Paper – the last luxury
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What was an emerald-green linen bedsheet, after being beaten for a few hours in a bucket of water, has turned to a verdant, gloopy slurry. “It’s actually quite amazing,” says Tom Frith-Powell. “You chop a sheet up into little squares and it just turns into this weird kind of pulp.” The soupy liquid is then added to a vat of 300 litres of water, before Frith-Powell dips a mould into the greenish liquid and lifts it out with “a little shimmy” to lock the linen fibres together. “In Diderot’s encyclopedia he went through all the different industrial processes,” he says, holding the mould as the water drains through it and a delicate piece of paper is revealed. “He said watching a sheet of paper being made was like watching a phoenix emerge from its ashes.”
Frith-Powell is using early-Victorian equipment to make paper in the same way it was made in the 1600s, but the Paper Foundation, based in a 19th-century country house in Cumbria’s Burneside, is not a historic enterprise. Launched five years ago by Mark Cropper, chair of bespoke and luxury paper mill James Cropper, it was born out of an aspiration to preserve the waning craft of making paper by hand. The mill is part of a broader craft rehabilitation project that will see an arts centre established in the manor next to the mill, housing an exhibition space, print studios, library and archive. They’re already producing paper for artists and conservationists, and have launched a collection of handmade paper products such as sketchbooks, watercolour pads and notecards.
Papermaking in Europe has been in decline for the past 100 years: where the continent used to boast thousands of mills, increased volumes and mechanisation have seen that number dwindle to fewer than 1,000. Of the mills making paper by hand, the Foundation is now one of only a handful worldwide, and one of two in the UK. “The more it is industrialised, the more pressure there is to make something cheap,” says Cropper from his office, just down the lane from the mill. “Machines get bigger and bigger and they have to run faster and faster.”
The global paper crisis, ongoing since 2020, was the inevitable outcome. What began as an overproduction problem when many publications and offices transitioned to a digital model, was hugely exacerbated by a drop in demand, scarcity of materials, delays in the supply chain and rising energy costs caused by the pandemic and, more recently, the war in Ukraine.
“You’ve got this very efficient, very fast running global machine where everything is absolutely just in time,” says Cropper, speaking of the catalyst of the crisis. “It’s like taking an incredibly complex clock with a billion cogs and throwing material in and blocking it at random places. It’s like chaos theory in action.”
Rising costs and falling demand saw many mills close, while others were forced to lower or cease production of graphic papers – which are used for books, newspapers and magazines like this one – in favour of cardboards, which were in high demand during the 2020 ecommerce boom, and higher-grade papers, which require similar amounts of energy but have a far higher profit margin. Thousands of jobs have therefore been lost (cardboard production requires fewer people to run the machines), while research body Keypoint Intelligence estimated earlier this year that there are at least 50 fewer paper mills operating globally than there were at the start of 2019.
It was James Cropper’s niche in technologically innovative papers, along with their decision to keep producing through the pandemic (it anticipated that demand would bounce back), that has kept it doing brisk business. Demand for the paper products that it makes for Ruinart, Loewe, Burberry and many other luxury houses (“[Bernard] Arnault has always understood the importance of the feel of packaging,” says Cropper of the LVMH chairman) dropped “off a cliff” in March 2020, but is now back in force, and the business seeing “as much demand as we’ve ever had”.
Now demand has returned to pre-pandemic levels, the surviving mills can’t make paper fast enough, and material previously touted as redundant is now becoming more rarefied. Morgan Crowcroft-Brown, designer and production manager at art book publisher Mack, says her waiting time for paper has gone from four weeks to almost four months, while her paper costs have more than doubled year-on-year. “It’s sort of interesting that we say there’s a loss of value of paper as a commodity because for me at the moment, because of the crisis, almost the opposite is happening,” she says from Italy, where she’s printing a batch of books. “We’re really happy to pay a premium for paper to get our books.”
That we’re coming to see paper as a valuable commodity rather than a dispensable item is, Cropper believes, a good thing. Part of the Foundation’s intention is to encourage people to “think about a material that they’ve completely taken for granted in their daily lives, but also in history”. He hopes to show people what they’ve been missing: “100 years ago, there could have been 10 times more birdsong, but we don’t know. If we realised what we had lost in nature compared to our ancestors, we’d be crying. It’d be devastating,” says Cropper. “And I think the same thing applies to paper. Modern artists don’t even realise what they’re missing in terms of what the papers used to be like.”
A high-quality Renaissance paper – one bearing a Leonardo da Vinci drawing, for instance – will still be white, says Cropper, because it is made from pure linen. A piece of machine-made 19th-century paper, by contrast, might be brown and brittle due to chemicals that have caused it to degrade. “You’ve probably seen it – you open an old Penguin paperback from 50 years ago and it’s brown. We want to make paper that, at the most basic level, lasts for a long time.”
