SOCKS AND PAPER
In 1781, a Frenchman named Ambrose Benoist Huquier sent a letter to Benjamin Franklin mentioning the fact that he had sent stockings to the American troops. The correspondence gives us a snapshot of commerce between France and Revolutionary America. In 1778, the Treaty of Alliance was signed, cementing commercial French support of the Revolutionary effort.
The Treaty of Alliance.
Huquier was a bonnetier, or hosier, and with the French and Americans being allies, Huquier managed to procure a contract to supply the Continental Army with enough socks to keep their feet warm. But Huquier was also a printer, and in his correspondence with Franklin discusses the need for printing equipment to be declared as “Machine Phisique," (physical machine) since shipping printing equipment to the colonies was forbidden.
Huquier was active in the latter part of the 18th Century in Orléans, the city known as the birthplace of Joan of Arc. Orléans was a major center for the production of decorated papers. Huquier himself was a member of the group of printers known as dominotiers, or printers of decorated paper (papier dominoté). Many examples of his work can still be found in collections around the world.
About 1768 Huquier’s shop produced a fabulous paper featuring intertwining circles, a central bird, roses and grapes. A variety of patterns gives texture to the open spaces. This sheet, which is the subject of this blog post, was used as endpapers in a 1768 Spanish imprint, Carta del Venerable Siervo de Dios, D. Juan de Palafox y Mendoza al Sumo Pontifice Inocencio X, in the collection of the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan. Though portions of the sheet had been trimmed to fit the book, most of the sheet was visible, including the words at the bottom: A ORLEANS CHEZ BENOIST HUQUIER NO 5. Half of the sheet was used the front endpaper, and the other half as the rear endpaper.
A simple repeated pattern on an 18th Century domino paper.
There are numerous barriers to finding antique decorated papers. Their use as wallpaper made them vulnerable to whims of fashion, and many examples have long been obscured or removed. Some unused sheets are in special collections, but they can also be found in books, where they can go undisturbed and unnoticed for centuries, aiding in their preservation. Finding them is the challenge. If the books are in a library or special collection, finding decorated endpapers requires the methodical process of pulling books off their shelves one by one and peeking into the covers to see if there is indeed a decorated paper. And if there is, what elation! The process, though, isn't as tedious as you might expect. Not all books need necessarily to be pulled and examined. There are many periods when decorated papers were rarely used in a binding and, if the bindings are original, the books can generally be dated by their binding style. Particular styles commonly featured decorated endpapers, others not so much. So only a few books from the many need to be examined. Also, decorated papers were fashionable in particular periods in bookbinding history. There are, of course, limitations to this method of finding books with decorated papers: many special collections are protective of their books, and one cannot simply walk in and start examining them. Also many librarians do not have decorated endpapers on their radar, so endpapers are not typically cataloged. When libraries digitize and catalog images of their bindings, they rarely included photographs of the endpapers, even though the endpaper is technically part of the binding.
Happily, we are acquainted with the librarians at the Clements Library, Julie Fremuth, the Book and Paper Conservator and Emiko Hastings, the Book Division Curator and Head of Digitization. They are aware of our interest in decorated paper, and have kept a watch for them in the collection. A couple years ago they let me know that they set out a number of books I could inspect the next time I was at the library. I was able to photograph them for our research, and one of them featured as endpapers the Huquier with the bird and roses.
The papers printed and decorated in this period were typically about 18”x12", and the patterns were repetitive, that is, they could be lined up as wallpaper and the pattern would continue from sheet to sheet. The patterns on these French papers were often large and flamboyant, so were perfect on walls. This fact, however, did not stop bookbinders from also using the papers for the covering of books and for endpapers inside. One might be inclined to think that a large pattern cut down to a small size for use in a book or other small items might destroy the viability of the design, but it's actually quite interesting to see this practice, and it can be quite compelling to see a small portion of a large pattern. It becomes a sort of mystery; what does the rest of the paper look like?
Each sheet of paper was the result of a great amount of hand work. The designer first used chisels to carve the primary design onto a block of wood. The design might be a simple repeating pattern or a more complex display which could include various flora and fauna, geometric patterns, and picotage. Picotage consisted of small repeating patterns of dots, stars, lines, or circles and designers commonly used it to add texture or background. Since these tiny elements are difficult if not near impossible to carve from a block of wood, they were typically made of brass strips and pins, which were then worked into the base block of wood.
Antique wood block with picotage.
