The Lost Art of Paper Sculpture

Christopher Fowler
Seeing these paper sculptures online gave me a peculiar flashback to something I'd entirely forgotten about. As kids we had no money but what we earned for ourselves, so cheap entertainments were big in our house, one of which was a series of books with paper press-outs, from wheels you turned, drawing one line at a time, to create pictures, and many other rather complicated paper-related amusements. Paper sculptures were big for a while. Packets of Cornflakes featured paper sculpture animals on their backs, and making caricatures using folded and scored paper was very popular. The curves required dexterity, a steady hand and an awful lot of patience. It was a peculiarly English hobby born from a postwar time when real toys were hard to come by. Between Emmett and Hoffung and Ronald Searle, all specialists in spidery, angular figures and contraptions, there were also several movie posters featuring dioramas made by paper sculptures - I particularly remember one for an early Dirk Bogarde/ James Robertson-Justice 'Doctor' film. Years later I was working as a courier in an ad agency and saw all the dioramas being hurled into a skip.
I wanted to rescue them but was told not to touch anything - as if anyone would have cared! But there was no memorabilia market back then. Later I discovered that many old screwball comedies used paper caricatures of movie stars for their title sequences. Artist Calvin Nicholls is more typical of modern paper sculpture, which is intensely elaborate, and many laser-cut sculptures have now appeared on the market. paper-sculptures-calvin-nicholls-8 While I was in Vietnam I saw paper sculpting again, although I suspect that the finished products being hawked by street vendors were machine-made and originated in Chinese factories. The Japanese have a huge respect for paper and have 'washi' shops all over the country. Although it is still possible to find this most beautiful and delicate of art-forms, what you can't find now is the style of 3D caricaturing which I remember seeing as a child and a young man. A couple of online apps duplicate the beauty of them, but I imagine nobody has time to make such things for pleasure anymore. For more on the subject, check out 'Things To Make And Do' on the blog section of this site. Here are two of the paper sculpture cards I bought in Vietnam. First a red
and then a
- I also has a ferris wheel complete with tiny rocking seats.  


Elizabeth Endicott (not verified) Sun, 07/12/2014 - 19:27

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

This is unrelated to today's topic, but did you happen to notice that the Sunday New York Times's Book Review Section includes a paragraph under the "Crime" heading praising "Bryant & May and the Bleeding Heart"?

Helen Martin (not verified) Sun, 07/12/2014 - 21:12

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I'm waiting for my clipping service to produce the New York references. Our calligraphy group has had a few demonstrations of paper sculpting to use in the cards we make. Not too many of us are good enough to produce accurate work. Someone posted a papier mache dragon head being made the other day and that was impressive too. The Edinburgh sculptures, which were indeed weird and wonderful , were left in public libraries and art galleries and such. They all had references to Ian Rankin.

Mark (not verified) Mon, 08/12/2014 - 09:37

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

The Vietnamese have a massive respect for paper too and papercraft is a really common and popular pastime, so chances are the products you saw were really made locally.

Christopher Fowler Tue, 09/12/2014 - 09:29

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Mark, I'm glad because I especially love the way the ship opens!

And thanks, Elizabeth, yes, I have the review.