The foolscap watermark
The little velvet dress, drypoint 1873 photographed in transmitted light.
click to enlarge
The Foolscap watermark was used frequently by European papermakers from Britain to Russia. In our day the name might conjure up a mental picture of a schoolboy in a dunce’s cap banished to a corner of the schoolroom; but this commonly-used watermark displayed a creature foreign to our times - the clown, fool or jester.; (Shakespeare uses the three terms synonymously).; Its popularity might perhaps be due in part to the charm of the merry image which, in the main, depicts a jester in a floppy cock’s comb cap and a collar with four, five or seven peaks, each bearing a jingle bell.
Though Russia may well have been the periphery of the Fool’s far-flung dominions, the Foolscap watermark was in use there from as early as 1575. Tromonin illustrates a rudimentary version without collar but with the twin-peaked cap and bells which he; traces ;to the Vilnius Evangelie [Gospel] papers of that date.1 He gives another example, now in the five-peaked collar mode, at illus. 811 for which the source documents are the 1668 itinerary accounts of Czar Alexei Mikhailovich.2
Five examples of the Foolscap watermark are held by the National Gallery of Australia in its collection of 261 prints by James McNeill Whistler:
;The first four items conceal an identical rendering of the Foolscap watermark and are of the seven-pointed-collar version.; The Little Velvet Dress carries a five-pointed collar watermark. Other details which differentiate this version are the thick braid of hair on the nape, the widely-divided peaks in the coxcomb cap and the protuberant nose.
All five prints are on Antique Laid paper which, as explained in the Introduction, shows heavy flocking of pulp along the chain lines, indicating the sheets were formed on single-face moulds which largely went out of use in the 18th century. This is germane in the case of the lithograph Portrait Study, Miss Rosalind Birnie Philip which was pulled posthumously in 1903 very soon after Whistler died.
Detail of the foolscap with five pointed collar from The little velvet dress
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The London printer Frederick Goulding (1842-1909) was commissioned by Rosalind Birnie Philip, the executrix of Whistler’s estate, (and his sister-in-law), to print this and other plates. ;It was her practice to mark the reverse of prints which passed through her hands with a small rubber stamp. A round device declared the work to have been pulled during Whistler’s lifetime; a square stamp was assigned to prints made posthumously. (Instances are reported in other collections of prints bearing both kinds; but by and large her indications are regarded as reliable.)
Goulding acquired a deserved reputation for the perceptive use of rare old papers from a stock he had built up. He knew of Whistler’s liking for such papers and so, printed Portrait Study on material which he felt would accord with Whistler’s tastes.3
The fool, in sundry guises, had a place in many cultures throughout the World and was known in western Europe from pre-Christian times. The being is best remembered in the role of court jester; but quite modest establishments, including taverns and brothels, flaunted a fool.; In these the role was often filled by a cripple or imbecile given shelter, clothed, fed and kept as a kind of capering house pet.
At the other end of the scale, the jesters were highly intelligent, perceptive, quick-witted men (women, only rarely) who were allowed great licence in their comments on persons and events, and were expected to use it.; As Olivia says in Twelfth-Night (Act 1 Scene V) in speaking of her clown-servant Feste:
Shakespeare knew the fools and their cant and exploited his knowledge.; He gives Touchstone, the clown, some of the best speeches in As You Like It and observes of him (Act V Scene 1V):
Detail of foolscap watermark with seven pointed collar from Portrait Study: Miss Rosalind Birnie Philip,lithograph 1896.
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The barbed banter between Beatrice and Benedict in Much Ado About Nothing might well reflect the Bard’s familiarity with the smart talk of the jesters.
The world of the fool was not confined to courts and mansions.; It had popular manifestations through the London playhouses and the wide-ranging troupes of strolling players which moved between towns that were not on the established theatre circuit.; The clown was a usual member of the cast.
That role has withered in western Europe and the fashion of a fool-in-residence petered out in the 18th century.; But the character lives on to this day through the medium of playing cards, where he appears in medieval motley as the Joker.; Though not used in all card games, it is customary to supply two such cards in the pack in addition to the basic 52-piece deck.; Appropriately, the Joker is a ‘wild’ card able to fill a number of roles.
The term ‘foolscap’ has also survived to modern times through paper. In Britain and its dominions and colonies the name came to be associated with a specific size of writing paper which, in imperial measurements, was 8 X 10 inches (20 X 33cm).; Australia adopted the metric system of measurement in 1966 and the ‘foolscap’ sheet has been superseded by the slightly shorter and wider size known as A4.
Aptly, the First Edition of Shakespeare’s plays, printed in London by Jaggard and Blount in 1623, is said to have been on paper bearing the Foolscap watermark.4 At the time Foolscap was a fairly new device, but it became enormously popular throughout the 17th century in a multitude of forms.; Heawood provides illustrations of 166 varieties which ring the changes on the number of collar points, the style of the coxcomb cap, presence of a diadem or hair braid, differences in profiles, and heads looking to the right or the left.; The dates of Heawood’s source papers range from 1610 to 1718, neatly demonstrating that the Foolscap watermark was, essentially, a style of the 17thcentury.
Portrait Study : Miss Rosalind Birnie Philip lithograph 1896, (posthumous impression) 1903. Photographed in transmitted light to show watermark centre right edge.
click to enlarge
As the papers for all five prints show heavy flocking of pulp along the chain lines of the mould, it is guineas to gooseberries that they were formed before about 1740.
;We are unable to identify positively the watermark in the lithograph Portrait Study, Miss Rosalind Birnie Philip.; It closely resembles the versions illustrated by Ash and Fletcher at p117 of their Watermarks in Rembrandt’s Prints from source documents of 1659. (6);
The watermark in the drypoint The Little Velvet Dress appears to match that in the etching Christ Disputing with the Doctors made in 1652 by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669). (7); The sheet may have been formed earlier, as Rembrandt was known to have held a stock of papers and to select from them to suit the image he was about to print.; Given Whistler’s addiction to papers of that time, it seems reasonable to assign the Canberra sheet to the second half of the 17th century.
Kassandra Coghlan and Bill Hamilton
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