The Motley Emblem follows one scholar’s efforts to recreate the 169th and 170th pages of the third volume of Laurence Sterne’s 1760 novel, Tristram Shandy. This is the famous “marbled leaf,” which Sterne describes as “the motley emblem of my work”: a double-sided leaf of marbled paper, each one unique. It the page most his own, in the sense that it stands as a figure or emblem for the rest of his idiosyncratic novel. But it is also the page that is least his own, for marbling was not a craft Sterne himself ever tackled. Others did the work; the page is an emblem of their work, too. Recovering that labor, and the skills and materials that made it possible, is this project’s aim. The proof of its success will be a page indistinguishable from the originals.
The Motley Emblem puts Sterne’s marbled page in context. A context means a weaving; the motley emblem is a knot in a web. And that context starts, but does not end, with the text, Sterne’s 1760 novel Tristram Shandy. Writes that novel’s narrator:
I tell you before-hand, you had better throw down the book at once, for without much reading, by which your reverence knows, I mean much knowledge, you will no more be able to penetrate the moral of the next marbled page (motly emblem of my work!) than the world with all its sagacity has been able to unraval the many opinions, transactions and truths which still lie mystically hid under the dark veil of the black one.
Had Sterne written five years earlier, it is almost inconceivable that he would have included a marbled page. Had he written five years later, it might have seemed cliché. For marbling was having a moment in London, going from a relatively rare luxury object imported from Paris, to a domestic product involved in what that commodity’s most important historian calls a “craze.” It was used for book covers and flyleaves, to wrap toys and medicines, for calling cards and envelopes. It was part of the rise of the design tradition, which saw luxury items made available for everyday consumers. And along the way, it participated in the modernization of practical chemistry and the establishment of a native theory of the visual arts. The Motley Emblem recreates Sterne’s marbled page as a means of encountering that regime of knowledge.
This project looks much farther than Sterne, his marbler, and the bookbinder who tipped the page into his book, for that marbler did not mix the colors that were combined on the page, nor gather the reagents to make the colors, nor transport the reagents nor the media in which they were mixed. The materials of the page were the things of imperial production and consumption, arriving from east, west, and south, on trade routes the newest of which were already two centuries old. Some of the hands who made the page did well for themselves; others earned a competency; yet others were differently coerced or compelled. Learning to read a specimen sheet means recovering the contours of that empire and its systems of labor, for the page was among the reasons the empire existed, and its most compact records.
Many organic dyes, what the eighteenth-century colour-makers called “vegetable” colors, are sensitive to the alkalinity or acidity of the dyebath. I have elsewhere shared the range of bright reds and … Read More