Gilty pleasures

Posted on 6th July 2021 by simonbeattie

The following post was originally written for Engelsberg Ideas.

In his autobiography, Dichtung und Wahrheit, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe reminisced about his childhood in Frankfurt: ‘since the earliest times, buyers and sellers had thronged around the Bartholomäuskirche… The stalls of the so-called Pfarreisen were very important to us children and we would come along with fistfuls of money to buy sheets of coloured paper printed with golden animals.’ 

These sumptuous sheets of paper are what are known as Brokatpapier (‘brocade paper’). Invented in the German city of Augsburg in the final decade of the seventeenth century, by the time Goethe was growing up, in the 1750s, they had become popular right across Germany and beyond.

It has been suggested that brocade paper was created in experiments borrowing techniques from embossing leather for wall coverings. Carved metal blocks had already been in use to decorate leather and parchment bookbindings for about 200 years. But for brocade paper, rather than a screw press, an engraver’s rolling press was used, which allowed even pressure over a large surface area. The desired pattern was first chiselled out of a metal plate, either cut to leave a raised design (so-called positive embossing, resulting in a gold design on a coloured background), or the lines of the design itself could be chiselled out, which would result in a coloured design on a gold background (negative embossing). The finished plate was warmed before a dampened sheet of (usually) coloured paper, primed with some kind of adhesive such as egg white and covered with squares of metal leaf, was laid on top; the whole thing was then run through the press. Under pressure, the metal leaf adhered to the raised sections in the paper; the rest of the metal leaf could be brushed off once the sheet had dried. The ‘gold’ leaf used was never actually gold, but copper, often in an alloy with tin. 

Before embossing, the paper was usually brushed with colour. For multicoloured paper, stencils were often used, and this is perhaps the most common type of brocade paper encountered on books from eighteenth-century Britain, where it was particularly popular as a covering for children’s books. It is sometimes called ‘Dutch gilt paper’, but this is a misnomer: these papers were made almost exclusively in southern Germany, and then exported to Britain via the Netherlands. 

Between 500 and 600 different brocade papers are known, the work of around fifty different manufacturers. Fortunately for us, it was common practice for the manufacturers to include their name and pattern number along the edges of the papers they made (both as advertising and perhaps some kind of copyright), which aids in identification and dating. Almost half the known manufacturers were based in Augsburg. Nuremberg was another important centre. In terms of quality, most of the best papers date from the first third of the eighteenth century; by the beginning of the nineteenth century both the designs and the print quality had deteriorated hugely. 

The export market was vast, and one may encounter examples on books all across Europe and as far afield as Russia, North America, Mexico, and the Islamic world. And the paper is not just on books. There is a marquetry dressing-commode, c.1770–5, attributed to Henry Hill of Marlborough, in the collection of the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Liverpool, the drawers of which are lined with a brocade paper manufactured in Augsburg by Johann Carl Munck.

Designs vary. Flowers were certainly popular, but one development was Bilderbogen, ‘picture sheets’ featuring animals or other figures, aimed squarely at the juvenile market (the young Goethe, evidently, an avid customer). Another was images of the saints, perhaps for devotional use. Fashions, of course, change. So, too, production methods: the industrial revolution changed the way decorated papers could be made, and handmade brocade paper duly died out as the nineteenth century advanced. 

Fast-forward 200 years to today and there seems to be a resurgence of interest in decorated paper, both handmade by modern makers using traditional eighteenth-century methods as well as active online spaces such as the Facebook group We Love Endpapers, where thousands of people from around the world meet to share and marvel at these wonderful works of craftsmanship. 

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