Over the years Vintage Paper Co has had the good fortune to handle paper from many manufacturers, both historical and contemporary and there is absolutely no doubt that J Whatman consistently produced the finest quality paper we have ever seen.
This is the reason we are in love with Whatman paper - it's the best paper ever made.
This piece attempts to explain the history and the process of Whatman's papermaking from the earliest days.
A BRIEF HISTORY
WHY IS J WHATMAN SO IMPORTANT IN THE WORLD OF PAPER MAKING?
James Whatman invented wove paper at Turkey Mill in the 1750s. All paper made before the 1750s was laid.
J Whatman paper has been made at two sites in its long history; the original mill in Maidstone, Kent was called Turkey Mill.
The development of ‘wove’ paper, producing paper on a smooth, regular-surfaced, woven mesh material was pioneered by James Whatman at Turkey Mill. It resulted in a sheet with a much smoother, less irregular surface than previously found in 'laid' paper.
This evolvement of paper manufacturing immeasurably improved the quality of printed work and the range of printing techniques possible.
The more robust surface found in wove paper also allowed for the growth of experimentation of more vigorous and expressive techniques by artists.
James Whatman’s wove paper trials were conducted in 1754 in conjunction with the famous printer William Baskerville.
Laid paper has lines running through the structure of the sheet. The lighter areas are where there is less pulp than the darker areas.
The ribs or furrows found in laid paper caused pigment to puddle on the page. Wove paper did away with this problem.
Whatman's invention of wove paper without lines running through the structure.
J Whatman's wove paper was stronger than laid paper as it was thicker throughout the entire sheet. Visible laid lines are areas where there is less paper material; the lighter areas are where the paper is thinner than the darker areas. In addition it was soaked in a gluey gelatin bath of cooked up hoofs and bones which made it extremely strong and less absorbent.
The strength of this type of paper and the strong gelatine sizing allowed paint to move easily over its surface and multiple layers could be applied and then wiped, scratched, or scraped away without damaging the surface of the paper.
These complicated subtractive techniques were brought to the highest level of virtuosity by J M W Turner who worked regularly on Whatman paper.
In 1739 war broke out between France and Spain which stopped the importing of fine notepaper from the continent. The war ended in 1748 but by then English papermakers had secured the market. At the time of Whatman’s death in 1759, J Whatman had become the largest paper producer in the country.
Unusually, James Whatman's widow, Ann, continued to run the mill until their son, also called James, reached 21. Like his father he too was associated with many important developments in the field of papermaking; the use of blue smalts (a ground blue potassium glass containing cobalt) to improve the brightness of white paper and the use of chlorine to bleach coloured rags.
James Whatman (the Younger) also introduced the use of metal 'Hollander' beaters to reduce the high power consumption synonymous with the crucial stage of fibre treatment in beaters.
Under his leadership, Turkey Mill’s importance continued to grow until the name of Whatman was respected around the world.
As early as the 1760’s when wove paper was not yet widely available to artists, Thomas Gainsborough was anxious to use it for his watercolours.
In 1767 he wrote to bookseller James Dodsley in hope of obtaining some “it being what I have long been in search of for making wash’d Drawings upon … There is so little impression of the wires, and those so very fine, that the surface is like vellum”
Later Gainsborough wrote, “I beg you to accept my sincerest thanks for the favour you have done me concerning the paper for drawings. I had set my heart upon getting some of it, as it is so completely what I have long been in search of... upon my honour I would give a guinea a quire for a dozen quires of it”.
Whatman paper was used by JMW Turner, John Robert Cozens, John Sell Cotman and Cornelius Varley.
William Blake used it for four of his illuminated books, the public being informed that they were printed on “the most beautiful wove paper that could be procured”.
Many of the watercolour masterpieces in the early nineteenth century are on paper bearing the “J. Whatman” or “J. Whatman/Turkey Mill” watermarks.
Throughout history Heads of State and world leaders have shown a particular penchant for Whatman paper.
Napoleon used Whatman paper for writing his will; George Washington signed many state documents on Whatman paper and Queen Victoria chose Whatman for her personal correspondence.
