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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 of the National Gallery of Australia

Two works in the National Gallery of Australia’s collection of Whistler prints show three watermark images of a lion rampant on a shield flanked by the letters M and C in Gothic script and a countermark MDCCCXXVIII (1828): the etching Millbank and the lithograph Nursemaids: Les Bonnes du Luxembourg. The latter is unusual in that it incorporates two lion rampant watermarks, one a mirror image of the other.

It is curious that the lion, extinct in Europe since prehistoric times, has had a starring role in heraldry over many centuries. Its first known appearance is in an enamel now in the Musée de Tessé at Le Mans made not later than 1151. The piece depicts Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, bearing a blue shield with three, (possibly four) rampant golden lions. The Count was the son-in-law of Henry I of England (reigned 1100–1135). It is believed that in knighting Geoffrey, Henry bestowed upon him a shield bearing painted lions. Very soon afterwards, Richard the Lionheart (1157–1199) became the first English king to bear arms and three golden lions (or leopards) have been used in the arms of every English dynasty since that time.1

Heraldic lions are often pussycats; but the lion-on-a-shield image used widely in watermarks is of a different mien. This creature is rampant, with a fearsome protruding tongue and three paws in the air ready to attack or defend. It is a device that has also been remarkably enduring. Don Francisco de Bofarull y Sans shows a drawing of a watermark displaying a lion on a shield found in Venetian documents of 1480 and 1481 which is related to the three watermarks in the two prints under consideration.2 At this point we assume these watermarks to be on papers made in the 19th and very early in the 20th century; but this same lion has served in sundry metiers from as early as the second half of the 14th century. These have included the watermarks ‘Arms of Amsterdam’, current from the middle of the 17th century until the end of the 18th century; a lion defends the Maid of Dort in the ‘Pro Patria’ watermark of the 18th century; and, such is his longevity, the lion rampant continues as the badge of Peugeot cars in the 21st century.

Whistler’s butterfly monogram

Whistler’s butterfly monogram

Whistler thought highly of his Millbank image and intended to use it (with that of The Little Pool) as an announcement of an 1861 London exhibition. Early states of both prints bear the inscription: The Works of James Whistler: Etchings and Drypoints are on view at E.Thomas, Publishers, 39 Old Bond Street.

From 1873 Whistler’s prints often displayed a monogram, which at first consisted of his interlocked initials but evolved into a stylised butterfly. The monogram frequently appears on a tab at the foot of Whistler’s prints initialled in pencil and sometimes is placed within the composition as an etched ‘butterfly’.

Neither the Millbank etching nor the Nursemaids lithograph is signed in pencil. Both could be posthumous. Nursemaids is almost assuredly so and there are reasons for proposing that Millbank is also posthumous.

Some 71 lithographs in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia had previously been owned by Whistler’s sister-in-law and executrix of his artistic estate, Rosalind Birnie Philip. It was her practice to mark with a small rubber stamp the reverse of prints that passed through her hands. A square stamp in red ink declared the print to have been pulled during Whistler’s lifetime; a circular one in blue was assigned to prints made posthumously. The reverse of Nursemaids bears the circular stamp and is, presumably, posthumous. Nonetheless, there is need for some reservation because occasionally Philip applied both stamps to a single print.

On the reverse of this print Whistler’s executrix Rosalind Burnie Philip has applied both her circular stamp indicating a posthumous print and the square stamp used for prints pulled in Whistler’s lifetime.( illus. from The Lithographs of James McNeill Whistler  H.K.Stratis  vol 2 p306)

On the reverse of this print Whistler’s executrix Rosalind Burnie Philip has applied both her circular stamp indicating a posthumous print and the square stamp used for prints pulled in Whistler’s lifetime.( illus. from The Lithographs of James McNeill Whistler  H.K.Stratis  vol 2 p306)

