The Oxford Papers, Studies in British Paper History, Volume 1

The publication of conference papers inevitably represents considerable effort: cajoling and persistence on the part of the editor, and extreme hard work on the part of the authors long after the event. For the reader, when the sometime weighty tome comes through the letterbox, a quick glance through the pages is a reminder of lectures and details too quickly forgotten. Unfortunately, by design, such volumes are all to often nestled on the shelf amongst similar publications only to be resurrected to check references or to serve as useful background reading. Seldom does one place conference papers in the category of a 'good read.'

The publication of the first volume of Studies in British Paper History, "The Oxford Papers", is an exception because this volume is far more than conference proceedings. It has been expanded beyond the original content of the lectures and in that sense it is both readable and well worth reading in full.

The Conference held in Oxford in 1993 had two themes: paper history in Oxfordshire, and what might be considered the more obscure subject of the use of straw in papermaking. While these were the principle topics, other contributions are included: "W. Raitt's Photographic Record of Kashmiri Papermaking in 1917", by Barry Watson, Richard Hill's "James Watt and his Copying Machine", Phil Crockett's "Development of the Beater", are just three of the twelve papers.

The tradition of papermaking in Oxford is summarised in Frances Wakeman's, "Papermaking in the Oxford Area". She describes many of the mills which once flourished in Oxfordshire, and discusses the link between the demand for paper from Oxford publishers and the rise and decline of mills in the County. Peter Foden's assessment of archival evidence explodes some of the myths surrounding Oxford's India paper in his article "The Wolvercote Myth."

A useful introduction to the use of straw as an alternative fibre in the nineteenth century is described in Richard Hill's "Use of Straw in Papermaking." His research is expanded by Peter Bower's "Straw in 19th Century Papermaking", Bower looks at the papers themselves to extend the story of how straw was used in paper manufacture. James Brander's article simply entitled "Straw" describes the chemical and physical properties of straw fibre and describes some contemporary uses.

Relying on the physical evidence and visual examination, Penny Jenkins, private paper conservator, describes the use of straw in works of art and as she aptly says "...looks both from the front and back" - the artifact may have been made using straw, and from the back straw board on which the work is mounted. She describes the technical problems straw-fibred papers can present ot a conservator, yet at the same time suggests that the distinct tonal quality of some papers made from straw was in some cases an artist's choice.

"The Evolution and Development of Drawing Papers and the Effect of this Development on Watercolour Artists, 1759-1850" begins to dissect the complex subject of the development of drawing papers (as distinct from writing, printing and wrapping) in the mid 18th Century.

This first volume, well-produced with additional illustrations of paper-related advertisements, is clear and readable. This first effort is a useful interdisciplinary contribution to the study of British paper history. I look forward to future volumes.

Nancy Bell