Watermarks in the NGV’s collection of prints by Albrecht Dürer

This study was made possible with the generous support of Dr Susanne Pearce.

The National Gallery of Victoria’s collection of prints by Albrecht Dürer is recognised internationally for its quality, comprehensiveness, and number of rarities. The collection comprises some 451 items, and is known in particular for 326 Dürer prints and books purchased in 1956–57 from Sir T. D. Barlow. This group was assembled between the First and Second world wars and is noteworthy for its high proportion of early impressions. The Gallery’s large collection of Dürer prints provides an important corpus of early European papers which contain valuable information for study purposes. Using beta-radiography the NGV’s Paper Conservation studio has captured images of the watermarks in these prints, which are accessible through this online database.

Dürer used paper containing the High Crown watermark for both engravings and woodcuts from 1495 until his death in 1528

In 1993–94 the NGV’s collection of Dürer prints was comprehensively catalogued in preparation for the publication Albrecht Dürer in the Collection of the National Gallery of Victoria (1994). At this time, all Dürer prints containing watermarks underwent beta-radiography, with approximately 200 separate watermarks collected. Launching the online database in 2016 has allowed further research of these beta-radiographs to be undertaken, and several previous watermark descriptions have been refined and new identifications made. This database now makes the watermarks collected in this important study available to others for research.

Digital databases enable watermarks to be compared with greater accuracy than the traditional method of comparing tracings, made by hand, of watermarks compiled in printed albums. The Dürer database of approximately 160 watermarks enables researchers to readily access information that can assist with dating and authenticating Dürer prints. When studied as a whole, the database provides insight into the availability of paper in Germany during the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and the choices of paper available to Dürer.

Throughout the artist’s lifetime, the only type of Western paper available was known as laid paper. Paper is made from a thin layer of pulped fibres which, when dried, forms a sheet of paper. This was made on a timber frame, called a mould, which is covered in a series of widely spaced parallel wires known as chain lines, running across which were more closely spaced wires known as laid lines. When the paper was formed, the side of the sheet against the mould, known as the wire side, develops a subtle lined texture; hence the name ‘laid paper’. Conversely, the other side, known as the felt side, is smoother and more uniform. Occasionally the pressure exerted on the paper during printing flattens the laid lines, making it difficult to distinguish which side the artist has printed on. As noted in the database, Dürer readily printed on both the wire and felt sides of the sheet, indicating that the paper’s surface texture was not a preoccupation for him.

Filigranology, or the study of watermarks, has formed part of print scholarship since the early eighteenth century, and in the mid nineteenth century Bernard Hausmann compiled the first comprehensive list of watermarks found in Dürer’s prints. The watermark comes from a design made of shaped copper wire, referred to as the wire profile, which was sewn onto the wire side of a papermaking mould with fine wire. Because the sheet of paper is thinner in the area of the wire profile, when it is viewed with light behind it, or to a lesser extent across the surface, the watermark design becomes visible. Some wire profiles were stitched to the mould in the same orientation they were designed to be seen in, while others were stitched in reverse, intended to be viewed from the felt side. When letters form part of a watermark its correct orientation is readily apparent.

In the NGV database of watermarks found in Dürer prints, small dots caused by stitches used to anchor the wire profile to the mould are occasionally visible. In addition to watermarks, some papers have a separate, smaller subsidiary design, known as a countermark, often taking the simple form of a pair of initials in a different location on the sheet. It was common for larger sheets of paper to be cut down, which often separated the watermark and the countermark. For example, Dürer’s woodcut Saint Jerome in his Cell, 1511, bears the initials ‘IM’ which is the countermark to the ‘Fish bladder’ watermark found in The Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin, 1510.

‘IM’ countermark in Saint Jerome in his Cell, 1511

‘Fish bladder’ watermark found in The Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin, 1510

Beta-radiography is a moderate particulate form of radiation that can penetrate materials such as paper, allowing crisp images of variations in thickness, and thus show where the different wires of the mould – chain, laid and watermark design – were. Beta-radiographs not only reveal watermarks but also aspects of a sheet’s manufacture, including areas of variable pulp dispersion; inclusions, such as splinters of wood used to beat the paper; coarse fibres; damage that occurred throughout the life of the print, such as holes and repairs; and sometimes ink or pigments from the image on the sheet.

Papermaking mills used moulds with the same identifying watermark in pairs to increase output. The vatman would plunge one mould into the vat of paper pulp, forming the paper sheet, before passing it to the coucher who then turned out the sheet onto felt, and laid another felt on top of it ready for the next sheet. While this was happening, the vatman had already started work on the next sheet, using the other mould. The watermarks on the two moulds in simultaneous use are referred to as twins. The moulds would be utilised continuously over a number of months, with running repairs undertaken to keep them in service. Being made of soft copper, the wire profile was vulnerable to damage and distortion through repeated use. Close study of a single watermark design, for example the High Crown, can reveal subtle changes, such as movement of the wire profile between chain lines, small breaks or bends in the wire profile, repairs and small design alterations. These subtle changes between watermarks made with the same wire profile are referred to as different states.