One of the Foundation’s first projects is to revive Renaissance papermaking techniques. The quality of paper in the 16th century was due not only to its purity but also its strength. “It was bombproof,” says Cropper. Working with a California-based historian, they analysed da Vinci’s drawing papers and set about deconstructing the making process. They knew that wool was coarser in the 15th century because sheep had yet to be bred with fine fleeces, and deduced that by making wool felts – used to press water from the paper – out of archaic, long-haired species of sheep, they could imprint an “incredible, random pattern of hair marks” into their paper. For artists, the result is “these random lines of light coming through the paper”, says Cropper. “If you look at, say, a Leonardo drawing of the head of the Virgin Mary, it looks effervescent. There’s something unreal about it – and one of the secrets is this paper.”
“We’re talking about the rediscovery of lost things, but it’s not just for the rediscovery itself,” Frith-Powell says. “It’s because it makes a superior product. It’s not just, ‘This is how they used to do it.’ This is to create the best artist’s paper you can get.”
The bookbinding, museum, conservation and design industries, whose business relies on high-quality paper, have met the project with excitement. Interiors company Soane Britain has commissioned the Foundation to produce a series of paper wall lights in collaboration with Japanese paper artist Kuniko Maeda, inspired by Karl Blossfeldt’s plant photographs. The textile department of London’s V&A museum has sent boxes of fabric scraps to turn into paper, which will then go back to its paper-conservation department, which has “a nice circularity”, observes Frith-Powell. They’ve also begun working with the conservation teams at the British Library, Washington’s Library of Congress and National Archives and The Met in New York, all of whom had been relying on the final remnants of stock from Ireland’s Griffen Mill, which was the last remaining handmade mill in the UK before it closed in 2016. It was the Griffin papermakers who taught Frith-Powell his technique before naming the Foundation as its official successor; it was then granted Griffin’s Royal Warrant to supply the Queen’s library. “The product wasn’t made by anyone else and the library needs it,” says Frith-Powell. “It had just run out.”
The implications for artists working on paper, meanwhile, are “extraordinary”, says Thomas Newbolt, a painter and teacher at the Royal Drawing School in London, who began using the Foundation’s paper for his oil and watercolour works several months ago. His wife Clare, also a painter and teacher at the Royal Drawing School, is the daughter of the family who were the sole agents of Whatman paper, which was considered the best handmade paper in the west for decades (the favourite of JMW Turner, Thomas Gainsborough, William Blake and Georgia O’Keeffe), but shifted towards a more industrialised process in the ’50s in a bid to democratise the material. When Clare and Thomas married, Clare’s father gave them a van filled with “several thousand sheets of handmade paper” and they spent the following 40 years making work on it. Having run out, they plan to start ordering from the Foundation.
The Newbolts have experienced first-hand that the structural integrity and immutability of handmade paper expands the possibilities for the paper arts. Put oil paint onto cartridge paper (machine-made artist’s paper) and it will sink straight in, says Thomas, but on handmade paper the oil will sit on the surface and stain the paper. “It holds it in the most extraordinary way,” he says. Its strength also allows for a very thick and heavy application of paint. For his charcoal drawings, handmade paper provides a surface which is basically erasable. “It’s like putting it onto metal. You can get rid of it very easily, and it’s just the same with watercolour: put it under a tap and it all comes off with hardly a stain. You can erase the entire image and start again from scratch.” Turner reportedly bought a stack of Whatman ledger paper, designed so that if you made a mistake you could scratch the surface of the paper off and then write on it in ink again. By erasing and reworking each sheet, he never got through it in his lifetime.
When they can, the Newbolts take students to Tate Britain to see the watercolours and sketchbooks of Blake and Turner, so they can see the difference the materials made. “They can see how rough Turner was,” says Thomas. “He used to literally soak the sheet in water and let the colours float around and then eventually dry, which is why his particular watercolours have such a great beauty.”
The Foundation is already taking bespoke commissions from artists, to make an exact texture and shade for a particular medium or idea. “When you do anything by hand, you’ve got infinite variety,” says Cropper. Thomas recalls a prize he won in the ’90s, for which the trophy was a selection of Michael Harding paints, which was presented by Harding. “When I met Michael, he said that he wanted to do exactly the same thing for paint – to provide a very high-quality pigment so that people could paint better pictures by using it” – an intent he’s seen through; Lucian Freud and David Hockney began using his paints. As for the generation of art students who are beginning to use handmade paper with the Newbolts? “They start being introduced to it,” says Clare, “and then you can see their eyes widen.”