Matt Lee

Matt Lee is an imaging technician for the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership Programme. He is also a tutor on the BA (Hons) Illustration programme at the Open College of the Arts and a visiting tutor on the BA (Hons) Illustration course at Arts University Bournemouth. Between 2007 and 2017 he worked as a senior lecturer at Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology in Bengaluru, where he founded the Storybook Lab, led classroom client projects in partnership with development organisations and taught illustration, visual communication and art practice. Matt’s artwork has exhibited across North America, Europe, Asia and Australia, including the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Mall Galleries in London. His illustrations have been published by Gestalten, The Guardian, The Independent, FT and Time Out. Matt holds a BA in Design: Illustration from Plymouth University and an MA in Visual Arts: Digital Arts from Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London, for which he received an Arts & Humanities Research Council award.

Revealing watermarks – a remote collaboration between Conservation and Imaging

As for so many people, lockdown has meant huge changes to our working lives. As the conservation and imaging staff on a digitisation project, many aspects of our work rely on physical access to collection items, studios, and equipment, and at first it seemed difficult to reimagine a work life so rooted in practical tasks. While this moment of reimagining felt simultaneously exciting and confusing, one thing it provided was the chance to reallocate time. With the removal of ‘business as usual’ came a rare opportunity to dedicate time normally reserved for the essential to the wider elements of what constitutes ‘work’. One way we managed to navigate this was through a collaborative project based on the watermarks from some of the documents we have been digitising for the Qatar Digital Library (QDL): a series of ship’s journals from the East India Company’s earliest voyages (1605-1705).

The idea began within the conservation team (Heather Murphy and Camille Dekeyser) who initially intended to use these watermarks to trace historic routes of the paper trade and commerce within Europe. We had hoped to use the watermarks to uncover specifics about papers and documents, such as their date and location of manufacture, but quickly found that establishing these details depends on a wide range of variables. It became obvious that the project could grow in multiple directions. As well as revealing the watermarks’ value for academic research, we wanted to highlight other enticing elements: their curious symbols, aesthetic appeal, and ability to appear and disappear. This rich combination of factors seemed worth investigating, to see if we could help people experience these often hidden parts of the collection (especially in their digital form, where watermarks are invisible most of the time).

The first step was to make our own watermarks out of wire, and trial these by making paper. After researching how to make a mould and deckle, we were able to sew the watermarks onto the frame and begin making our first watermarked papers. This proved both fun and instructive, so much so that we went on to run a papermaking workshop for other colleagues at the British Library.

 

It felt logical that a project with multiple elements would benefit from multiple inputs, so we sought out collaborators from among our talented colleagues. Before anything else, we needed to create good quality images of the watermarks which could be easily viewed. Until then, we had been working from handmade tracings, which we had been compiling, researching, and comparing with online databases.

These were a helpful starting point, but lacked accuracy and clarity. With this in mind, we began collaborating with Senior Imaging Technician Jordi Clopés Masjuan and Senior Imaging Support Technician Matt Lee, to discuss the practicalities of creating clearer images. Jordi suggested creating a series of images through which the watermarks could be ‘revealed’: one image capturing the watermarks as they appear on the digitised image (almost or completely invisible), and another showing them illuminated by backlighting.

Although the imaging studio we use is equipped with high quality lights, sensors, lenses, etc., the technique Jordi used to capture the watermarks was quite simple. We first designed and made a triangular structure from vivak (commonly used for exhibition mounts and stands), which enabled us to support the page safely and ensure that it would not move during the capture.

Using a tripod to avoid any movement, we took two consecutive images using only one light for each image: the first was strategically placed behind the camera (to light the ‘original’ view of the folio) and the other behind the document as a backlight (to highlight the watermark). It was crucial that neither the camera nor the document moved, in order to create two images for an exact comparison. Once captured, Jordi worked with the images in Adobe Photoshop to accentuate key points of contrast. While the first image needed no editing, the second required custom adjustments to the levels, curves, saturation, and brightness to reinforce the watermarks.

Jordi then further suggested that we could overlay the two images online, using a digital tool that would allow the user to slide one of the images across to reveal the other, enabling an interactive comparison.

Fortunately, the watermark images were captured prior to the first national lockdown in March 2020. Working from home, Matt imported these digital images into an iPad and traced the outline of the watermarks using the Procreate drawing and painting app. The task was time-intensive, but proved a welcome distraction.