There are grounds for suggesting that Millbank is also posthumous. Both it and Nursemaids bear indications of the approach and techniques of Frederick Goulding (1842–1908), a highly regarded English printer (though not favoured by Whistler), who was commissioned by Rosalind Birnie Philip to print posthumous editions of Whistler’s lithographs. Goulding was also known to have made posthumous editions of some of Whistler’s etchings such as Millbank. Goulding’s printing style was meticulous: the image was centred precisely on the support, the ink was carefully managed and the sheet was kept immaculately clean. As a printer of another artist’s work Goulding did not have the licence to employ experimental techniques. In contrast, Whistler had a wilful ‘artistic’ approach that lead him to favour old, even dirty, papers, to position the image so as to protect pre-existing marks such as writing or binder’s sewing holes and to mix paper types within a single edition. He relished areas of degraded size. In that spirit Whistler wrote to his printer Thomas Way in 1893: I am delighted with the proofs … I don’t know what you mean by finding the paper dreadfully stained – I like it.3

For Whistler, Goulding’s work was overly neat. Intriguingly, given Whistler’s interest in Japanese art and his desire to preserve dirt and old sewing holes, it is not inconceivable that Whistler would have been aware of wabi-sabi, a Japanese concept relating to aesthetic value derived from the principles of Taoism and Zen Buddhism and found in music, tea ceremony and Japanese garden design. A feature of wabi-sabi is that an object should be allowed to retain some evidence of the travails of its past history.

It may seem strange that Whistler’s sister-in-law commissioned Goulding for the posthumous printings, but she knew he was sensitive to Whistler’s predilection for old or rare papers and Goulding did marshal a variety of old papers which he believed would be in sympathy with Whistler’s quirks. Millbank in the NGA collection bears the hallmarks of Goulding’s techniques.

Nursemaids, printed in l894 during Whistler’s lifetime and again posthumously in 1904, bears two lion-on-a-shield watermarks in facing mirror images and the initials M and C and the countermark MDCCCXXVIII (1828). Peter Bower, who has written extensively on the subject, has indicated that despite the date 1828 in the countermark, the paper was made about 1900. The earlier date, which appears in a few papers of that time, is usually the year in which a company started in business, rather than the year of manufacture. There was quite a fashion for reversed marks, (particularly in the United Kingdom), from the 1890s until the First World War and they were primarily designed for fine-book printing.

A pair of lions on a shield face each other in mirror image in an unusual watermark seen here by transmitted light in the lithograph Nursemaids: Les Bonnes du Luxembourg (1894, reprinted posthumously 1904). Collection: National Gallery of Australia

A pair of lions on a shield face each other in mirror image in an unusual watermark seen here by transmitted light in the lithograph Nursemaids: Les Bonnes du Luxembourg (1894, reprinted posthumously 1904). Collection of the National Gallery of Australia

Bower has remarked further that the sheet on which Nursemaids is printed is a trimmed (416 x 270mm) half-sheet of large post quarto divided longways, rather than through the more usual shorter dimension. The whole sheet would have had four marks so aligned that, when folded for the book, the watermark in each page would read the same way. The watermark being at 90 degrees to the chain lines suggests that the resultant book would be in landscape format rather than portrait. To meet book production requirements, the paper would have been machine-made.4

A fibre analysis was undertaken on the etching Millbank. Three minimal fibre samples from the support paper were mounted on glass slides and stained respectively with Hertzberg Reagent, Phloroglucinol and Toluedine Blue, the last being mounted in DPX.RI. = 1.55. The samples were viewed at x100 magnification using an Olympus BX60 polarising microscope.

All the fibres appeared slightly chopped and some were clearly fibrillated. Some fibres exhibited features such as x, y, and v striations and swollen nodes with a narrow lumen characteristic of bast fibres such as linen. The remaining fibres exhibited features more closely associated with a hardwood pulp. The fibres stained with Phloroglucinol remained yellow, indicating that no lignin was present and, thus, no mechanical woodpulp. The samples treated with Hertzberg Reagent exhibited approximately 50% red staining and 50% blue staining

These results enabled a diagnosis that the paper is a mixture of linen and chemically-processed woodpulp. These findings are not inconsistent with Bower’s assessment that the paper was made about 1900.

