Making an Impression: The beauty of early paper embossing

It is not often that the paper upon which a picture is drawn or painted vies for attention with the artwork itself. But a collection that we recently acquired presented us with just that – a group of meticulously drawn early 19th century works executed on early examples of decorative embossed paper.

Ruins on the Nile - Original early 19th-century graphite drawing

Ruins on the Nile, early 19th-century graphite drawing - Somerset & Wood Fine Art

The collection was once in the possession of a Mrs Clayton of Bamber Bridge, near Preston, Lancashire, in 1827. The Claytons of Bamber Bridge were a prominent local family, who had made their fortune from the local cloth trade and in the 1760s were the first industrial bleachers.

Album Works on Embossed Paper 1820s

In the same year as James Watt took out a patent for the steam engine, 1796, a patent was granted to John Gregory Hancock for “ornamenting paper by embossing or enchasing”. Britain was gripped in the midst of world-changing industrial revolution, and revolution applied to everything from engines to paper.

Album Works on Embossed Paper 1820s

Album works on embossed paper dated 1813 to 1824

Blind embossing is the technique used for the papers in this collection, whereby paper is pressed onto a die pre-cut with a design, without a printed image. In its early development the process was required a sophisticated balance of paper thickness and moisture content to give the right receptivity to the die and stability once moulded. Many of the papers are by Dobbs of London, and are discreetly embossed with this early brand name amid the embossed design.

Gold Crested Bird on Branch - Original early 19th-century watercolour painting

Mitcham Bridge, Glovers Snuff Mill -Original early 19th-century graphite drawing

Dobbs & Co were an “ornamental stationers and pencil manufacturers” in the early years of the 19th century, and were the first company to exploit the commercial potential of paper embossing. Henry Dobbs, trading at 8 New Bridge Street, London, led the company under many guises – Dobbs & Co; Dobbs, Dobbs & Pratt; Dobbs, Bailey & Co; Dobbs, Kidd & Co. The Dobbs name was synonymous with high quality embossing, and the very idea of having embossing on paper was a luxury. Initially the market for Dobbs’s paper was for ceremonial items such as invitations, menus and mourning cards. Dobbs completed special commissions, such as the tickets for the coronation of George IV in 1821 – their decorative extravagance well befitting their subject.

Coronation Ticket George IV 1821

Ticket for Coronation of George IV in 1821 on embossed Dobbs paper

Dobbs went on to produce a series of all-purpose cards with embossed borders, for more general use. With a blank central panel, they could be overprinted, drawn or painted. These cards were geared towards the rapidly growing fashion for creating scrap albums, in which collectors brought together small, original works on paper, such as drawings, paintings and poems. By providing a border for the artwork contained within, the embossed paper acts to elevate the work to that of a more formally framed piece. And the border can complement and enhance the subject of the artwork, such as this example where a natural history subject is bordered with clam shells:

S.C., The Aberdevine and Nest - Original early 19th-century graphite drawing

Aberdevine & Nest - 19th-century graphite drawing - Somerset & Wood Fine Art

With royal connections and its status as a luxury product, some Dobbs paper designs allude to Britain’s monarchy, whilst others embody a sort of grandiose imperialism. Roses, thistles and shamrock represent the British sovereign:

Seashell Study on Seaweed - Original early 19th-century watercolour painting

Seashell Study - early 19th-century watercolour - Somerset & Wood Fine Art

And this painting of the Nile is surrounded somewhat incongruously by the British crown and monarch’s coat of arms and motto:

 Ruins on the Nile - Original early 19th-century graphite drawing  Ruins on the Nile - Original early 19th-century graphite drawing

Ruins on the Nile, early 19th-century graphite drawing - Somerset & Wood Fine Art

To today’s eyes, I think these papers are striking partly for their surprising intricacy. We have come to accept paper as a flat neutral - “invisible” - substrate, and it is unexpected to see it assert such character. But I think the real charm lies in the technological advancement that the paper represents – whilst today the “decorative” has come to be viewed somewhat derogatively in art, in these works it is unashamedly celebrated. The pictures present a beguiling mix of machine meets hand-crafted – and as such crystallise the burgeoning conflicts at the heart of the industrial revolution. From a position of two centuries hence, I am charmed by this innovative advancement in printing which was at the time so very of the moment.

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