22 SEPTEMBER 2007, Page 21

Don't despise paper it's a central pillar of civilisation

PAUL JOHNSON ne need not be depressed by lugubrious calculations of how many trees are chopped down to produce one edition of a popular newspaper. The timber industry is so profitable that there are probably more usable trees than ever. Still, we should not take paper for granted. Considering that it is made of old rags and pulp and whatnot, it is a daily miracle.

In the artist's household in which I grew up, where drawing, watercolour and etching were paramount, there was never any danger of us underestimating the importance of paper. As the headmaster of an art school, my father was sent endless samples by the big art-paper manufacturers, and I learned to recognise by sight the weight, absorption power, quality and resilience of all the different grades. My father quoted Turner's famous dictum: Always respect your paper.' I still get a thrill from contemplating a sheet of it before my pencil, crayon or brush makes its first mark. Not even a discalced Carmelite nun is more virginal than a new piece of paper on your drawing board. Your first line on it is an aesthetic crossing of the Rubicon which can never be retracted. My father would never allow a rubber except in extremis, saying: 'Think carefully before you draw a line, then a rubber is unnecessary.' In any case erasure never really works, unlike oil painting on canvas. In drawing and still more in watercolour, every step is irrevocable. That is what makes it so exciting and adult. In watercolour particularly you have to think hard, and ahead. It is rather like chess, where the ability to calculate 12 moves in advance is the mark of a good player. The watercolourist must put his lighter colours on first and proceed in descending order of darkness (like visiting hell', as Fuseli used to say). The virgin paper itself is the ultimate highlight and must be retained with fierce tenacity. So the paper itself is a key part of the work of art.

Since my childhood in the 1930s there has been a benevolent revolution in the use of paper. Then, at any rate in the Potteries where I lived, working-class families rarely could afford loo paper. They used cut up newspapers. The luxurious softness of modern bumpf was unknown, even to the rich. Old newspapers lined cupboards and shelves, too, and were much used by charwomen, as they were then called. One thing I do regret is that it is not just politically incorrect but actually unlawful to wrap up fish-and-chips in old copies of newspapers. This removes an entire dimension of the delight we enjoyed once — the pleasure of reading interesting stuff you might have missed while gobbling the unhealthy, fatty mouthfuls. How we impoverish our lives by the futile pursuit of Health and Safety! How can we ever keep healthy or be truly safe in this ephemeral world?

But if good, cheap loo paper is recent, what about paper kitchen towels? One busy housewife and first-class cook I know says that the paper towel is a more useful invention than the dishwasher. I agree because I need them for my painting in watercolour: so much more agreeable and less messy than the old studio rags. Moreover paper towels can actually be used in the watercolour process, to speed up drying and to create special effects: they are instruments of the art, like brushes. I prefer them to tissues as a rule. But of course I would not deny the importance of the tissue, perhaps the greatest invention of the 20th century. It did not cure the common cold but it helps to make the scourge bearable. A sliver of it is the best thing when you cut yourself shaving. If I stuff a handful of tissues into my trouser pocket when I get up, I am sure to find half a dozen uses for them before the day is out. But kitchen paper has the advantage of toughness. I know a girl who uses them to dry dishes, thinking it more sanitary.

Toughness is, in fact, an easily created characteristic of paper, especially in the ultra-thin opaque type used in high-class printing. This was first made in China, though usually called India Paper. In 1841 an Oxford man brought home from the East a specimen and gave it to the Oxford University Press. The next year, its printer Thomas Combe used it to print 24 copies of the smallest Bible then in existence, set in diamond 24mo. The OUP mills at Wolvercote eventually succeeded in imitating the paper, which won prizes at international exhibitions, where its strength was demonstrated. At the Paris Expo of 1900 a volume of 1,500 pages was suspended by a single leaf as thin as tissue. When the Expo closed several months later, it was found that the leaf had not started, the paper had not stretched and the volume closed perfectly. When subjected to severe rubbing, the paper, instead of breaking into holes like usual printing paper, became like a piece of chamois leather — a strip three inches wide was found able to hold a 28-pound weight.

Every conceivable kind of art has used paper in one way or another, and there ought to be a big, exhaustive book on the subject. One example is cardboard, which came in on a commercial scale at the end of the 18th century and was much used in Napoleonic France for its big propaganda displays — you could say that Bonaparte's European rule was a cardboard empire, in more ways than one. When I was a boy I used a lot of cardboard for artwork (like Daumier and Degas) and still do when I can be bothered, at Christmas time, to make a new background for our crib figures.

More important, however, is wallpaper, which until fairly recently was an under-explored aspect of art history. It is old, however. The earliest wallpapers, used instead of tapestry, go back to the late 15th century in Europe (no doubt earlier in China). But virtually none has survived, being destroyed in situ or papered over with layers equally or more precious. Or the whole building was destroyed. In England, and still more so the United States, it is very rare to find wallpaper going back before the early 18th century. But that century was the great age, in my opinion. There is some still in place at Clandon Park in Surrey and one or two other stately homes. The great masters were the Chinese, of course. Their beautiful handpainted wallpapers, considerable works of art in themselves, were shipped back by the East India Company, especially in the half-century 1740-90. When Lord Macartney returned from his famous embassy to Peking, he brought back some master-rolls, and presented some to Coutts Bank, whose Strand boardroom they covered. In various reconstructions, the latest in 1978, this wallpaper has been expensively preserved and can still be seen.

There are some other Chinese examples at the Brighton Pavilion, where the designs are framed like a big painting, and at Sir Walter Scott's Abbotsford, including an exquisite lemur. All these are hand-painted. At that date the only rivals to the Chinese were the French. But they produced some miraculous papers, especially in the years 1780 to 1830. The colours in some of their flower and leaf patterns are extraordinary. They are well produced in the best popular work on the subject, The Painted Wall: History, Patterns, Techniques, a compilation published by Harry N. Abrams of New York in 1994.

If you ever get the chance to see Gordon Brown in his room at the Commons, look out for the wallpaper. It's by Pugin. Morris was even better. We used to have our houses papered in his patterns. Now the pictures and books take up all the wall space, so we don't use wallpaper at all. Still, the pictures are mostly on paper, as well as the books. Paper continues to be a pillar of civilisation, despite the horrid email.