Skip to main content

Between the Lines: Non-textual Elements

In 18th century France, a book could be much more than merely words on pages. Books often included tiny, intricate motifs, pull-out maps and diagrams, and miniature prints. They depicted everything from common life, elaborate architecture, or more fanciful visions of fantastic or heavenly worlds. Choices ranged from simple leaves of paper bound into a coverless booklet to gold-embossed leather covers lined with marbled pages.

Bonnie Griffin. "Reading before Reading: Sensual Elements as Social Indications" (video presentation)

Bonnie Griffin, a graduate student in Hanna Roman’s spring 2016 “Rethinking the Enlightenment French Novel” class, examines the physical composition/materiality of eighteenth-century books in the Morris Wachs Collection. Drawn to the exquisite marbled papers in the Wachs books, Bonnie talks about how the books’ forms tell us much about the book as an intellectual and social tool and the role of literature in society.

<em>Voyage pittoresque des environs de Paris</em>

Antoine-Nicolas Dezallier d’Argenville, Pittoresque des Environs de Paris

This book features light brown leather binding, gold embossed details on the spine, marbled edges, marbled endpapers, and a red ribbon bookmark.  The marbling displays blue, yellow, and red, with a particular predominance of blue. It resembles a curl pattern that would have been popular in the late 18th century. According to a 1765 article on paper coloring in Diderot and D’Alembert’s Encyclopedia, a blue color for marbling was probably made by taking indigo, ground up to a fine powder, then adding water and gall. This book also has the unique element of marbled edges, which was relatively rare. Edge marbling was virtually exclusive to France. Although most Western European countries, particularly England, the Netherlands, and Germany also had marbled paper industries or markets, there was nonetheless differentiation and specialization that could be observed in each country’s marbling styles. Here, the edge marbling only used blue dye. Among an aesthetically-obsessed bourgeoisie and aristocracy, the mere possession of a book was little to show off about; however, these little flourishes and elegant editions added a flair that made as much if not more of an impression than the literary work itself.

<em>Voyage pittoresque des environs de Paris</em>

Antoine-Nicolas Dezallier d’Argenville, Pittoresque des Environs de Paris

This strikingly detailed image, appearing just before the title page, depicts women in an idyllic garden scene. Translated, the inscription reads, “How sweet it is to pass one’s time/ Among Palès, Flore, and Pomone/ And to see the flowers of spring/ Following the fruits of autumn!/ In the fields and in the orchards/ Our soul is calmed and purified/ Sitting among these shepherds/ Love smiles upon nature”. Who were these free-spirited women? One may assume they are representations of figures from Roman mythology. Flore, wife of Zephyr, was granted everlasting youth and the task of watching over gardens and flowers. Palès was the goddess of pastures and shepherds. Pomone was the goddess of fruit. Arguably one of the most intricate, beautiful engravings to be found within the Wachs collection, this truly picturesque image evokes the pursuit of beauty, elegance, and pleasure that represents the aesthetic tendencies of the18th century. The insertion of such images came at a great effort to the artisans responsible and a greater cost to the customer, so the insertion of this image was likely anything but a casual afterthought. 

<em>L'univers énigmatique</em>

Louis-Antoine Caraccioli, L’Univers Enigmatique

With a marbled cover binding enhanced by red leather elements and gold and blue embossing on the spine, although unfortunately damaged by insects, this is a shining example of the many ways a book could be rendered beautiful with elegant details. The edges are dyed blue, and the endpapers also are marbled. The outer marbled cover bears what appears to be Turkish or spot marbling, which was popular in the mid-to-late 18th century, mainly featuring yellow coloring.  The inner endpapers’ marbling is entirely different: Here, we see a Dutch pattern, with yellow, red, green, and blue. Initially, marbled paper was simply referred to as Turkish paper, but later designated the specific technique and appearance in contrast to other techniques. The Turkish pattern involves simple color spots with veins between the spots where the paper shows through. To achieve the Dutch pattern, the colors would be raked with a comb into symmetrical rows, combed back and forth to create this pleasing design. Ideals of minimalism or simplicity were abandoned in the construction of such a book.