These digital drawings gave the watermark designs a more tangible form and enabled us to compare and categorise them by type. The fleur-de-lis is one of several common motifs, while another features a jug (see below). Compiling the different iterations has revealed subtle differences in the design, shape, and lettering.

In these earlier examples, it is harder to discern the origins of the design, but they often draw on imagery related to trade guilds and religious symbols, as well as incorporating lettering and abbreviations. Many early watermarks can appear almost identical, but exhibit many small differences which are likely imperceptible unless you know what to look for. This may result from distortions caused by wear and tear to the moulds, but could also be due to early papermaking techniques which used a pair of moulds, or double mould, to create pairs of watermarks referred to as ‘twins’. Even these may contain minor differences, perhaps because they were created by different workers, and/or were placed on opposite sides of the mould. A design might have been reversed on different sides of the mould, or placed differently in relation to laid and chain lines. Some include abbreviations of names and initials, or differences in countermarks. Matt’s drawings of the different variations in our watermark designs offer a great way of studying and comparing their motifs.

With these digital tracings, we decided to add a third ‘view’ to Jordi’s interactive comparison tool, incorporating Matt’s drawings to further illuminate the watermarks.

As the GIF shows, Jordi was able to combine our images with this ‘slider’ tool, allowing people to unveil the invisible watermarks by moving the arrows. Our hope is to incorporate this into the QDL, along with contextual articles about the watermarks, but integrating such a tool requires considerable back-end coding, and at the time of writing it has not yet been possible.

The latest addition to this work emerged from conversations with a close friend Eva Sbaraini about her work in 3D printing, when we decided to collaborate to investigate potential uses for 3D printing within conservation. We started by trialing a 3D print of one of the designs in an attempt to give these partially hidden images a physical form.

From these first tests, we are hopeful that 3D-printed watermarks could be used as tactile visual objects for tours, demonstrations, presentations, or workshops, and have been eagerly gathering input from colleagues across different specialisms on other applications. Moving forward, we see possible uses in the realms of teaching, learning, and engagement.

We have also sewn 3D-printed watermarks onto our mould, to test them in the papermaking process. This has allowed us to adapt and study elements of existing designs.

This 3D-printed watermark is an enlarged replica from one that appears in our collection. It was created by converting Matt’s vector image into an SGV file from which to 3D print.

We have even created and 3D printed our own entirely new and intricate design, which is next in line for a papermaking trial. It is made up of the initials of everyone involved in this project.

This collaboration has taught us about each other’s distinct specialisms, and is a remarkable testament to what can be achieved together while working remotely. We have seen the project move from practical, physical elements into the digital realm, and from the digital creations back into new physical manifestations. When we are back in our respective studios at the British Library, we plan to continue working on digitising the watermarks of other series, perhaps finding more ways to make these available for audiences to study and enjoy.

Further reading:

To read more about the process we followed in digitising the watermarks, see the blogpost ‘Making Watermarks Visible’, written for the British Library Digital Scholarship blog.

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Meaning in a Matchbox

In January 2007 I moved from the UK to India to teach in the department of Visual Communication at Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology in Bengaluru. Walking through the city I came across matchboxes almost everywhere I went. At a cost of one rupee, these economical and disposable matchboxes are often found empty and discarded on the roadside near truck stops and littering the footpaths around chai stalls and cigarette shops. Purchased from convenience stores, these ubiquitous objects are commonly used in homes to light stoves, the pious havan or diyas for religious rituals and lighting cigarettes or their cheaper counterparts, the beedis.

One of the first matchboxes I came across in Bengaluru featured an illustration of a killer whale with the word ‘Dolphin’ written above it. Another early find had a photograph of three ‘Famous’ kittens in a wicker basket. Later I came across a matchbox titled ‘Jamesbond’ with an illustration of a German Shepard. Coming from a background in visual communication and editorial illustration, where the clear communication of messages was central to my practice, I enjoyed the seemingly random relationships between text and image present on so many of these labels. Over time I collected a variety of matchboxes from across India and as the collection grew commonalities between designs began to emerge, with characteristics that include the duplication and mirroring of iconography, incongruous juxtapositions between text and image, thematic variations, textual iterations and copy-cat imitations of popular labels.