WHAT SHALL WE CALL THE DESIGN
One day a few weeks ago, I showed the image of the original paper to my wife. "Ooh," she said, "that looks like a Tanager," pointing at the bird dominating the center of the paper. I had never considered what kind of bird it might actually represent and didn't consider that there might be an actual bird species that the designer may have had in mind. But it makes perfect sense, since the roses and grapes in the design are representations of actual plants, why wouldn't the bird be a representation of an actual bird? I had been so engaged with the composition itself, the design details, how the original block might have been produced, and how we might recreate the design, that I had given no thought to what the flora and fauna might be. But, there was a clear resemblance to the Western Tanager. I wondered at this though. What is (and was) the Western Tanager's distribution? We found out that the approximately 240 species of Tanagers are limited to the Americas. So if Huquier was actually thinking of the Western Tanager, how did he know about this bird whose habitat does not include France.
Before I had the chance to pursue these questions further, I showed the design to my 14 year old son. I said to him, "We think it's some sort of Tanager." I was beaming. We both love birds and enjoy identifying them by their appearance and calls. There was a pause as he studied the bird. I waited. "That's no Tanager," he said squarely. "It has a green wing. Tanagers have black wings. This looks more like a Mangrove Warbler." I was taken aback. How had he come to this knowledge? I don't have a lot of doubts or fears about my kids and their futures, but any that I might have had at that moment vanished. Everyone thinks—or should think—their children are special, but right at that moment I was completely in awe.
I immediately looked up the Mangrove Warbler, and discover that it is a variant of the Yellow Warbler. I wondered why there are two names for this bird, and found out that the Mangrove Warbler is actually a group of birds found mostly in Middle America and the Carribbean. This variant sports the reddish head that the migratory group of Yellow Warblers does not. This information brought to mind more questions. How did Benoist Huquier design a bird that remarkably shares characteristics with the Mangrove Warbler, a bird found only in the Americas, while he lived a world away in France. Are the design similarities a coincidence? Was this a bird he saw in a plate or drawing, or a natural history book? Or had he travelled to the Americas and actually seen this bird with his own eyes? The most likely explanation was that he had seen this bird in a natural history book. This conclusion put me on a path to see if there was an 18th Century publication a designer could have accessed which featured an image of the Mangrove Warbler. After a fairly extensive search, I came up dry. I decided it must be a happy coincidence.
A Mangrove Warbler.
Considerations. One of the considerations we face in reproducing a historical pattern is how much we should "clean up" the design. Often the original paper pattern has a rustic handmade look and feel. There might be flaws as a result of careless printing, or the block might have been damaged. The block might also show signs of carving imperfections. How faithful do we need to be to these signs of humanity? When digitizing a design as opposed to hand carving it, it is very easy for the design to result in an overly-smooth, digitally produced, vector design, rather than something that is supposed to resemble hand carving. We take care to keep the pattern from being too smooth at the edges. In preserving this handmade feel, we also do try to avoid reproducing obvious damaged to the original block or flaws in printing.
Printing. Printing of these 18th Century papers was also done by hand on handmade paper. Paper makers made their paper one sheet at a time, and printers printed one sheet at a time as well. The block would have been inked with a paste-based ink, and the paper laid over the inked surface. A paste-based ink was applied with a dabber. These types of inks added a rusticity to the design, and though compelling enough, we have chosen to use vegetable based inks which produce a sharper image. We print this relief stye, that is, we place the inked block onto the paper rather than placing the paper onto the block. Then we press it in a hand press.
Hand Coloring. After printing the paper in a single color—usually black or dark brown—an artist would add more color with stencils. The portions to be colored would be cut away, and the color would be brushed on. This method didn't require highly skilled painters to do the work. In our own coloring work, we have done away with the stencils but still brush the watercolors on by hand.
Uses. These papers were primarily but not exclusively used as wallpaper. This common use was what often drove the designs toward large patterns, patterns which looked sometimes incomplete in an isolated sheet. This pattern, though compelling on its own is quite striking when repeated multiple times. The papers would also be used as endpapers in books, as this design was. The fact that this French paper was used in a Spanish imprint suggests the presence of an international trade for decorated papers. France had a thriving decorated paper industry, but Spain less so during this period.
The process to connect 18th Century France to 21st Century America through this magnificent design took many hours over a number of years, and we feel honored to reintroduce this paper to the world.
Papillon Papers' version: Oiseau et Rose.
Treaty of alliance;
Huquier and Franklin's correspondence;
Treaty of Alliance:
Antique printing block with brass picotage:
Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum [Public domain]
Greg Schechter from San Francisco, USA [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]
All other images by Vernon Wiering
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