In the 1930’s Soviet leaders used Whatman paper to publish their five year plan for the future of the USSR, while the peace treaty with Japan was signed on Whatman paper at the close of World War II.
J Whatman's Springfield Mill from the air.
In 1804, after a series of retirements, deaths and complicated business and licensing arrangements, J Whatman paper production was moved to Springfield Mill, also in Maidstone Kent.
A sample book from the 1930s contains almost 300 different types of handmade paper for writing, record keeping and fine-art. This is astonishing when you consider the work required to produce just one type of paper by hand now or even by machine. It demonstrates the mastery Whatman had in this field of manufacture.
Like many other crafts, papermaking by hand on a commercial basis eventually became non viable due to the costs of energy, raw materials, retiring expertise, the ending of the apprenticeship tradition and a more upwardly mobile working population.
Handmade paper was discontinued by Whatman in the mid 1950s and machine and mould-made paper manufacturing ended in the mid 1960's.
In the 1930s Whatman began making scientific filter papers. Production of this material continued at Springfield Mill until 2009 when its owners, GE Healthcare sold the site.
The mill was cleared and demolished in 2018 and is now a housing estate.
THE PRODUCTION OF HANDMADE PAPER ON AN INDUSTRIAL SCALE
Today, handmade paper is made around the world commercially by individuals or teams of 2 to 4 craftspeople producing a narrow range of paper for watercolour, printmaking and conservation bookbinding. These individuals or small teams oversee every aspect of making a sheet of paper from choosing the fibre to drying and packing their product.
In the Golden Age of papermaking this was very different, this process was a semi industrial one which dozens of time-served apprentices specialising in one process of the craft.
The first process in traditional papermaking was preparing rags.
Recycled linen and cotton rags were used to make paper long before trees were the main source of pulp, hence the term "rag paper".
Huge bundles of rags were bought from specialist dealers who sourced old, worn out clothing, bed linen, rope (as in "money for old rope") yacht sails etc.
Rag Sorters at their stations next to the windows with large bundles of unsorted rags in the foreground.
Women were employed at paper mills as "rag sorters", their job to remove all impurities such as buttons, rivets, pins, rubber and to sort them into their types; linen or cotton.
In the very early days, rag would be allowed to rot down a little (retted) to soften before further processing but retting allowed the rag to naturally heat up and was a fire hazard!
The process was modernised when washing the rags in a weak bleach solution proved to soften them enough as well as make the fibre much cleaner.
Once the rags were sorted, washed and shredded, they were placed in mechanical Hollander beaters with water which washed out the bleach and broke down the rag pieces into a much finer, porridge-looking material - rag pulp, from which beautiful paper was made.
MAKING PULP - HOLLANDER BEATERS
In ancient times pulp was slowly and laboriously beaten with wooden stamping mallets powered by a waterwheel.
During the era of the industrial revolution and steam powered engines, the Dutch invented the Hollander beater, superseding stamping mallet beaters.
Hollanders clean, grind and beat papermaking fibres with adjustable revolving steel-toothed wheels in a revolving bath of water which can be drained and refilled ensuring the water is always clean, an important aspect when making good quality paper.
So effective was the Hollander beater that it is still used today by hand papermakers in an unchanged format (electric motors replacing steam driven engines of course).
This photograph shows a bank of Hollander beaters, two of them filled with a porridge-like pulp.
A Beater Man standing over his Hollanders.
In papermaking, a beater man was considered as important as the Vatman - the person who formed the sheets from the pulp.
The beater man was responsible for ensuring the fibres were the correct consistency and grade for the particular type of paper being produced that day.
For example, imitation parchment paper was made from linen fibres beaten for hours until they were made hot from through friction. Printmaking paper was made from softly beaten fibres. Get this wrong and you'll end up with rubbish paper.
Once rags had been beaten in the Hollander Beaters the pulp mix was no longer called pulp but instead "Stuff". Yes, stuff.
Once the pulp had been beaten to the correct grade and became stuff it was pumped directly from the Hollander beaters through a series of pipes to Stuff Chests.
