Rare atlases – a conservator’s perspective, Part 1

Working with the ANMM’s outstanding collection of rare early atlases means our conservators can examine first-hand the materials and techniques used in traditional high-quality European bookbinding in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Voyage atlases of this era were made in limited numbers and at great expense. They were typically published for a government or monarchy, to record for posterity the glorious achievements of their country’s explorers, surveyors and scientists. Our collection includes navigational charts, coastal views, portraits of Indigenous peoples and ethnographic, botanical and zoological studies. All were produced from intricately engraved or etched metal plates, using the finest quality papers, inks and bindings.

The ANMM atlases were published during the Industrial Revolution, when new technology was transforming traditional manufacturing such as paper production. Cheap, poor quality wood-pulp papers were first introduced for mass market consumption in the mid-19th century. Publishers used it to make newspapers, inexpensive books and throwaway wrappings.

But papermakers also continued to produce best quality paper. It was handmade from cotton or linen rags – traditionally sourced from old clothing and even worn-out sails, softened by wind and rain and bleached to a soft white by the sun. Part of the bookmaker’s craft was matching the right paper to a publication’s quality and purpose. For grand atlases, it was vital to choose top-quality handmade paper.

Let’s take a closer look now at some of the elements involved in producing beautiful handmade paper, starting with the two types of traditional handmade paper – ‘laid’ and ‘wove’ – used in the ANMM’s atlases.

‘Laid’ paper
Dating back to the 12th century, laid paper was made on a wire sieve held in a rectangular wooden mould (frame), producing single sheets. The ‘laid’ pattern was caused by the sieve’s close parallel lines of fine wire (20–40 per inch) bound together by ‘chain’ lines running at right angles (usually about 1 inch apart). See our detail picture of a laid screen with a watermark design from Tumba Mill, near Stockholm, Sweden (the beehive is the mill’s symbol).

A vatman would dip the mould into a vat of diluted linen or cotton pulp, then lift the mould out and tilt it to spread the pulp evenly. As the water drained away, he’d shake the mould in four directions to lock the fibres together, so it would have little or no grain (fibre direction). During this process, the slightly textured ‘laid and chain’ pattern of the wires was imprinted on the sheet. Laid paper also had uneven deckled edges.

‘Wove’ paper
Wove paper was a mid-18th century development. The wove mould was a fine brass-wire screen, which had been woven on a loom, like cloth. See the close-up of a wove screen and watermark (courtesy of Simon Barcham Green). Wove paper was much smoother than laid paper, and the new wove technique was universally acclaimed.
laid and wove screen watermarks

Examples of laid and wove screen watermarks


In our next instalment, we’ll look at some of the unpredictable elements of making paper by hand, and at the printing process.

Caroline Whitley, ANMM senior conservator