Libraries & Culture 38.4 (2003) 421-422
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Puzzles in Paper: Concepts in Historical Watermarks. Edited by Daniel W. Mosser, Michael Saffle, and Ernest W. Sullivan II. Essays from the International Conference on the History, Function and Study of Watermarks, Roanoke, Virginia. New Castle, Del.: Oak Knoll Press; London: British Library, 2000. 270 pp. $55.00. ISBN 1-58456-029-0.
In 1996 the International Conference on the History, Function and Study of Watermarks was held in Roanoke, Virginia. The conference program can still be found at ebbs.english.vt.edu/watermarks/program/program.html. Fifteen of the papers from that conference were revised for inclusion in this eclectic and delightful collection of essays, which will be a welcome addition to specialized collections, especially those that are strong in papermaking processes and the history of paper. This collection of essays provides a useful reference and also proves to be thought-provoking reading. The range and diversity of the scholarship are unexpected and fascinating. Fittingly, this work is affectionately dedicated to Tom Gravell.
The study of watermarks is a seductive if somewhat esoteric pastime. While it is normally the beauty and aesthetic qualities of watermarks that initially attract the researcher, they are more than just pretty affectations and can shed light on historic trends and events. Several of the essays in this collection do exactly that. For instance, one of the most captivating essays is "Watermark Evidence and the Hidden Editions of Thomas East," in which Jeremy Smith chronicles printers' strategies for working around the powerful printing monopolies in Renaissance London. In his study he uses watermarks to identify shared stocks of paper among various editions along with type deterioration to date editions.
Paul Needham, one of the keynote speakers from the conference, opens the book by using what could be dry statistics about the use and sale of reams of [End Page 421] paper to evoke the image of a thriving print shop. Working from his concept of what he calls a "reverse archive," he suggests a model for the historical study of paper. His essay echoes the theme that there is more to physical collections than the mere information of the printed word. Celia Fryer's study, "Spanish and Italian Watermarks in Colonial Guatemalan Books," describes the rationale and history of the laws regarding papermaking and illustrates how those laws influenced the production and export of papers. She presents an argument for the reasons Italian papers are found in archives where one might expect to find Spanish papers. Nancy Ash and Shelley Fletcher argue convincingly that certain of Rembrandt's prints were posthumous and, furthermore, that the plates were altered after his death.
The collection is especially strong in the area of musical philology, and the book may be worth owning just on the strength of Ulrich Konrad's essay, "The Use of Watermarks in Musicology," in which he presents a visionary concept of intertwining information. He stresses that we have only begun to explore the possibilities, and he sets the reader's mind spinning with new ideas. Among others, he relates the story of using watermarks to date Bach's St. John Passion and suggests that we have not yet realized the full potential of the usefulness of watermarks. Stephen Shearon's essay, "Watermarks and Rastra in Neapolitan Music Manuscripts, 1700-1815," presents a detailed depiction of his work in that area.
Of course, there are many photographs, tracings, and beta radiographs throughout the book, and these will augment other such resources. The various techniques available for capturing the images are described. But this volume is not limited to the traditional methods of watermark study. Several of the essays refer to sources and compilations on the Web. Beyond that, the collection presents ideas for the vast amount of printing and social history that might be acquired by pursuing the study of watermarks. The essays are, with only minor exception, informative and enticing and provide pleasurable as well as informative reading.
University of Texas at Austin