Volume 55 - Spring 2023


The Paper Foundation

By Tom Frith Powell

paper foundation

Burneside, sitting in the foothills of the English Lake District just north of Kendal, has been a mill village since the Middle Ages and a paper-making community since 1746. At that time, a local stationer and printer, Thomas Ashburner, bought an old fulling mill and turned it into a paper mill.

Ashburner's mill passed through various hands until it was purchased by James Cropper in 1845. By then it had grown to two paper-mills a mile apart and had abandoned hand manufacture in favour of two paper-machines. 178 years and six generations later, the James Cropper mill remains alive and well with Mark Cropper the current custodian and Chair of the family business. Today it employs over 600 people and supplies customers all over the world.

Having moved back to Burneside in 2006, after spending several years in London, Mark found both the business and the local community in need of renewal. The Paper Foundation was envisioned as a way to celebrate the remarkable, but rarely appreciated, material of paper. In doing so placing it back at the heart of the village's community and identity and reinstating pride in the place by celebrating the subject of paper.

Officially founded in 2016, the Paper Foundation has prioritised two initiatives. We have created a specialist workshop to train dedicated craftspeople in the critically endangered craft of making paper by hand. We have sought to save the physical heritage of papermaking through the creation of a library and archive which is housed in Ellergreen, a large house overlooking the Burneside which was built for James Cropper and his wife Fanny in 1848.

An early realisation on our journey was that the art of making paper by hand was critically endangered. Following the 1987 closure of Barcham Green and the cessation of hand making at Whatman, generations of hard-won skill were in the hands of Jim Patterson at Two Rivers and Griffen Mill which was started up by Christine (Chris) Gibbs in 1988, and run with the help of her husband Mike. Although commercial production under the W.S.Hodgkinson name had ceased in 1972, Wookey Hole still had some hand makers that continued to make paper until the mid-2000s at which point it was curtailed. Its last true paper-maker Ian Wilcox retired some years ago and today the former mill only produces sheets as a demonstration for visitors to the tourist attraction there.

Thus for decades Two Rivers and Griffen Mill were the sole surviving practitioners, hanging on by virtue of their small size and being owned by the paper-makers with few (if any) other dependents. In 2017, having made contact with Chris and Mike through the bookbinder Dominic Riley, Mark went to Roscommon in Ireland to visit them. It was during this trip that they shared their intention to retire. In 2019 when Mark received the call telling him that if he wanted to save the craft it was 'now or never', he sprung into action.

All the mill equipment was shipped over to Burneside and installed into an outbuilding behind his house which had, until that point, been used as a cowshed.

paper Foundation     paper Foundation


paper Foundation     paper Foundation

In late 2019, and with particularly fortuitous timing, I emailed Mark having heard about the project through my grandfather who lived nearby. At the time I was living in London and working for the artist Damian Hirst. The work was unfulfilling, and I was tempted by the possibility of combining the mastery of a craft with the opportunity to join an organisation at its very beginning. I moved to the Lake District in January 2020 and, with the arrival of Mike Gibbs from Ireland in mid-February, I began to learn the craft under his watchful eye.

Mike was only with us for a couple of weeks, as soon after his arrival, the first Covid lockdown struck, and the following year became an apprenticeship from afar. Paper samples from each making I undertook would be sent to Ireland for inspection and comment. The invaluable advice they provided each week would then be put into practice in the next making. With each making the quality of the paper would improve and today we sell our papers to customers all over the world with demand growing all the time. Tragically, in the autumn of 2021 Mike suddenly passed away. Without his generous support of the project, and the continued support from Chris, none of what we have so far achieved would have been possible, and we would never have been able to help save this endangered craft.

In late 2021, in recognition of our success in learning the craft, Chris Gibbs decided to formally pass the Griffen Mill business and name to the Paper Foundation. In April 2022, the Griffen legacy was further consolidated with the decision of the Royal Household to re-award Queen Elizabeth's Royal Warrant for Archival Handmade Paper to us. Sadly, this lapses with the death of the monarch so it was short lived, but it has been a great honour for us, nonetheless.

In our mill we produce fine art and conservation papers, which are handmade from traditional natural fibres such as cotton, hemp, flax, and abaca. We also produce several of the popular book and conservation papers that Griffen Mill made for decades. These include Old Cleeve, Falcon, Akbar Natural and Akbar Brown, Genet and Griffen. We are delighted to say that some of our papers are stocked by J Hewit and Sons and are available through their online shop.

We supply museums, conservators, designers, private presses and artists. Our clients to date include the British Library, the Library of Congress and several other Washington DC institutions, Disney, National Trust, Smythson and the (former) Prince of Wales for whom we developed the Terra Carta charter paper in 2021.

Since its inception, safeguarding the physical heritage of papermaking and the paper industry has been central to Mark's vision for the Paper Foundation. Over the years we have acquired significant collections, particularly of historic papermaking moulds.

In March 2015 Mark heard that Whatman's final UK mill at Springfield was closing. The company had been part of General Electric since 2008 and the vestiges of British production were being moved overseas. On that visit Mark was able to acquire thirty-six moulds from the most famous name in British papermaking in return for a donation to charity. Keen to see that these remarkable objects were not left to decay in the cellars and outhouses of old mills, as most turned out to be, the Whatman moulds were soon followed by many more. 375 moulds arrived from St Cuthberts' Wookey Hole Mill in 2016. In 2019 250 moulds arrived via Simon Barcham Green of Hayle Mill. These also came with much of the original mill furniture and ancillary items like felts, most of which can now be seen in use in our own mill.

paper Foundation     paper Foundation

Overall, the mould collection is, we believe, second only to that in Fabriano in global importance and deserves much further research in due course. Importantly, these moulds are not just historic artefacts: a huge proportion are still in working condition and form a critical component of our mission to perpetuate the making of paper by hand and the skills and knowledge associated with it.

The Paper Foundation archives are also gaining in breadth and scope. As with the moulds, they are worthy of extensive further investigation and presentation. As a starting point, the point of this element of the Foundation is to preserve the knowledge and physical residue of paper-making, including paper-mills, paper companies, paper samples and books on paper and associated uses.

The heart of the paper archives are in three parts. First there are books. In 2022 we constructed a library to hold 2,500+ volumes, over half of which was the collection of books amassed by BAPH member Barry Watson and kindly donated by his daughter Dr Hilary Cunliffe-Charlesworth. We have had further gifts and loans from individuals including Alan and Glenys Cocker and Frank Roberts. The second element is business archives. As well as the oldest elements of the James Cropper archive, we have a huge number of items from Wiggins Teape, rescued by BAPH from Butlers' Court and fully catalogued and archived thanks to a generous donor. This includes the records of Thomas & Green and many other mills that become part of this group. Separately we were also donated a small archive from paper merchants and envelope makers R T Tanner.

paper Foundation     paper Foundation

The third part of the archive is paper samples. We have paper from many sources, including mills and merchants but also paper conservators including Philip Stevens, whose widow Waddi Hunt very kindly donated his paper collection with help from fellow conservator (and friend of the project) Jane McAusland. We are also collecting decorative papers and have a growing collection dating back to the 18th Century.


Skin Deep - Volume 55 - Spring 2023

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