Watermarks are enormously varied and can denote the region and manufacturing mill in which paper was made, as well as the quality of the sheet. They also provide insights into paper trade and distribution. The Rhine River acted as a trade route between the Piedmont region of Italy and cities such as Basel and Dürer’s home town of Nuremberg. This movement of paper, together with Dürer’s documented travels to locations such as Venice, Antwerp and Bruges, is reflected in the range of watermarks found in his prints.

While there are diverse designs used in watermarks of this period, a number of repeated symbols indicate aspects of the culture in which Dürer lived. The crown was a symbol of authority in the second half of the fifteenth century, and the strong religious spirit of the Middle Ages led to the inclusion of symbols such as the cross for centuries to follow. Furthermore, the development of heraldry led to the use of emblems, including shields and the eagle, in watermarks.

While watermarks are a great aid to print scholarship, it is prudent to study them in conjunction with other evidence, such as internationally recognised catalogues and provenance information.

Explanation of the measurement system used in the database

The placement and spacing of each watermark on the mould has been measured using a system developed by filigranologist Allan Stevenson. For example, the High Crown watermark found in Nemesis (3490-4) is measured as follows:

140  x 4 [27 I 27]  x 4 mm
Height of watermark (in mm) Distance from the left edge of watermark to closest chain line on left side (in mm) [The sum of the numbers in brackets is the total width of the watermark at its widest point]. Here a single chain line bisects the watermark as noted by a vertical mark (I) (in mm) Distance from the right edge of watermark to closest chain line on right side (in mm)

In some cases there is a partial or indistinguishable watermark. In these instances a question mark is used in place of a measurement.

Partial watermarks appear in the database where Dürer cut the paper sheet prior to use, or where a work has been trimmed subsequently. There are also cases where the watermark is indistinguishable, due perhaps to damage to the wire profile or work of art, or because of poor sheet formation. In these instances, a question mark is used in place of a measurement.

Glossary of terms

Chain line interval
The distance between chain lines, measured in millimetres.
Laid line frequency
The number of laid lines present per centimetre.
Wire side
The wire side of a paper sheet can be on the front of the work of art, referred to as the recto, or the back of the work, known as the verso. In some cases, it is not possible to determine if the wire side is on the recto or verso.
Side the beta-radiograph is taken from
In general, the beta-radiograph images in the database were taken from the recto of the work of art. In some cases a more distinct image was possible from the non-printed side; in these instances the x-ray film was placed on the verso of the work. This information should be interpreted in conjunction with the information related to wire side, allowing conclusions to be drawn about the orientation of the wire profile on the mould used to make the paper. For example, the beta-radiograph of the City Gate watermark in the etching The Agony in the Garden, 1515, is taken from the recto side of the print, and the wire side is on the recto. Therefore, the image in the database shows the exact orientation of the City Gate wire profile on the papermaker’s mould.

City Gate watermark found in The Agony in the Garden etching (3436-4)

References and remarks
To assist in the identification of Dürer’s watermarks, related watermarks in other studies are referred to throughout the database. These key references are Charles-Moïse Briquet’s Les Filigranes: Dictionnaire historique des marques du papier dès leur apparition vers 1282 jusqu’en en 1600 (1968) and Joseph Meder’s comprehensive study of Dürer’s papers Dürer: Katalog (1932). In Briquet the earliest date and places of use of the various watermarks have been assigned from dated documents, printed books and dated works of art. In some cases, very similar watermarks have been assigned a variety of Briquet numbers because different numbers are assigned to different states of the same watermark throughout this dictionary.
Erasmus of Rotterdam
Albrecht DÜRER
Madonna Queen of Angels
Albrecht DÜRER
The Crucifixion
Albrecht DÜRER
The Four Angels staying the winds
Albrecht DÜRER
The Circumcision
Albrecht DÜRER
Coat of Arms of Maximilian I as King of the Romans
Albrecht DÜRER
The Seven Trumpets
Albrecht DÜRER
Joachim and the Angel
Albrecht DÜRER
Madonna with the monkey
Albrecht DÜRER
Landscape with cannon
Albrecht DÜRER
The sea monster
Albrecht DÜRER
St Jerome Penitent in the Wilderness
Albrecht DÜRER
Lansquenet and Death
Albrecht DÜRER
The Fall of Man
Albrecht DÜRER
Emperor Maximilian I
Albrecht DÜRER
The Trinity (The See of Grace)
Albrecht DÜRER
The Adoration of the Shepherds
Albrecht DÜRER