No.6, Yelahanka, Bengaluru, 2007

No.44, KB Jacob Road, Fort Kochi, September 2008

No.698, Defence Colony, Indiranagar, Bengaluru, July 2015

No.737, Brigade Road, Bengaluru, December 2016

For me, collecting and categorising these small visual-tactile objects was one way of making sense of my surroundings and the local visual culture that I found myself engaging with. The imagery on these boxes include Hindu symbolism, historical figures, Bollywood actors, foreign brands and cartoon characters, everyday objects, consumer goods, aspirational items, and a variety of popular and exotic animals. The disparate visuals, meanings and juxtapositions that are present through the collection encapsulate quite perfectly the heterogeneous and hybrid visual culture seen in many parts of India today. As cultural artefacts these matchboxes tell us about national identity, modernity and tradition, gender roles, religion and globalisation and how these themes often merge and co-exist.

Phillumeny, the practice of collecting matchbox labels requires commitment and discipline. The routine process involves photographing each design, maintaining a physical and digital archive along with a record of the date and location of where each matchbox was found or purchased. In the essay ’The System of Collecting’, Jean Baudrillard wrote that “it is invariably oneself that one collects” (1994, p. 12) and as visual signifiers, many of these designs embody personal memories. Collectively the visible scars of the battered boxes tell a story, mapping the places I have been to and the experiences I have had… an early morning trek through Periyar National Park with my father and brother, a 48-hour train journey to Varanasi with my students, cycling and sunburn in Hampi and many conversations with friends and colleagues in Bengaluru.

No.707, Kruti Saraiya, September 2015

No.160, Yelahanka New Town, Bengaluru, 2009

No.44, KB Jacob Road, Fort Kochi, September 2008

While the visual and material qualities of these matchboxes vary between regions, a large number of them are printed in Sivakasi, a town in Tamil Nadu known for producing fireworks. In the ten years that I lived in India my collection grew to over 750 matchboxes. What has kept me going is that new labels are produced all the time and across such a vast country, as India is, I could only ever have a fraction of the designs available. The collection can never possibly be complete and so each new addition does not offer a resolution, but instead adds to the continuing story. It is the notion of absence which is essential to the act of collecting. Baudrillard wrote, “the collection is never really initiated in order to be completed… the missing item in the collection is in fact an indispensable and positive part of the whole, in so far as this lack is the basis of the subject” (1994, p. 13).

In 2018 my interest in collections led me to the British Library, where I work as a digital imaging technician on the Qatar Foundation Partnership Programme alongside a team of photographers, archivists, content specialists, translators and conservators. The skills I have developed in this role can be applied to my own digital archives. This includes photographing the matchbox collection to higher imaging standards and with due consideration towards image size, resolution, consistent lighting and accurate colour. A lot of visual, textual and material information is currently missing from my digital matchbox archive, including the reverse sides of the boxes, which include details about the price, manufacturer and place of production as well as the phosphorus striker strips on the sides that display a variety of patterns. At the British Library we photograph the front, back, spine, edge, head and tail of each book, similarly, capturing the matchboxes from all six sides will provide information about the physical condition of each item.

In my role at the British Library I have been introduced to principles for conserving, archiving, managing and curating collections and this engagement has provided me with ideas for developing the Indian matchbox project. While the metadata of my archive includes numbering and information of where and when each matchbox was found, this can be expanded to include details of the manufacturer, place of production, label description, box measurements, material and cost. I began digitising Indian matchboxes over ten years ago, with the simple aim of sharing the range of unique designs online via my personal website. My long-term aim is to create a dedicated website for the collection, with high-quality images that are searchable and categorised sequentially and thematically. This may provide contextual information on the design, cultural, historical, social and economic aspects of Indian matchboxes along with personal stories about notable items. All of this shows that while I no longer live in Bengaluru, this project is far from complete and my journey through the collection has a long way to travel.

This Indian matchbox project is about drawing meaning from a personal collection of cultural designs that are individually unique and collectively identifiable. The full collection of ‘Matchboxes for the Subcontinent’ can be viewed on my website.

No.533, Doddaballapur Road, Yelahanka, Bengaluru, April 2012

Bibliography

Baudrillard, J. (1994). The System of Collecting.

Copyright

Images property of © Matt Lee