Marbled fingerprints

Updated: May 4, 2019

Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy has a famous marbled leaf that's never the same twice, because marbled paper is always unique. This one in Queens College Old Library, Cambridge, has even more surprises, though.

I’ve been tracking down the many variations of this page for a while now. I've seen a lot of them, but but this one is my favourite so far, for lots of reasons. It's an edition of Sterne's collected works (A.17.124), but there’s been a bit of poor planning. The leaf has been pasted in between page 112 and 113, and no space has been left for it. In other editions, the pagination sequence left a gap for it to fill, but here it simply duplicates the existing page numbers around it. In other words, the pages don’t add up. Here’s a book with not one but two page 111s and 112s. The other nice thing is that you can really see the production process in the pencil lines marking off the margins in preparation for the marbling. The paper remembers, even after all these centuries, where it has been folded backwards and forwards so both sides could be dipped into the bath of paint.

Best of all, though, the hapless papermarbler has left us not just one finger print but two. A lot of book history lately has been about recovering the labour of printing and composition, about seeing the book as an object that had to be made not just by the author but by many hands. Here is a direct trace of that labour, and those actual hands. Someone, probably working in less than ideal conditions, pushed for time, has accidentally left his (?) trace on the page. As a bonus, there’s a hole, presumably from later damage, where the text peeks through. Sterne’s ‘motley emblem’ becomes even more motley.