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Whistler's watermarks

The Lion Rampant watermark

 

Photographed in transmitted light, the etching Millbank 1861 from the Thames Set shows the watermark of a lion rampant on a shield with the initials M and C and part of a countermark MDCCCXXVIII (1828) Collection: National Gallery of Australia

Photographed in transmitted light, the etching Millbank 1861 from the Thames Set shows the watermark of a lion rampant on a shield with the initials M and C and part of a countermark MDCCCXXVIII (1828) Collection: National Gallery of Australia

After the visual extravaganzas of the Strasburg lily and Beehive watermarks, it is a relief to contemplate the graphic simplicity of the 'Fortune figure' (aka Fortuna and Fortune).

A deity predating Roman civilisation, Fortuna was initially a fertility goddess1 and was kindred to her probable Greek precursor Tyche, to the Hindu personage Laksmi and to the Buddhist Chinese Kuan Yin, answerer of pleas for mercy and for fertility. Fortuna came to be revered as the arbiter of chance and destiny.

She is represented as a nude standing tiptoe on a globe, the whole, in the manner of much classical statuary, set upon a plinth. The figure holds in each hand the ends of a strip of textile floating above her head. The circular object on which the figure teeters may denote a ball, the instability of the pose representing the uncertainty of fortune.

What may seem a naive rendering of fingers, toes and hair is characteristic of the limitations of wire (forming the watermark) as a graphic medium. Another consequence of the limitations of the medium is that the figure is androgynous. Isolated anatomical features such as breasts are omitted and this Fortuna, like Eve, is navel-free.

Four lithographs in the National Gallery of Australia's Whistler print collection carry the Fortuna watermark – The fair, Girl with bowl, The little steps, Lyme Regis and Mother and Child, no.2. More precisely, each sheet shows either the upper or lower half of the 'Fortune figure'.

Joining the prints in transmitted light demonstrates that the halves of the figure are from very similar sheets of paper, likely to have been formed on one or a pair of moulds (such as might be used by a vatman and coucher working in tandem). The half-figures could be from the one sheet. The laid line count is 1cm=8 in both pieces; the chain line spacing varies from l20mm to 30mm across the lateral span and match when joined vertically.

Heawood's Watermarks, mainly of the 17th and 18th centuries includes two tracings of the figure which differ from the Gallery's examples only in details of hair and profile; these departures may merely represent the intractability of wire. The figures (nos. 1364 and 1365), are in association with the countermark ‘VD L Van Gelder’. The figure appears again in a naïve form mounted on a shield, rather than the globe/ball and plinth, in illustration 1366.2 Here the countermark is given as ‘VGZ’, in script below a Fleur-de-Lis.

According to Heawood, Van der Ley and the Blauws were Dutch papermakers who made great strides in the 18th century, followed a little later by the Van Gelder firm; he also states that the 'Fortune figure' was used by Van der Ley and Van Gelder at the ‘Fortuyn’ mill.3

An example of a Russian 'Fortune figure' is included in Tromonins's watermark album. Whereas the Dutch figures face to the right, the Russian variant faces left. The figure sports breasts and the loins are swathed; there is no plinth, but the edifice is supported by a pair of wings sprouting from a globe. The source document is dated as 1708.4

The Fortuyn paper mill was owned by Van der Lay and his family from 1774 to 1837, during which time the mill used the 'Fortune figure' and similar watermarks. The papers in the Gallery's collection bearing the 'Fortune figure' watermark were probably made at the Fortuyn mill during that period.

Kassandra Coghlan and Bill Hamilton


1 Stapleton M, A dictionary of Greek and Roman mythology, New York, Bell Publishing Company 1978 p.83
2 Heawood E, Watermarks, mainly of the 17th and 18th centuries, Hilversum, Holland: The Paper Publications Society, 1950, b.PL201 and p.26.
3 Heawood E, Watermarks, mainly of the 17th and 18th centuries, Hilversum, Holland: The Paper Publications Society, 1950, p.26.
4 Tromonin KY, Tromomin’s watermark album: a facsimile of the Moscow 1844 edition. Edited and translated by JSG Simmons, Hilversum, Holland. The Paper Publications Society 1965.