These Stuff Chests are large, round storage containers with a set of revolving agitating arms. The agitating arms ensure the stuff remains suspended in water and doesn't settle to the bottom of the chests and solidify.
From the Stuff Chests the stuff could be pumped into the papermaking vats where the vatman would create sheet after sheet of paper.
Whatman's 10 Vat House.
Whatman's 10 Vat House.
In a hand papermill today the norm would be to find one Hollander Beater from which the pulp or stuff would be transferred by hand directly to the vat to be formed into sheets of paper.
In its heyday Whatman was a much larger operation than this.
In the photograph above we can see a 10 unit vat house. This means that there were ten vats where 10 Vat Men and 10 Couchers would be making paper by hand six days a week.
Making Double Elephant sized paper by hand
The vats were fed from the Stuff Chests which in turn were fed from the Hollander beaters, the material for which would be provided by the Rag Sorters.
THE DRYING LOFT
I am unsure when this photo was taken but the guy's (awesomely magnificent) mustache suggests it was 1910 - 1930s? Any better ideas, mustache aficionados?
Man holding paper ready to be dried in Whatman's drying loft at Springfield Mill
WHAT IS "LOFT DRIED" PAPER?
Most of the paper you'll use today is machine-made on a huge roll which is subsequently cut into sheets; the drying process is carried out at as part of the production process - all by machine. It's very efficient.
In the days where paper was most commonly made by hand, one sheet at a time, all paper was dried in a loft suspended over ropes or poles or laid out on shelves of hessian sacking.
BEFORE DRYING - FORMING
Handmade paper was/is made by a Vatman using a tool called a deckle & mould;
This deckle and mould was used to make writing paper, two sheets at a time.
The deckle and mould is dipped into a vat (hence the term Vatman) of water and paper pulp.
Watermarks were created with wire shapes and letters sewn onto the mould. The raised areas meant less pulp could settle making that area of the paper thinner.
The watermarks in this mould read: J WHATMAN, HAND MADE, 1936, ENGLAND
Staying with the Vatmen and forming sheets of paper here's a little story about something fabulously called the Contrivance - a device invented by James Whatman to make very large sheets of paper.
Whatman's pre-eminence as a paper maker was attracting considerable interest, and in 1770, the Society of Antiquaries was commissioned to make a large copper engraving of an old painting depicting Henry VIII meeting Francis I at eh Field of the Cloth of Gold.
The necessary paper had to be 49 1/4 x 27 inches - slightly bigger than the Double Elephant size which was the largest made by Whatman.
James Whatman, ever the creative problem solver wrote: "I have no doubt but a Contrivance I have thought of will enable me to make it, although that will draw on a certain expense of at least £50 for things which cannot be of use to me on any other occasion".
Whatman built his Contrivance to make Antiquarian-size paper, which took 11 men to operate. The resulting sheets were so heavy that they had to be transported to London by a small sailing vessel called a hoy.
Jack Baily, Jack Chalcraft, Bert Aiston, Cliff Burgess - operating Whatman's Contrivance in 1937.
Whatman continued to produce handmade Antiquarian size paper until 1937. If you would like to see a film of this almost magical process click here.
DECKLE AND MOULD contd
When it's lifted out of the pulp/water mixture, some of the water drains through the tiny holes in the mesh and what's left over forms into a very wet sheet which is then placed or couched onto a felt blanket and the mould removed. At this point the paper just looks like a sheet of porridge.
Another felt is placed on top of the freshly made sheet and the process is repeated time and time again, one sheet at a time.
What results is a tall sandwich (called a post) of paper sheets and felts.
At this point though, the post is mainly water which needs to be squeezed out so it's placed under a hydraulic ram which removes 90-95% of the water. This is when the paper begins to resemble paper.
After pressing, the paper and felts need to be parted from one another. This means removing a felt, putting it to one side and very carefully peeling the sheet of wet paper from the felt it was placed on. This is repeated until you have a pile of felts and a pile of wet/damp paper.
Once parted, the paper needs to be dried and this is where our friend, Mr Mustache does his thing.