There was a temptation to assume the letters M and C flanking the shields were the initials of a paper-mill owner or indicated the location of the mill. However, Briquet in Les Filigranes: Dictionnaire Historique des Marques du Papier cautions that initials have other usages such as those of an employee; the name of a nearby town or the local district; or indicate the period during which the sheet was manufactured or the mill flourished. Letters associated with watermarks were much in vogue early in the 14th century, then gradually became used only as the initials of paper-mill owners.5

The coupling M and C has made appearances in the watermarks of a range of mills in sundry locations over many years sufficiently frequently as to suggest it has a particular significance. Briquet illustrates an example in which the initials flank a cross, the whole surmounting a water wheel, in a source paper from Lessay dated 1512.6 Heawood in Watermarks: mainly of the 17th and 18th Centuries shows examples from a London paper of 1607 associated with a ‘grapes’ watermark, in an ‘Arms of Amsterdam’ watermark of a paper datable to 1676 (from an unidentified location), in a ‘fleur-de-lis’ watermark from Bern 1787; and with a hunting horn on a shield from a Coventry letter-book of 1675.7Heawood’s compendium is of watermarks of the 17th and 18th centuries, yet the same coupling is present in the sheet used for Nursemaids made about 1900. So long a life and so wide a geographical spread of manufacture suggest that the coupling M and C has a specific and enduring meaning not deriving from the names of a paper-mill, the owner or a location. This proposition is reinforced by Eineder’s illustration of the coupling with a ‘fleur de lis’ watermark in Italian papers of 1780 and 1781 and with a version of the fleur de lis embracing a scroll, the whole surmounted by a five-pointed coronet.8

Briquet illustrates numerous examples of the letter M standing alone in watermarks. We note that 22 of these are surmounted by a Christian cross which we take to indicate a frequent religious component in watermarks of the time.9There is a further entry of likely significance: Briquet illustrates an example of letter M and gives the annotation: Sta-Maria della Virgini. Catastro vecchio, from a paper dated 1350 sourced to Verona. ‘Castrato vecchio’ is an old locality on Lake Garda near Verona.10Our interest centres on the ascription to the Holy Virgin Mary. Could the letter C, so often joined with M in watermarks, signify Christus, the Christ? We speculate that M C could be a salute to the Holy couple, or an invocation seeking a blessing for the continued prosperity of the mill, or perhaps simply an assurance of high quality in the product. Still, these initials remain a mystery to us; help would be welcome!

Kassandra Coghlan and Bill Hamilton

1. The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, Heraldry, Helen Hemingway Benton publisher, Chicago 1974, vol. 8 pp. 793/4

2. Don Francisco de Bofarull y Sans, Heraldic Watermarks, published with text in Spanish at Barcelona 1901;and in English translation at Hilversum, The Paper Publications Society, 1956, fig. 69 and p. 13

3.H.K Stratis The Lithographs of James McNeil Whistler Volume II,
Correspondence and Technical Studies, The Art Institute of Chicago, Hudson Hills Press, New York 1998, p. 299

4. email dated 27 September 2006 from Peter Bower to Andrea Wise, Senior Paper Conservator, National Gallery of Australia.

5. C.M. Briquet, Les Filigranes: Dictionnaire Historique des Marques du Papier,New York, 1966, (second edition; first edition Geneva 1907), vol. 3 p. 428

6. ibid., vol. 4, p. 673, illus. 13526                                                             

7. E.Heawood, Watermarks: mainly of the 17th and 18th Centuries, Hilversum, The Paper Publications Society, 1950, p. 112, pl. 298, fig. 2129; p. 64, pl. 73, fig. 397; p. 65, pl. 10, fig. 67; p. 125, pl. 357, fig. 2781

8. G. Eineder, The Ancient Paper-mills of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire and their Watermarks,Hilversum, The Paper Publications Society, 1960, pl. 175, pl. 176

9. cf. Briquet vol. 3; sundry examples throughout Lettre M figs. 8310–8358 (not paginated)
  
10. ibid., vol. 3, p. 450, illus. 8330