Collection Care blog

Behind the scenes with our conservators and scientists

20 May 2014

Discovery of a watermark on the St Cuthbert Gospel

A watermark of a post horn surrounded by a shield was recently discovered on the rear pastedown of the St Cuthbert Gospel (Add. MS 89000). The finding has just been published in the Electronic British Library Journal. The St Cuthbert Gospel is a late seventh century parchment volume and is the oldest intact European book. This Anglo-Saxon pocket gospel belonged to St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne (c. 635–687) and was discovered in 1104 in his tomb.

The pastedown, which is the endpaper attached to the inside cover board of a book, records the donation of the St Cuthbert Gospel (then known as the Stonyhurst Gospel) to the British Province of the Society of Jesus from the Reverend Thomas Philips, S. J. in 1769.


The front board of a book bound in dark brown leather. A rectangular decorated panel is in the middle of the board - it features a raised pattern in the shape of an interlacing vine, above and below which are rectangular panels of interlacing knot designs. The leather has deposits of dirt and small areas on the right-hand side of the board have become abraded.
St Cuthbert Gospel
A piece of cream paper pasted inside the back board of the book, covered with ten lines of Latin writing in dark brown ink. The paper is torn and folded in on the edges and at the corners. The number 91 is written in red crayon at the top of the piece of paper, above the first line of writing. The paper has some old dirt ingrained into its surface, which show the contours of the board and folds of the covering leather beneath.
Rear pastedown
A white representation of the piece of paper on the back board, showing only the outline of the watermark. The watermark is in the bottom right-hand corner. It consists of a cloud, inside which is an item in the shape of a hunting horn. A small tentacle or vine is coming out of the top of the cloud. Next to the cloud is a small design in the shape of a shoe with a high heel.
Watermark location

CC by Left: Front cover of the St Cuthbert Gospel. Centre: The rear pastedown showing a record of the donation: ‘Hunc Evangelii Codicem dono accepit ab Henrico Comite de Litchfield, et dono dedit Patribus Societatis Iesu, Collegii Anglicani, Leodii, Anno 1769; rectore eiusdem Collegii Ioanne Howard: Thomas Phillips Sac. Can. Ton.’ which translates to: ‘This Gospel Book was received as a gift from Henry, Earl of Litchfield, and given to the Fathers of the Society of Jesus, of the English College, Liège, in the year 1769, the rector of the college, John Howard, Thomas Phillips Canon of Tongres.’ Right: The watermark is located in the lower right hand corner

What are watermarks?

Watermarks are created by manipulating a piece of wire into a recognisable shape and fixing it to a paper mould such as the Japanese papermaking bamboo screen below.  Here the bamboo has been cut into strips and arranged into parallel lines called laid lines. The bamboo strips are held together by sewing thread at one inch intervals, which form the chain lines on a sheet of paper. Chain lines, laid lines and watermarks are visible when held up to a light source. Light can pass through watermarks easily because the paper thickness is reduced where wire is present in the mould.

The papermaking screen consists of two dark wood rectangular frames one on top of the other with a screen between them made from parallel strips of bamboo. A thin dark wood dowl bisects the top frame horizontally. The bamboo screen has lines of white stitching crossing it horizontally at regular intervals.
Paper mould

CC zero A Japanese papermaking bamboo screen

We typically notice watermarks on paper when they are held up to the light revealing a motif, initials or a date relating to the original paper mill. Watermarks are therefore useful in determining the provenance of paper and can help to identify its intended function. Watermarks can be difficult to image because they are often obscured by print on the page, or are located in the gutter (the space between the printed area and the binding).

An example of a partial watermark from a woodblock reprint dating to about 1476 is shown below. The reprint is of the Astronomical Calendar first published by Johann Müller (Regiomontanus) in Nuremberg in 1474 (British Library shelfmark IA.7). The watermark is found in the gutter with the other half located several folios later due to the ordering and cutting of the folios.

The gutter area of a book is shown horizontally. Grids of numbers are printed in black ink on both pages, and are coloured with yellow and red pigment on the top page. The watermark is in the margin of the top page, below the printed grid. It consists of a clover shape with three circular leaves. Two more circles like those of the leaves are positioned on each side of the central clover motif. Some of the watermark is obscured by the lower page.
Partial watermark in book gutter

CC by Watermark in the gutter of BL IA.7 when viewed through a light sheet 

When the page is adhered to a board on one side, such as the rear pastedown of the St Cuthbert Gospel, it is impossible for light to transmit and watermarks can remain undetected. A pastedown conceals the raw edges of the covering material and forms a hinge between the board and the text block.

A book bound in green leather with the front board open. The first page, the endpaper, is made from a single folded piece of cream paper, double the size of one of the book’s pages, the left hand side of which (the pastedown) is stuck to the inside of the board.
Pastedown example

CC zero An example of a front pastedown where one side of the endpaper is adhered to the front cover. Since the endpaper is fixed to the board it is difficult for light to penetrate and illuminate potential watermarks

The St Cuthbert Gospel watermark

A high resolution digital image of the pastedown was processed using ImageJ, an open source image processing software package. An image is comprised of a variety of layers or textures which can be separated. This allows pixels of interest to be isolated which may include faded writing, obscured text or watermarks. The watermark was revealed by converting the image from the standard RGB (red green blue) colour space into another space where tiny contrast differences were enhanced. The process of colour space analysis is fully explained in the publication: The Discovery of a Watermark on the St Cuthbert Gospel using Colour Space Analysis

The bottom right hand section of the rear pastedown, showing parts of the bottom six lines of writing in dark brown ink on cream paper.
No watermark observed
The same image, but with the colours reversed. The cream paper is now grey and black and the dark brown writing is shown in white. The watermark is shown in faint black lines.
Watermark visible

CC by Left: An image of the rear pastedown of the St Cuthbert Gospel where no watermark is observed. Right: The same image reveals a watermark in the lower right hand corner of the pastedown when processed into another colour space

Non-destructive science

Colour space analysis is being used at the British Library to enhance faded designs on binding covers, disclose watermarks and hidden inscriptions and to reveal text which has been chemically treated or erased. In many cases applying colour space analysis to certain multispectral images has proven successful.

Digitisation projects generate large amounts of high-resolution images which can be manipulated to discover hidden information without the need to access the item. This has significant implications for the long-term study and preservation of cultural heritage collection items. The rear pastedown in the St Cuthbert Gospel was formerly numbered f. 91 and is available to view on the internet as part of the Digitised Manuscripts website.

Christina Duffy (@DuffyChristina)


The comments to this entry are closed.