<em>Mémoires du Comte de Grammont</em>

Count Anthony Hamilton, Mémoires du comte de Grammont

This book exhibits extravagant, vibrant marbling on the cover pages, and features an even fancier element: marbled edges. Marbling edges as a way of adding color and finesse to books can be dated back to the early 17th century, and was done to complement the endpapers. The technique called for smoothly trimmed book edges, firmly clamped between wooden boards, to be dipped gently onto the colors floating on the marbling bath, one edge at a time. Only the most elegant and refined bookbinders used this technique. Initially, books with marbled edges were only commissioned by royalty and nobility, as this was a very expensive process. However, this technique became more widespread and affordable with time. The light yellow color would likely have been made by a preparation of ocher (a mineral earth). The twirled and curled pattern was frequently seen in the late 18th century. The marbling curls are small and tight, but not regular enough to be considered a repeating pattern, although the back end pages’ marbling follows a tighter, stricter pattern by comparison.

<em>Le temple de Gnide</em>

Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, Le temple de Gnide

<em>Le temple de Gnide</em>

Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, Le temple de Gnide

This book features a particularly unique element compared to others in this collection: there is no leather binding, there are only the marbled endpapers serving as a fragile cover. Marbled pages were typically used as endpapers, and appeared more rarely as covers- we cannot be sure of the original buyer’s intent, as book’s pages and their covers were assembled separately. Some leather trim is visible, particularly along the spin and protecting the corners, but it was possible that full leather binding was too expensive for the owner of this book, who nonetheless wished to add color to what would otherwise appear as a rather plain book. After the “golden age of French marbling”, the main colors used (red, yellow, blue, and green) gave way to just red, yellow, and blue- as is seen in the marbling of this work. This particular marbling sample features the snail or curl pattern, which was particularly popular from 1720 until 1740. The curls occur in even, repeating intervals, suggesting the use of a comb during the marbling process to swirl the colors before the paper was laid down upon the colors floating in the marbling bath.

<em>Histoire de Madame de Bellerive, ou, principes sur l'amour et sur l'amitié</em>

Francois-Jacques-Maximilien de Chastenet, and Marquis de Puysegur, Histoire de Madame de Bellerive

This elegant book features leather binding, intricate bold embossing along the spine, and red-tinted edges, along with marbled endpapers. The marbling exhibits a combination of large curls and spotting. The vibrant red, green, blue, and an ocher yellow-orange call out loudly and enthusiastically for attention. Such curls were likely formed with a large comb as a tool. This particular curl pattern appears often in the late 17th or early 18th century, as do these colors. This curl pattern was, in part, so popular because it was a relatively simple and quick way to both add visually appealing effects to the paper, as well as cover up any imperfections in the paper or printing. The back endpapers exhibit more spotting than the front, hinting at the handmade rather than machine-made nature of marbled paper in this time. In fact, later machine-made attempts at marbled paper were less popular; the small imperfections added a charm and a character that were lost with the mechanized next generations’ version.

<em>Almanach des gens d'esprit</em>

Francois Antoine de Chevrier, L'almanach des gens d'esprit

<em>Almanach des gens d'esprit</em>

Francois Antoine de Chevrier, L'almanach des gens d'esprit

This book differs from the rest of the collection in that there is no leather binding; there is only a marbled paper serving as a fragile cover, and there is no marbling in the inner endpapers. Getting books bound in leather would have been significantly more expensive than leaving the book enveloped only by paper. While the date of publication reads 1762, this does not necessarily mean the paper dates to this time, too; the pages were sold separately, and the book owner could go and get them bound as he or she pleased, so the marbled pages could be any number of years older. The marbling design is quite unique; it appears to be a mix of Turkish and spot patterns, with occasional swirls and curls. Red, yellow, and blue are the only colors that appear to have been used.

