The Art Of Marbled Paper

Robert McLaren’s Journey with Marbling 

Encouraged by John Young, a book collecting friend, and armed with a book by J. S. Hewitt-Bates’ ‘Bookbinding’, Robert made his first attempt to produce this “pretty, mysterious art.” It began one night in the laundry trough.

Using artist’s oil paints on wallpaper size, the results were unsatisfactory but seemed worth pursuing.
However a messy laundry and kitchen floor littered with pieces of soggy paper soon found our would-be Woolnough (an author of the Art of Marbling) banished to the backyard, using a wheelbarrow!
The quality and results were patchy but the seeds were sown. The fun of early experimentation led to a more serious approach requiring proper equipment.
Custom-made galvanized iron tanks finally took over the home-bindery in the garage (which has never looked the same since).

Having graduated to larger tanks, the problem presented itself of how to prepare in excess of eight gallons of size. A chance remark about this requirement at a Victorian Book binders’ Guild Meeting led to the donation of an old gas laundry copper fitted with an outlet tap. This was converted to bottled gas and installed in the garage.

A large funnel with fine brass mesh filter (a legacy of petrol rationing during World War Two), assorted brushes, mixing bowls, spoons, paper towels, binders’ apron, rubber gloves, gum boots and pipe (perpetually clinched between the teeth to combat the smell of ox-gall) complete the scene.

There is probably some conjecture about descriptions and names given to various patterns. Antique Spot, Old Dutch, Stormont, French Shell, Gloster, Plain and Fancy Spanish, West End and Gold Vein are just some that have been in vogue during the past three centuries.
Robert’s preference is for the Turkish Stone style, created solely by sprinkling the colours from the brush on to the size, with no further intervention. The resultant sheets are not as severe as “mechanically” produced combed patterns, with water based pigments. These often appear manufactured; not handmade.

An adaptation of Woolnough’s British pattern, presently being explored, involves dragging the sheet whilst laying it on a thinly spread stone pattern. A pleasing wave effect can be achieved. Occasionally combed or raked patterns are produced to add variety to the range.
The support of fellow bookbinders since early days of self-instruction has been encouraging. It is now satisfying to produce papers especially for their use. Several have been inspired to base cover designs on images suggested by McLaren’s marbling, and the real enthusiasm now is in the creation of marble paintings.

Since 2000, Robert has travelled extensively both in Australia and overseas. His journeys allowed him to meet and work with marblers from around the world. All the incredible marbling collections he saw on his travels have now turned into a photographic resource to refer to whilst curating his own.

Robert has now retired after his success working for his family business as a bookbinder and of course marbling . During his career he learnt to create amazing marbled art using many different techniques.
He has demonstrated and exhibited at the Lost Trades Fair in both Kyneton and Bendigo and at several galleries in Victoria.

He now teaches workshops in order to keep the great, ancient art alive. For anyone intending to take up marbling as a hobby, be warned; it becomes compulsive before you realise what a damp, cold, smelly, dirty, solitary activity it is!

Read more about his family…

Short History of the McLaren Family

The McLaren family have been practicing the trade of  bookbinding in Melbourne since 1871.

Here is a short timeline of their history in bookbinding and marbling:

James McLaren (Snr) is apprenticed as a bookbinder/paper-ruler to William Newland, a manufacturing stationer of Castlemaine.

Jim McLaren (eldest son of James), formerly a salesman for Sands & McDougall, which operated a large printing and bookbinding plant at the top end of Spencer Street Melbourne, establishes James McLaren Pty Ltd, a bookbinding and paper-ruling business operating in a three-storey building in Little Bourke Street. At this time the family is living in Richmond. It is a true family business, Jim employing his father James, his son James (Jnr), his brother George as company secretary, and later his youngest brother Robert Clarence. Other siblings are employed in the bindery as well as some cousins from his father’s family, including Robin Lathlean McLaren as office manager. In the early days of the business, Robert Clarence, still at school, carries buckets of home-made paste by tram to the city (the tradition of making our own flour paste continues). When work finishes at 1pm every Saturday, the family heads off to the races.

Robert Clarence McLaren is employed by Jim.

Jim McLaren dies in his sleep after losing much in the depression. His only son, James (Jnr), takes over.

James McLaren (Snr) dies and his son and nephew, Robert Clarence & Robin Lathlean McLaren, join Gordon Irwin, sole proprietor of a small manufacturing stationery in Kirks Lane off Little Bourke Street, and Irwin & McLaren is formed. Six weeks after the joint venture begins, Irwin sells his shares and joins his brother-in-law in real estate.

Phillip Clarence, son of Robert Clarence McLaren and Mary Young of Maldon, joins the company, later buying shares from both his father and Robin Lathlean. Robin Lathlean leaves the business to run Malmsbury general store to accommodate an asthmatic son.

Phillip McLaren marries Beth Radham who coincidentally belongs to a bookbinding family. Her father and grandfater were both bookbinders, her father specialising in gold finishing.
During the depression prior to WW11 he set up a bindery behind his residence in Hartwell. To service lending libraries.
(Beth and Phillp “moonlighted” in the bindery until the mid 1960’s)

A fire caused by an unattended iron left on by an upstairs neighbour destroys almost half the factory. After the fire, a 36-inch diamond guillotine is retrieved from its resting place in midair on two charred rafters and is repaired. It runs for another 10 years.


After Irwin & McLaren’s trading premises, which were in the rear of the Clarke building in Bourke Street, are sold by Ezywalking shoes. Phllip Clarence McLaren and his wife Beth buy a site at 64 Cubitt St Richmond. The rundown Victorian cottage on the premises is demolished and the present factory is built in record time, becoming occupied before the city lease expires.

Beth McLaren purchased the shares held (50%) from Robert Clarence McLaren.

James McLaren (Jnr) buys back minority-share holdings held by the family and then sells his business, James McLaren Pty Ltd, to the Herald Gravure. He remains with the Herald Gravure and supervises the book publishing until his retirement.

Robert James McLaren, son of Philip and Beth McLaren, joins the company and takes an interest in paper marbling and the private press.

62 Cubitt Street is purchased and the site is cleared for car parking.

Phillip and Beth retire, leaving Robert as the last remaining McLaren in the bookbinding business.

Beth and Phillip McLaren still take an interest in the business and are ‘moonlighting’, binding books for friends and family.

Today Robert is retired and enjoys doing workshops in his studio.
He has demonstrated and exhibited at the Lost Trades Fair both in Kyneton and Bendigo and at several galleries in Victoria.

Robert McLaren

McLaren Marbling & Marbled Papers


P: 0409 567 327

Address: 29 Corbetts Road, Gordon, Victoria