Exploring the Silver Studio grasspaper stencil collection
2018 in the conservation department began with an adventure into the unknown…
We had been looking for the opportunity to delve into a big cardboard box of unaccessioned rolled materials which we knew to contain a number of grasspaper stencils made by Arthur Silver in the 1890s…
When Naoko Nomoto, an MA postgraduate from UCL’s Cultural Heritage Studies course, approached us about volunteering for a few days in January, we thought her existing knowledge concerning Japanese-European hybrid materials of the same period would be helpful in our efforts to find out more about grasspaper manufacture and stencilling. This project was of particular interest for Naoko who was familiar with the Silver Studio’s work, having visited our collections centre to look at the Silver-Rottman leather papers (wallpaper which is made from paper to look like leather using Japanese embossing techniques) earlier in 2017.
What are grasspaper stencils?
In the 1890s, Arthur Silver experimented with the ‘Japanese’ method of stencilling pattern onto a range of materials including linen, paper, and grasspaper. He developed a new technique of blending colours by spraying pigment through metal plate or cardboard stencils, and was keen to promote the resulting fabrics and wallpapers as hand, rather than machine made.
He likewise considered the adaptation of grasspaper as a primary support to be innovative – inspired by similar materials used in Japanese households. We believe that the grasspapers used in the Silver studio during this period were manufactured in Japan by hand. The papers were made by sewing together the individual ‘grass stalks’ (possibly rice or kudzu stems), into a sheet which was then lined with Japanese washi paper. The result is a robust, flexible paper, which has since been used as a wall paper in the West. You can still buy this product today, made from a range of ‘grass stems’. In the nineteenth century it is possible that visitors to Japan had noticed similar materials used on screen doors, as mats and blinds, and were keen to adapt this for a Western market.
What did we do?
During the course of five days Naoko and I managed to look at every one of the 58 rolled items in the large box, allocate an accession number for each one, fill out a spreadsheet with brief object description, condition assessment, and conservation proposal, and Naoko assisted our photographer Justin in photographing all items surveyed, before re-rolling-wrapping and labelling them.
We then managed to move on to explore the contents of MoDA’s 8 ‘stencil boxes’, which contain the stencil plates, test stencilled papers, and other related materials used for developing designs and techniques by Arthur Silver, as well as promotional materials and publications.
What did we find?
We found 18 unaccessioned grasspaper stencils, approximately 10 linen stencilled pieces, and 30 stencilled paper designs, all of which had been stored in rolls, and many of which are larger than 1m in length. We also surveyed more than 100 items in the stencil boxes.
In looking at the grasspapers we made a number of observations about how they were made. For example:
The individual grass strands would be carefully hand knotted to provide a uniform length, and we identified at least two sewing structures which impacted on the appearance and texture of each sheet of grasspaper.
There were several methods of media application apparent throughout the collection, as Arthur experimented with painting through stencils before settling on his final spray method, and this was quite informative. Also, we had a good opportunity to observe the effects of differing primary supports on the appearance of a single design, as we found a number of cases of one design being applied to linen, paper, and grasspaper in the box.
What will happen next?
Once we have gathered all of the information we can on Arthur Silver’s stencil materials, we hope to devise a conservation and re-housing project to make these materials accessible, and catalogue them in more detail. We also hope to find an opportunity to research and report on historic grasspaper as a material, and its’ conservation requirements.
We are enormously grateful to Naoko for helping us to get this project off the ground, and look forward to developing it over the next year or so. In the meantime, if anyone out there has any information about grasspaper in particular, please let us know.