Hold the front pages: meet the endpaper enthusiasts

By Alison Flood

Faced with the hideous maw that is today’s news cycle, there could be little more soothing than slipping into the esoteric world of We Love Endpapers, a society for enthusiasts to share their favourite examples of the most beautiful pages bookending tomes.

Endpapers date back to at least the 15th century, when pieces of old manuscript or vellum would be used to help sew a book block into its binding, and to protect it. By the 17th century, they were being used as decorative items; today, they can feature everything from maps to an extra shot of artwork from a book’s illustrator.

Membership of We Love Endpapers has mushroomed over the last two years, says antiquarian bookseller Simon Beattie, who initially founded the group just for his friends. Its nearly 3,000 members now include antiquarian booksellers, special collections librarians, private collectors and book designers. “Everyone is very civilised,” he says. “Everyone just likes endpapers and looking at books.”

Defined simply – and comfortingly – as “a place for people to post pictures of nice endpapers they come across”, recent examples shared online by members range from the vibrantly beautiful examples in a 1776 German edition of Tristram Shandy to the gilt birds on a pink background inside a French manuscript of chansons, made for a young woman in the 1790s. Far from the madding crowd of today’s politics, the book lovers discuss, in painstaking detail, the different techniques used: marbling, sprinkling, block-printing, embossing …

“LOVELY,” proclaims one member describing an 18th-century Scottish binding’s decorative endpapers. “Splendid! I would like to see the spine,” declares another. “Such a beautiful combination!! Love the red and gold bestiary, and as for the binding ... superb!” says a third.

An example of Dutch Gilt endpapers by one Johann Michael Munck of Augsburg, on a 1642 edition of Aphthonius’ Progymnasmata.
An example of Dutch gilt endpapers, by Johann Michael Munck of Augsburg, on a 1642 edition of Aphthonius’s Progymnasmata. Photograph: Simon Beattie

“Just yesterday a librarian in Durham had a question about a particular style of marbling. Within a couple of hours her question had been answered and the technique identified, by a paper marbler in Chile,” says Beattie. He first fell for endpapers when he started out as a bookseller, 20 years ago: “I’d seen marbled papers before, but I hadn’t seen the block-printed ones, and I sort of fell in love with these 18th-century things. Some of them are surprisingly modern. The colours are often very vibrant. Because they’re inside the book they haven’t faded, become marked or dust-soiled. They remain the colour they were when that book was bound.”

Beattie has become something of an endpapers spokesman since launching the group, recently writing a piece for the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America in which he lays out a short history of hand-pressed endpapers.

Marbling, developed in Asia as early as the 12th century, “is achieved not directly on to the sheet of paper itself, but on a liquid called the marbling ‘size’ … Marbling paints are then sprinkled on to the size, in a flat tray, where they can either be left to float, or be manipulated with tools such as needles or combs to produce the decoration desired; the paper is then laid on to the size and the pattern thus transferred on to the paper.” Sprinkling, used since the 16th century, involves running a finger along a loaded brush to distribute drops of paint over the paper. “It was a particularly popular in Germany, where it is known as Kiebitzpapier (literally, ‘lapwing paper’, as the speckled effect was thought similar to the pattern found on some birds’ eggs),” writes Beattie. Embossing, which alters the paper with a raised texture, found popularity in the 18th century. It often uses one of Beattie’s favourite techniques, Dutch gilt – a misnomer, since they were made in Germany and Italy, but exported to Britain via the Netherlands.

“It’s nice to come across things make you go, ‘Wow!’” says Beattie. “It’s a bit like if you see the inside of a man’s suit, if it’s got a fancy lining – a flash of colour, it’s nice!”