The origin and development of marbling was practiced in Japan as early as the 12th century. The first forms of Japanese marbling were called Suminagashi, or “ink floating”. Delicate, swirled patterns were produced on paper when colors of ink were floated on the surface of the water. The artist would drop circles of black and indigo blue ink into the water, then blow gently on the surface of the water to produce smoke-like patterns. Marbling later became popular with members of the Japanese royal court. They used a slightly different technique to produce Suminagashi. They would decorate paper with sumi-ink then immerse the paper in water. As the inks floated to the surface, beautiful patterns would appear.
During the 15th century, other types of marbling were developed in Turkey and Persia. A type of marbling called Ebru, or “cloud art”, was practiced in the Ottoman Empire. Instead of floating inks on the water, they used paints made of oil or gouache. In order to float these heavier paints, they added a thickened medium called size to the water before they began marbling. The addition of size kept the inks from sinking and gave the marbler more control over color movement and the creation of patterns. After the paint was dropped into the water, a feather, stylus or comb was used to create intricate patterns.
The art of marbling spread throughout Europe and by the 17th century, England, France, Germany, Holland, and Italy produced marbled papers. However, few people knew how to marble paper and marblers were reluctant to share their knowledge. Various formulas and marbling techniques became guarded secrets. As demand for marbled paper grew, marble guilds were introduced. Master marblers trained apprentices in the various techniques, being careful not to share secret formulas and techniques. English bookbinders were not familiar with the techniques of paper marbling so they imported marbled paper from Holland and Germany. However, the English were reluctant to pay taxes on the paper so the clever Dutch disguised it as wrapping paper for toys that were shipped to England. Although it may have been time consuming, the English book binders pressed the wrinkled sheets of paper in order to use them as endpapers for their books.
In 1853, an English master marbler, Charles Woolnough, revealed the secrets of paper marbling in his book The Art of Marbling. This angered the community of master marblers because it revealed the secrets of the trade. However, once the secrets of paper marbling were made known, his principal rival, James Sumner, published Marbler, or the Mystery Unfolded: Showing How Every Bookbinder May Become a Marbler. In 1894, The Progress of the Marbling Art, written by Joseph Halfer, was printed in America. It gained an enthusiastic following because it simplified the art of paper marbling. Unfortunately, hand binders were replaced by binding machines and the art of paper marbling again became an obscure art.
Bibliography: Maurer, Diane. Marbling: A Complete Guide to Creating Beautiful Patterned Papers and Fabrics. New York: Friedman/Fairfax Publishers, 1959.