Whistler's watermarks

Introduction | Watermark and countermark library | Dynasts | Whistler's papers


Whistler's papers

Bibi Lalouette 1859 intaglio print Collection of the National Gallery of AustraliaBibi Lalouette 1859 intaglio print Collection of the National Gallery of Australia more detail

James McNeill Whistler is well known as a painter, but he was also a prolific and sophisticated printmaker who experimented with a wide range of papers. He was one of the first artists to exploit the qualities of the newly available ‘Oriental’ papers which were exported to Europe following the reopening of Japan to commerce in 1854. Whistler valued their textural and tonal qualities, and the unique print impressions he was able to achieve with the Japanese papers he managed to secure. He was also obsessed with searching for ‘old’ European papers, particularly those he classed as ‘Dutch’. Whistler liked paper which had already degraded, saying that suitable paper would be recognisable by the smell of the decaying size, which ensured its softness; he even admired and accommodated ingrained surface dirt.

The more completely the size has decayed the better the paper; but the size must have been there, just as sugar must have been in Chablis.1

While some early proofs and special impressions are printed on Japanese papers or in Chine collé format, the majority of images are on European handmade laid papers dating from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Later wove papers and single sheets obviously torn from books are also prevalent. European papers encode more information than the eye may at first perceive. When held against the light, features of the paper structure and watermarks become visible. Considered in context, these details can be used to approximate the origin and date of the paper. Of the prints so far examined 99 are on paper bearing a watermark and 42 different watermarks occur.

image: 'Annie Haden' 1860 etching and drypoint Collection of the National Gallery of AustraliaAnnie Haden 1860 etching and drypoint Collection of the National Gallery of Australia
more detail

It is believed that watermarks originated in Italy in the late 13th2 century and credible estimates indicate that millions of watermarks have been in use, with less than 200,000 catalogued. Historically, a watermark was created from a design sewn with thin wire onto the paper mould that is present in the finished sheet as a thinner, translucent layer. Early designs were stark – the first known watermark was an upper case ‘F’ (for Fabriano, a pioneer mill near Ancona.3 Their primary purpose is to identify the mill where the paper was made. Some watermarks came to be associated with specific sizes of paper, such as Foolscap. Each mill could draw on a wide repertoire of design elements including heraldic shields, exotic flora and fauna and fictional characters such as mermaids. Although the motifs varied, many followed certain themes for centuries and often reflected traditional national activities such as winegrowing and beekeeping, for instance, grape bunches are commonly featured in the watermarks of paper mills in the winegrowing districts of Italy, France and Germany.

There are constraints in the making of a watermark symbol. Small circles, narrow angles, long straight lines and solid areas may cause unwanted variations in sheet formation.4 The creation of isolated elements within a watermark symbol can prove devilishly difficult – navels on nude figures have to be anchored to the pelvis by a wire strand which gives the appearance of a horrible gash.

Watermarks cannot be relied upon for the purpose of dating works of art. Whatman papers, bearing the company’s distinctive watermark, appear among those Whistler selected. The Whatman name has been used by various mills and makers, but it has also been copied and paper moulds bearing the Whatman watermark have been sold from mill to mill, with associated dates remaining unchanged for years.

An example of Whistler’s deliberate choice of paper can be seen in the etching of Annie Haden, printed on a sheet with a probable date in the 16th century. It bears a Bishop’s Crosier watermark, originating in Basle, Switzerland, and has an obvious pattern of chain and laid lines, known as antique laid. Such papers are formed on the single-face moulds in use until the late 18th century, which caused fibres to flock along the chain lines making them appear darkened. Minute fragments of wood scattered randomly throughout the sheet derive from wooden stampers used to pulverise the linen rags from which the paper was formed. Hollander beaters with metal blades superseded wooden stampers in the mid-18th century, except in France where they were in use until the 19th century. Linen rags were gradually replaced by other materials such as cotton and wood pulp during the 19th century as these materials could be bleached, rather than fermented, to achieve white paper quickly.

image: 'Eagle Wharf' 1859 etching Collection of the National Gallery of Australia'Eagle Wharf' 1859 etching Collection of the National Gallery of Australia more detail

Whistler took exceptional care with every stage in the creation of plates, stones and impressions. The characteristics of his chosen papers were an integral part of the finished print. He celebrated flaws and irregularities in the paper and sought uniqueness at a time when uniformity was a priority for editioned works. Plates were sometimes heated prior to printing in order to burnish the paper surface and impart translucency. Torn edges, surface dirt, foxing and old inscriptions were all creatively accommodated and incorporated.

Correspondence with his publishers and contemporary reports of his working methods revealed Whistler’s delight in the printing process and materials used. This included everything from inking and wiping (one of his black inks was reportedly made ‘from the dregs of port wine’) to mounting and framing.5 He was particular about where deckle or torn edges should be placed in the final work and on the proportion and relationship of the image to the margin.

From 1878, for aesthetic and practical reasons, Whistler trimmed the margins of his prints. He valued his old papers and used them economically, cutting and tearing sheets as close as he could to the edges of the plates. During the second half of the 19th century, collectors valued old prints with wide margins. Ever contrary, Whistler took to making his point by removing the margins completely:

I use no ruler because I wish the knife to follow sympathetically the edge of the proof. Even the cutting of the paper, although you may not know it, is vibrated and full of colour.6

All these modes were consistent with the intense esteem Whistler held for the works of Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), whose etchings he had long known through the collection of his brother-in-law Seymour Haden.  Rembrandt’s techniques and ideas were not only revolutionary in his own time, but had a huge impact on the advancement of etching in general.  The 1857 exhibition Art Treasures of the United Kingdom collected in Manchester  which included works by Rembrandt (and, amongst others,  the Spanish master Diego Velazquez) inspired in Whistler and his contemporaries a revival of interest in etching.  The concerns for characteristics of materials and of utilising inherent flaws carried through to the ensuing Arts and Crafts Movement of the latter part of the 19th century.  A return to the old crafts and to techniques of previous times, a rejection of mass- produced uniformity and of poor quality materials were central to the new flow.

Whistler’s papers have been widely researched and catalogued, yet individual works continue to present the viewer with new questions. The exhibition An artist abroad: the prints of James McNeill Whistler contains a small conservation component illustrating aspects of Whistler’s materials and techniques, but more importantly it will provide an opportunity to enjoy these subtle works that celebrate the inherent qualities of paper, ink, tone and texture at first hand.

Andrea Wise, Kassandra Coghlan and Bill Hamilton
Conservation Department
National Gallery of Australia


1 Menpes, Mortimer, Whistler as I knew him London: Adam and Charles Black, 1904, p.213.
2 Hunter, Dard, The history and technique of an ancient craft New York and London: Dover Publications, 1978, p.260.
3 Davies Norman, Europe: A History Oxford Oxford University Press 1996 p.350.
4 Turner S and Skiold B, Handmade Paper Today London: Lund Humphries 1983 p.79.
5 Menpes, p.94.
6 ibid.