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Whistler's watermarks

Foolscap watermark

 

The little velvet dress, drypoint 1873 photographed in transmitted light The little velvet dress, drypoint 1873 photographed in transmitted light more detail

 

The ‘Foolscap’ watermark was used frequently by European papermakers, from Britain to Russia. The name might conjure up a mental picture of a schoolboy in a dunce’s cap banished to a corner of the schoolroom, but the watermark represented a clown, fool or jester (Shakespeare uses the terms synonymously).

The watermark's popularity may be due 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 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, sans collar, with a twin-peaked-cap and bells, which he traces to the Vilnius Evangelie [Gospel] papers of that date.1 He provides a five-peaked-cap example (at illustration 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 Whistler prints:

The first four items conceal identical seven-pointed-collar versions of the ‘Foolscap’ watermark. The little velvet dress contains a five-pointed-collar version. 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, showing 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 Portrait study, Miss Rosalind Birnie Philip which was pulled posthumously in 1903, soon after Whistler died.

Detail of the foolscap with five pointed collar from The little velvet dress Detail of the 'Foolscap' watermark with five pointed collar from The little velvet dress more detail

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 with a small rubber stamp the reverse of prints which passed through her hands. A square device declared the work to have been pulled during Whistler’s lifetime; a round one was assigned to prints made posthumously.

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, was known in western Europe from pre-Christian times, and is best known in the role of court jester. The being is best remembered in the role of court jester, but quite modest establishments – including taverns and brothels – flaunted a fool. In these place the role was often filled by a cripple or imbecile given shelter, clothed, fed and kept as a kind of capering house pet. Jesters were highly intelligent, perceptive and quick-witted. They were allowed great licence in their comments on persons and events and were expected to use it..

As Olivia says in Twelfth Night (Act I Scene V) in speaking of her clown-servant Feste:

'there is no slander in an allowed fool'

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 has Duke Senior observe of him (Act V Scene IV):

'He uses his folly like a stalking horse, and under the presentation of that he shoots his wit.'

Detail of foolscap watermark with seven pointed collar from Portrait Study: Miss Rosalind Birnie Philip,lithograph 1896 Detail of 'Foolscap' watermark with seven pointed collar from Portrait study, Miss Rosalind Birnie Philip,lithograph 1896 more detail

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 was manifest in London playhouses and the wide-ranging troupes of strolling players which moved between towns 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. 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 in Britain, its dominions and colonies as the name associated with a specific size of writing paper which, in imperial measurements, was 8 x 10 inches. Following Australia's adoption of the metric system in 1966 the ‘Foolscap’ sheet has been superseded by the slightly shorter and wider A4 sheet.

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 the ‘Foolscap’ watermark was a fairly new device, but it became enormously popular in a multitude of forms throughout the 17th century.

Heawood provides illustrations of 166 varieties of the ‘Foolscap’ watermark, which ring the changes on the number of collar points, the style of the coxcomb cap, the presence of a diadem or hair braid and variations in profiles.5 The origins of Heawood’s source papers range from 1610 to 1718, demonstrating that the ‘Foolscap' watermark was, essentially, a style of the 17th century.

Portrait Study : Miss Rosalind Birnie Philip lithograph 1896, (posthumous impression) 1903. Photographed in transmitted light to show watermark centre right edge. Portrait study, Miss Rosalind Birnie Philip lithograph 1896, (posthumous impression) 1903. Photographed in transmitted light to show 'Foolscap' watermark centre-right edge more detail

As the papers for all five prints in the Gallery’s collection discussed above contain heavy flocking of pulp along the chain lines of the mould, it is guineas to gooseberries they were formed before about 1740.

The watermark in the lithograph Portrait study, Miss Rosalind Birnie Philip closely resembles versions illustrated in Ash and Fletcher’s Watermarks in Rembrandt’s prints, from source documents dated 1659.6

The watermark in The little velvet dress appears to match that in the etching Christ Disputing with the Doctors 1652 by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669).7 That sheet may have been formed earlier, as Rembrandt was known to have held a stock of papers he selected from to suit images he wished to print. Given Whistler’s predilection for papers of the time, it is reasonable to assign the sheet used for The little velvet dress to the second half of the 17th century.

Kassandra Coghlan and Bill Hamilton

1 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, illustration 1788; text p.25.
2 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, p.29.
3 Sharp K ‘Notes on important individuals, publications and galleries’in The Lithographs of James McNeill Whistler Volume II Correspondence and Technical Studies (General editor M Tedeschi), The Art Institute of Chicago, Hudson Hills Press, New York 1998, p.281.
4 Churchill, WA, Watermarks in paper in Holland, England, France etc., in the XVII and XVIII centuries and their interconnection, 1935 authorised reprint Amsterdam: B DeGraaf, 1985, p.42.
5 Heawood E, Watermarks, mainly of the 17th and 18th centuries, Hilversum, Holland: The Paper Publications Society, 1950, plates 273–296, illustrations 1921–2087.
6 Ash N and Fletcher S Watermarks in Rembrandt’s prints National Gallery of Art, Washington 1998, p.112 and p.117.
7 Ash N and Fletcher S Watermarks in Rembrandt’s prints National Gallery of Art, Washington 1998, p.99 and p.105.

 

 

Detail of foolscap watermark with seven pointed collar from Portrait Study: Miss Rosalind Birnie Philip,lithograph 1896