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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Archive in Practice: An imagined exhibition

 Part one: Archive in Practice

One dimension of photography is that it is concerned with the staging of a struggle against the loss of memory – an attempt to archive and preserve what is about to disappear for good.[1] Gerhard Richter

These reflections by artist Gerhard Richter, encapsulate the very reason why I was lured into working with the medium. “An attempt to archive and preserve what is about to disappear for good”… Photography frames subjective experience in time. The act of taking a photograph is a highly romantic gesture – it captures a frame in time, which then becomes a fragment, isolated from its whole.

(Including the black edges of the film strip and a sliver of the next photograph on the film, amplifies the notion of the fragment)

3.2 The View. 2006 [2011]. Archival Inkjet Print on Hahnemühle Photo Rag. 77 x 46cm. Edition of 3 + 2 AP. (Including the black edges of the film strip and a sliver of the next photograph on the film, amplifies the notion of the fragment)

Every single photograph that I have ever taken contributes to an organically growing archive of irretrievable past defined in pictorial representation. This archive is the foundation of my art practice whereby the images within it become subject to constant reinterpretation and reconfiguration.

Acts of Recall, [sort excerpt], 2015, 16:9, colour, 14 min, 36 seconds, video still

By continually retrieving earlier photographs and combining them with more recent pictures, I explore new sets of formal connections and narrative relationships, which then surfaces other imagery or elements. In this way, my work reflects upon the transitory nature of meaning and memory, thereby amplifying the paradox of photography.

Drifting Down, [The Dome], 2012. Archival Inkjet Print on Hahnem Archival Inkjet Print on Hahnemühle Photo Rag. 100x100cm. Edition of 5 + 2 Ap

I am working with an acutely active archive, one that is constantly expanding physically as I continue to take pictures using analogue film in combination with digital printing processes. However, it is the emotional impact of each of these pictures that cause my archive to function and how they evoke and interact with my own memory. The enduring questions are:

How does one preserve content in an archive that is driven by “the felt”, the narrative and the poetic?

 How does one organise and manage the content in an archive that is continually changing in meaning and has endless manifestations, inter-relationships and formal and narrative connections?

All The Gardens I Could Find – Installation View
Blindside, Melbourne, 2016.

 I explore these themes through projects and exhibitions. Through the use of installation strategies I create pictorial and spatial structures that often function as a visual and temporal representation of the archival process and the concept of the catalogue as a completed physical item.

I playfully present photographs from my archive as a composite experience across a gallery space, thematically arranged, described and in constant dialogue with one another. This is realized through using colour, components of text and careful placement of the works in relation to the architecture of the gallery space. I usually include mechanisms for storing, reimaging or archiving like boxes, tables, folders, envelopes, and frames as a way of suggesting that the order is not fixed, and that the material is always in a state of being sorted through and processed – meaning is always in a constant state of flux.

Series 5: Overlaps – Garden Green and Sky Blue. Installation View Detail. Blindside, Melbourne 2016.

  For When All the Leaves Will Fall (Chiang Mai, Thailand) 2016 (2015)
  Archival Inkjet Print on Hahnemühle Photo Rag. 54x37cm.
  Edition of 5 + 2 Ap.

Through working in collection institutions like the State Library of Victoria and the British Library as my day job, I have been exposed to institutional workflows and archival tools and processes used to manage and preserve collection material and to make it accessible and discoverable for users. I have been inspired by the principles of archival arrangement and description and systems used to store, display and handle collections. This day-to-day engagement has undoubtedly woven into my own methodology.

The second half of this article for Archivoz, takes on the form of an imagined exhibition where archival tools and principles are employed to organize and display the works, as well as to amplify readings concerned with the fragmentary. The concept of the archive is also used as a metaphor for representation of the inner workings of the mind.

The Course of Leaving [Of course I will be Leaving]. 2010.
Archival Inkjet Print on Hahnemühle Photo Rag Baryta. 60x40cm


Part two: An Imagined Exhibition

A single table is positioned across the centre of the gallery, causing the room to be split into two parts. The dimension of this table permits only just enough space for the viewer to move around it and access the other half of the gallery.

The table’s surface acts as a carrier of meaning. Upon this surface, lay fragments of images – unmounted, unframed and resting in piles, that seem to be assembled into groupings according to colour, pictorial content and geometric forms. The surface layer of pictorial content is presented to the viewer, while the photographs embedded underneath are concealed by the nature of the pile. These deeper layers suggest a personal content that is not accessible.

For Proust, the deepest most profound memories really need to have been “lost” by being gradually covered over by other memories…[2]…. Embedded underneath the surface layers of the pile are ‘the true emotional tone of the past

The viewer enters the space through the whiteness and emptiness, being lured toward the zone of the table by the fragments of deep and vivid colors revealed between sheets of creamy white paper and manila folders that evoke the sense of residue that has accumulated over the years. In this structure, the pile is a metaphor for The Ruin and one of the beauties of a Ruin is its ability to be re-constructed.

The space in the back half of the gallery (behind the table) is roused by activity – large scale photographs, evocative and contemplative are assembled onto the whiteness of the walls – activating them with colour, light and image.

“Archives are seen as rows and rows of boxes on shelves, impenetrable without the codex which unlocks their arrangement and location”[3]. In this pictorial structure, it is as though the contents of the archive have emerged from their boxes and folders in storage and are undergoing a process of renewal, construction and re-construction.

A code of access is provided for the viewer, through the visual dialogue that operates between the piles of information laid out on the table and the photographs on the walls. Memory is used here as a device: through the use of installation strategies like repetition, groupings, rhythms, contrasts in scale – the viewers’ own memory can be evoked.

As the viewer passes through the area around the table to access the back half of the gallery, they will encounter a Finding Aid, which invites them to go deeper into uncovering further layers of content, through the descriptive information listed at item level.

The archive presented here is fluid, flowing, and its content discoverable through the act of slowing down and paying attention to the subtle codes revealed visually through the careful placement of works throughout the space.

 A Room for Ordering Memory. 2012. Installation View. Counihan Gallery, Melbourne.

For futher information: 

[1] Gerhard R. (2010). Between Translation and Invention: The Photograph in Deconstruction. In Copy, Archive, Signature: A Conversation on Photography. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

[2] Gross, D. (2000). Lost Time – On Remembering and Forgetting in Late Modern Culture. Amherst, Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press.

 [3] Breakwell, S. (Spring 2008). Perspectives: Negotiating the Archive. In Tate Papers 9. Retrieved from