Paper cuts

We are, it seems, rapidly losing interest in the physicality of paper as a medium for messaging, apart of course from this time of year. So whilst last night I exchanged Christmas cards and opened presents with a friend, the visual attractiveness and sheer tactility of which was delightful, it really isn’t often now that compressed fibres and ink play much of a part in communicating how we feel or how clever we are. Which is a real shame given what this has yielded in the past.


In 1587 Mary, Queen of Scots wrote a final letter to Henry III of France from her prison cell as she awaited execution. Its contents are thus of great value and the letter itself was already a key historical document, but it is now clear Mary borrowed from the set of techniques researchers today call letterlocking to prevent it being read undetected by anyone other than the King. For centuries folding, slitting, tucking, sticking and tying were all deployed to turn a letter into its own envelope before ready-made equivalents were available (and paper was cheap enough to be ‘wasted’ on such a thing). The results were tight, tamper-proof bundles of paper joy, sorrow and everything in between, some of which – astonishingly – remain sealed hundreds of years later.


At about the same time as many of those locked letters were written, artists were drawing not with graphite or chalk but in metalpoint, whereby a stylus of silver, lead, copper or even gold is used on a sheet of specially-prepared, mildly abrasive vellum or paper to make a fine mark. The stylus required neither recharging with ink nor sharpening, though its inscription was permanent and could not be corrected. Each metal yielded a different colour tone, but after so long all now are prone to fading, to such an extent that one image by Leonardo da Vinci – beautiful, lively, muscled horses – can now only be seen when the sheet it was made on is illuminated by ultraviolet light… except that prolonged exposure to that light damages both the material being looked at and the eyes of the viewer.


I no longer take a daily newspaper, but for many years loved The Independent. Quirky, rule-breaking and stylish, it established its own personality that found a ready fan in me. Quality writers were important of course, whether the impassioned Robert Fisk on the Middle East or Miles Kington on anything funny. The large, richly-printed monochrome imagery taken by a small group of in-house snappers was striking even without their dry take on the press conference; rather than a conventional close-up of the speaker, the paper generally ran a picture that showed instead the crowd of press photographers shooting that speaker. Add superb arts coverage, which was in large part responsible for my sitting here typing this for you now, and Peattie and Taylor’s Alex cartoon, about sarcastic City trader, it sustained me on many a commute and is much missed.



Just a few years ago S. was published, written by Doug Dorst and based on an idea by filmmaker JJ Abrams. Ostensibly a first edition hardback of the 1949 novel Ship of Theseus by V.M. Straka, albeit one borrowed from a US high school library (there is the Dewey-coded spine label, stamps and a list of loan dates), it becomes clear the dark narrative Straka weaves is complemented by the interwoven annotations of two students who have making notes in its margins over months; each leaves the book where the other can find it. The engagement comes from the realism of those scribbles, ideas and comments as well as the ephemera slipped in between some of the pages, the book becoming “a celebration of the analogue, of the physical object” as the makers describe it. To make it tracing paper was laid over each page of the Theseus text, with two ‘handwriters’ creating the students’ own text using various carefully selected pens and pencils. This was then digitised, detailed and combined with that original text for the final book.


So as you move away from paper, do remember its power.

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Chris Rogers  |  Writer on architecture and visual culture