The Art of Abrī: The Advent, Evolution, and Impact of Turco-Persianate Paper Marbling in the Early Modern Period

Made by floating colours on liquids and laying sheets of paper over top to capture them, the earliest evidence for this art in the Islamic world dates to turn of the 15th to 16th centuries in Greater Iran. Using mainly organic colourants, early marblers produced just three patterns: rudimentary stylized drop-motifs, soft swirls, and abstract spotted designs. These papers were used for covering, mounting, and margining manuscripts, as well as for stationery by Persian calligraphers such as Mir ‘Ali Haravi (d. 1544), his students, and followers. Eventually practised on an early industrial scale serving the paper trade in urban centres like Istanbul, the curiously colourful “Turkish papers” captivated European travellers who bound them into alba amicorum (books of friendship).

By 1600, an advanced process appeared in which highly refined mineral pigments were dispersed upon thickened sizing that provided greater control and yielded a wide range of vivid, intricately-formed patterns such as distinct curled, chevron, combed, and craquelure designs. These innovations are attributed to an enigmatic Persian artist and émigré to India— likely to the Deccan Sultanates— named Muhammad Tahir. His patterning methods rapidly spread to Europe, where indigenous production soon took hold.

In addition to bookbindings, Muhammad Tahir’s designs were utilised as the first polychrome security device applied to paper currency issued by the Bank of England in 1695, as well as the first American twenty-dollar bills issued in 1775, and promissory notes used by Benjamin Franklin to secure French financing for the War of Independence (1779–82). In this way, the colourful marbling of a Persian Muslim immigrant to India proved to be a transformative technology that not only safeguarded the fledging fractional reserve economies of England and the United States at critical junctures but even helped guarantee the latter’s independence.

Image Caption: Drawing of a Deccani lady mounted on a marbled and tinted papers, ca. 1600–1638. Ms. Laud Or. 146, fol. 6r.