist to whom we explained our mission accommodated us with grace and generosity along the way. Print and drawing study departments from the Met in New York and the Ashmolean in Oxford, to the V and A in London and the Royal Collection Trust in Windsor all graciously allowed Era to shine a low-angle raking light upon drawings by Tiepolo, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and many other masters. We were allowed to illuminate both front and back, revealing not only watermarks and screen patterns, but also imperfections of formation and pieces of rag, knotted or partially processed. While in London, we paid a visit to our longtime friend Angus O'Neill at Bryars and Bryars, an antiquarian book shop on Cecil Court. There, surrounded by historical books, maps, and prints, we described our quest in detail to Angus and Tim Bryars while enjoying the very drinkable white wine offered by our hosts. Tim produced from the shop's basement various leaves from books he saves for study and conservation. We inspected the leaves under raking light, looking for evidence of coarse felt. Halfway through the second bottle I was regaling my audience of three with the possible scenarios behind each paper object held to the light, describing the beating, the sheet forming, the mould flaws, and the couching imperfections possibly due to speed. I pointed out the horsehair rope marks and evidence of loft drying: in contrast with the uniform surface perfection of today's commercial art papers, loft-dried sheets were hung to dry over ropes braided from horse hair, leaving a recognizable set of parallel wrinkle marks (referred to as the paper's "back") running the entire width of the sheet. Characteristics like these suggest the general mayhem of high-production handmade paper—a story frozen in time within any given sheet. Towards the end of the second bottle, Tim produced a seventeenth- century blank sketchbook; he could not bring himself to put it up for auction for fear that a forger might use it for nefarious purposes. Era and I purchased and were gifted many items including this blank sketchbook. Months later, inspecting each sheet and imagining the circumstances that each imperfection suggested, I found a few sheets indicating that the coucher had started each post flat instead of using a curved couching surface. When couching flat, the first few sheets of the post often trap air bubbles. In one particular sheet, it appears that the coucher's assistant attempted to flatten the air pockets with the fingers of his left hand. When I compare an actual-size drawing of my hand against the mark (even after reducing my hand by 10 percent to account for shrinkage of the sheet after drying), it seems to indicate that child labor was used at this mill. The paper's surface and density bears faithful witness to the realities of human history, even those difficult aspects we may wish to forget. In an age of "fake news" and "alternative facts," the honest and impartial testimony of paper is a welcome reminder that the truth eventually comes to light.  notes 1. An 1861 New York Times article condemns the British consumption of cotton from slaveowners in the American South. The article notes that more than 80 percent of the 13 million pounds of cotton imported to the UK came from the Southern "Cotton States." See "England and the Cotton Supply," New York Times, June 1, 1861, (accessed July 13, 2017). 2. Though it is possible that Renaissance papermakers used blankets which were woven and then carded, needle felting was not invented until 1866, as an industrial method intended to produce felt fabric without the use of soap and water. I have found little evidence suggesting the use of woven blankets in the surface texture of sixteenth-century paper I have examined.