Friday, 4 March 2016

A Cabinet of Collectors 8: Olga Hirsch

A Wrapped-up Story

Card games were a very popular pastime at the Tudor courts.  Anne of Cleves reportedly entertained Henry VIII on their unconsummated wedding night by playing cards with him.

 Anne of Cleves, portrait miniature by Hans Holbein c. 1539
© Victoria & Albert Museum

Worn and dog-eared cards could be recycled.  Holbein's lovely portrait of Anne, like so many miniatures of the period, is painted on vellum and backed with a piece cut from a playing card.

The printing centres of Germany and then France led the market in early woodblock printed and hand painted playing cards, for which several layers of paper were glued together (i.e. pasteboard).

The Queen of Hearts, from Jehan Personne, 1493
(see The World of Playing Cards)

The last sheet might be folded over the front edges for strength, and some were backed with block-printed decorated papers.  To make full use of their printing blocks,  factories in Germany, Holland and Austria would use the same woodblocks to print fabric, paper, and even to stamp the baker's bread, which would then be wrapped in those decorated printed papers.

But the main uses of printed decorated papers, besides wrapping goods, was by publishers and booksellers.  Books were frequently sold just with protective paper covers, for owners to have bound to their own choice, and marbled papers, introduced into England by John Evelyn, are still the classic choice as endpapers.  Decorated printed papers were also ideal for books of non-standard sizes, such as music scores, and this is how the British Library's remarkable collection of decorative printed papers began.

Olga Hirsch began accumulating antique printed papers for repairing her husband Paul Hirsch's collection of rare music scores and literature*, and then started to collect them for their own sake.  She sought out examples of different techniques -- block printing, metallic, embossed, stencilled and pasted papers - from different countries and periods from the 16th to the 20th century.  Her collection of 3500 decorated papers, as well as many book examples and reference material, was bequeathed to the British Library in1968, outstripping most other international collections.
* Her husband's unique music library bought by the British Museum in 1946.

 Scrotted marbled paper, early 19th century
National Library of the Netherlands

French block printed paper, Olga Hirsch collection

Mid-19th century rococo style, with gold and colour blocking
Olga Hirsch collection

Japanese 19th century katagami (stencil cut) paper
© British Library, Olga Hirsch collection

The Hirsches, like Anne of Cleves and Holbein the Younger, were also foreign migrants from Germany, settling in Britain, and remembered in our national collections.  And it is by the circuitous  influence  of old recycled paper, that an American migrant artist, James Whistler, created one of our iconic views of the Thames, now in the Tate Gallery.

Nocturne: Blue and Gold, Old Battersea Bridge
James McNeill Whistler  © Tate Britain

Whistler and his contemporaries were inspired by the work of Hokusai, master of woodblock prints, discovered in Paris by Felix Braquemond in 1856.  Copies from Hokusai's sketchbook were being used as wrapping paper, protecting shipments of Japanese export porcelain.

 Mishima Pass,  Mount Fuji,   Katsushiga Hokusai  c. 1830-32
© Metropolitan Museum of Art

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