<em>Essay sur l'histoire générale, et sur les moeurs et l'esprit des nations, depuis Charlemagne jusqu'a nos jours</em>

Voltaire, Essay sur l’histoire generale

This book displays leather binding, with an embossed (but damaged) gold leaf decoration upon the spine. The edges have been marbled with a spotted pattern. The endpaper marbling is in red, yellow, and blue, and has been done in a very ordered, uniformed curl or snail pattern, called commun in France. Such small, tight curls were likely formed with the help of a small comb. This pattern typically dates back to the late 18th century. Nowadays, one may wonder why a mere history book would be endowed with such elaborate decorations. But for the distinguished individual, the book was yet another way to display one’s social status, wealth, and superior taste. Characteristics such as utility, efficiency, and affordability were only desirable to those who could not afford better.

<em>Paris en miniature</em>

Jean-Pierre-Louis de Luchet, Paris en miniature

This book was ornamented with particularly unique marbled endpapers. Focusing specifically on these endpapers, we can observe loose dotted and speckled spirals, featuring vibrant red, yellow, green, and blue. These colors were most prevalent during the so-called “golden age of French marbling”. These endpapers featured a blend of patterns known as placard or spot pattern, which was creatively combined with the curl pattern. The coloration and curled appearance suggests a style indicative of early 18th century French technique. This curled pattern, which is said to look like a snail, was also called “commun” in French, because it was a frequently- observed design in marbled paper.  Perhaps “common” seems a misnomer when applied to such an ornately decorated book; although this was a popular design in marbled paper itself, such decoration in books was a luxury and would only appear in the librariesof the most sophisticated individuals.

<em>Lettres d'une peruvienne</em>

Francoise d’Issembourg d’Happoncourt de Grafigny, Lettre d’une peruvienne

This book features numerous aesthetically pleasing elements suggesting a buyer with refined taste and a fair amount of money: leather binding, gold embossed stamping along the spine, a blue ribbon sewn in as a bookmark, red-dyed edges, and marbled endpapers. The red, yellow, and blue colors visible on the marbled endpapers, along with the regular, recurring curl pattern (also called snail or commun), suggest that this was a style occurring in the early 18th century. The regular, repeating curls would have been made by a small comb. Red is particularly prominent in this sample. In the early 18th century, this red color would typically be made of red lake pigment, ground up, and then mixed with ox-gall and gum tragacanth, with an addition of brazilwood boiled with quicklime. Ingredients for the red cake (which is how colors were stored) varied from carmine, lake, rose pink, vermillion, and red lead.

<em>Lettres d'Aza ou d'un péruvien</em>

Ignace Hugary de La Marche-Courmont, Lettres d'Aza ou d'un Peruvien

This book is adorned with leather binding, edged in gold leaf on the front and back, and has a gold leaf-embossed spine. A later-added insert upon the edge page suggests private ownership, in a special collection. The edges of the pages are tinted red, and a sewn-in blue ribbon serves as a bookmark. The marbling shows vibrant red, blue, green, and an ocher yellow-orange. A chaotic design, the marbling shows a mix of spot or placard and curl pattern techniques, but the curls appear to be large and loosely done. This sort of marbling would have been most prevalent in the late 17th or early 18th century. This book would have been a double-dose of delight; firstly, the voyeuristic pleasure of reading supposedly private letters, as well as the sensual and tactile experience of handling such an elegant, beautiful object. Were books at this time intended merely to be read, such frills as these marbled papers and expensive leather would not have been needed; books also crafted as artistic statements, sources of aesthetic enjoyment, and a manner of self-expression and indulgence.

<em>Le bon jardinier</em>

Le Bon Jardinier

This charming and whimsical title page adds a splash of vibrant, flirtatiously bright color to an otherwise primarily technique-oriented book dedicated to outdoor pursuits such as the cultivation of gardens and maintaining beautiful flowers. Are those tomatoes? Are those fruits or flowers? Who cares, they’re adorable! – and attest to the pleasure of decoration. Small imperfections such as off-set coloring and uneven thickness of ink serve to remind the reader that this decoration was done by hand, without the use of more precise machinery. Although this tiny, pocket-sized book was likely far less costly than the other books displayed here, there was nonetheless a desire to enhance the text with this decidedly unnecessary yet quite pleasing element.