The damp pile of paper is taken to a Drying Loft.
The first damp sheet is peeled off the top of the pile by My Mustache and hung over ropes (as seen in this photo) or laid flat on hessian sheets (a method used at Hayle Mill by J Green).
We've zoomed in on the original photo to show the rope passed through holes in a wood frame on which the paper would be hung to dry. The rope would be covered in cow hair prevented the hemp in the rope staining the damp sheets and ruining them.
You can see Mr Mustache balancing a damp sheet on a (hidden) T-shaped device. This allowed him to handle the paper and place it over a rope or pole without touching it with his hands, thus reducing the risk of damage to the surface of the paper - it is still damp after all so very fragile.
We don't know how he accessed the higher levels of the drying rack although we have seen taller versions of the paper hanging T tool. I'm guessing a combination of taller hangers and ladders?
Hanging paper in a loft allowed it to dry naturally, wind passing through louvre window doors.
Force drying paper can cause the sheet to shrink unevenly thus ruining it.
Sizing is a process which allows paints or inks to be applied to the surface of paper without blotting occurring. Unsized paper is called "waterleaf" which was very popular with printmakers for etching, not so much today though.
After a day or two, the paper would be dry. It would be taken down from the drying racks and sent to the Sizing Room.
In the Sizing Room the sheets would be placed on an endless conveyor belt of felt and passed through a solution of gooey gelatine.
Once sized, these wet-again sheets would need to be dried again so they would be sent to the sizing loft where it would be dried again in much the same way as before.
Judging from the sheet size in this photo, this paper was made for writing or ledgers.
This being the case, it would be sized two or three times to add enough strength to the surface. This means the drying/sizing process would have to be repeated a number of times before it was sent on the sorting rooms to be graded and packed before it reached the customer.
GRADING AND PACKING
Women at the sorting and packing tables.
Not every sheet of paper made by hand was fantastic. Some had imperfections including tears, accidental inclusions (hairs, dirt etc) or were not the correct thickness or texture.
In the papermaking industry women were responsible for rag sorting (see above) and sheet grading.
The papers would be graded as:
Firsts - top grade, perfect sheets
Retree - very slightly imperfect. Normally sold 10% cheaper than Firsts
Outsides - usable areas but normally used as top and bottom sheets when packing papers in reams
Rejects - no good for anything other than repulping
Firsts were top grade papers. Retree were slightly imperfect and would be sold at about 10% less than firsts. Outsides were usable but used as the top and bottom sheets when packing papers and rejects would be sent for re-pulping.
PAPER MAKING MACHINE
All good things must come to an end.
Whatman ended paper making by hand in the 1950s and by the 1960s no longer made paper for art at all although there was an ill-fated 1980s relaunch producing not great mould-made watercolour and printmaking paper for a few years.
In the 1930s, Whatman broadened their proposition and began to make filter papers for use in science.
Until told otherwise, we believe this was the machine those papers were produced on.
Hello, I worked as Hugh Balstons secretary from1974 to 1979. It was the Whatman Reeve Angel. Now of course, the site has been cleared for building. I remember so much about it then though it was past the hand made paper days
Coincidentally my four times great grandfather Count Loigin. Heiden, was in command of the Russian navy in the Greek War of Independence in 1827. I had a number of letters from him to the commander of the British navy, Sir Edward Codrington written on Whatman paper. It was bizarre to read them in Maidstone and holding them to the light for the Watermark, see that the paper had come back after its travels! My father sadly sent everything to Yale though I would have loved them.
I do however, have a copy of the sample book. I am not sure where it is at this moment but know it is in this house. It is a thing of beauty and I was allowed to keep it because I found it on top of a cupboard where no one else would have found it.
Fascinating! Thank you for this article.
It is sad that the Springfield Mill is gone, but at least there are still knowledgeable people who can commemorate the outstanding history of Whatman’s, and understand its paper-making processes for posterity. Thank you
I have wondered about Whatman paper ever since I first attended watercolour classes at Architecture school. 47 years on, now I know… Thank you for a fascinating and informative foray into the world of Whatman, beautifully presented and delightfully written.
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