The Exeter Papers, Studies in British Paper History, Volume II

'Paper is nothing unless it is used, so paper history has an importance way beyond its own field of study', Peter Bower, the editor, says rather profoundly in his introduction to this collection of papers given at the Fifth Annual Conference of the British Association of Paper Historians, held at Exeter University in 1994. Financial rectitude, amongst others, is given as a regrettable delay in publication. In consequence it is acknowledged that some research has been superseded and sadly two contributors are no longer alive to witness the culmination of their endeavours.

The truth of Bower's remark is aptly demonstrated by, in particular, two articles.

In 'A Curious "Saint" Watermark on a Saxton Atlas of c1590' the late Professor Ravenhill tells of a fascinating investigation inspired by his inspection of the watermark in a copy of Saxton's Atlas belonging to Exeter University. The image is of a kneeling saint holding a cross at arms length. In this subtle and engaging piece, Ravenhill is able to accomplish three things. Firstly, he explains that the primary purpose of watermarks was to convey a message, albeit that they have effectively served much more as trademarks, identifying the paper maker. Secondly, by outlining the techniques, historic and current, used for ascertaining marks in printed-paper, and by telling something of the struggles of the early filigranologists to collate a mass of early marks, he inspires study of them, their work and the subject itself. Their undertaking, begun in the late eighteenth century was immense, consisting quite simply of the tortuous task of reproducing, in some cases tens of thousands of watermarks, by tracing, or in extreme cases, drawing by eye. In most instances this rudimentary method, it has since been shown, was pretty reliable. However, since the 1950's beta-radiography has been used to establish a very clear image of marks, unaffected by overlying ink, thus making it possible, through the detection of signs of wear, to identify and attribute individual marks to particular paper moulds. Thirdly, Ravenhill seeks to account for the apparent difference between a nineteenth century representation made by the renown English filigranologist, Heawood, of the saint, in a copy of Saxton's Atlas in the British Museum and that of a beta-radiographed image of the Exeter book. The detail 'missing' in the Heawood depiction is a phallus. Ravenhill, relying on evidence of artistic representations of the Renaissance, in particular of a statue by Michelangelo of the risen Christ, states that these artists 'obeyed imperatives deeper than modesty'. Although the phallus may appear an inappropriate detail in the watermark it could symbolise 'post-mortem revival, the conquest of death and a rising of resurgent flesh'.

Peter Bower unravels, as far as he is legally permitted to, the nefarious use of a raft of skills required to produce counterfeit paper money in his article, 'Operation Bernhard: The German Forgery of British Paper Currency in World War II'. The object of the scheme was an attempt to destabilise the British economy. The work force comprised prisoners at Sachsenhausen concentration camp whose lives were saved by virtue of their work on the project. It is an intricate tale, the fascination of which lies in its detail, which brings the enterprise to life. The author relates that once printed the notes before being fed into circulation needed to be artificially aged for authenticity. Two long lines of workers were assembled and the notes passed up and down. Figures were written to simulate those made by bank clerks. Notes were folded and then unfolded. Grease and grime attached itself and steadily the notes 'aged'.

I have chosen to mention only two of the nine articles, all of which are linked in some way or other to the city of Exeter, and bring to light diverse aspects of the history of paper, those concerned in its production and its eventual uses.

This is a production of high quality. Its bright, easy to read text, is generously peppered with illustrations that have been well chosen and crisply printed. All those concerned with its appearance are to be congratulated and encouraged to work towards the early arrival of the next volume. If one had a criticism it would be perhaps that a hard cover was justified, but that is an issue of money and therefore contentious.

Alan Isaac
Antiquarian Book Monthly, December 2001