Richard de Bas: a mild in the forest

The small town of Ambert, southwest of Lion, in the region of Auvergne, bears the most ancient witness to the origins of the paper industry in Europe: the Richard de Bas mill. This industrial site, located about 600 meters above the green and fresh Laga valley, was one of the first mills founded in the Auvergne region at the beginning of the XV century.

Text and Photographs by Giorgio Perini

A drawing of a heart crossed by two horizontal lines is impressed in watermark on a notary document dated 1326, found years ago in the archives of the town of Puy. "The wrapped heart", "Le coeur fasce", is the seal of Richard de Bas. The precious document informs us about the ancient origin of the mill. This date marks the beginning of the production of paper sheets made in the Laga valley, all bearing the watermark heart. The name Richard comes from the early owners of this and other mills in the area. The mill took the name of Richard De Bas in 1793, the year in which the last descendant, Thomas Richard, died. De Bas, which means "low", defines the position of this mill with respect to another located on higher ground.

PAPER PRODUCTION WITNESSED A WIDESPREAD DEVELOPMENT IN THIS REGION, and in the XVI century, the mills totalled 300. Later, when the hollander - a new machine, which was faster in shredding cotton rags and more powerful than the old wood hammers - was introduced, most of the mills featuring this antiquated system stopped production. Only the Richard de Bas mill survived all the economic and religious crisis and all the wars, managing to remain intact until 1934, when the last master papermaker died. The Richard de Bas mill continued to produce the so-called "papier Joseph", a very precious thin white paper used to wrap silverware and crystal. In 1940 the mill was acquired by Marius A. Peraudeau, who carefully repaired and renovated it and scrupulously rebuilt the parts of the old machines that had been damaged by the passing of time.

The activity was restarted in October 1942 without any major changes to the building itself nor in production techniques. The paper produced today is similar to the one made back then, and is aimed at books of bibliophiles, for printing, engravings and lithographs. In 1950 began the production of a kind of paper which included wildflower petals, ferns and gramineae plants. It had an immediate success and was used to print poetry texts. Richard De Bas is one of the few mills in Europe still producing paper as the ancient Arab mills of Asia Minor did, which reproduced the ancient Chinese techniques.

THE BUILDING ALSO HOSTS A HISTORICAL PAPER MUSEUM, WHICH WAS FOUNDED IN 1943 BY LA FEUILLE BLANCHE, "The white sheet", an association of paper and graphic art sustainers which gathers a group of paper, typography and books lovers. The museum comprises 6 main rooms: the first two, a kitchen and a bedroom, were the reserved for the master papermakers which worked at the mill in the course of the years, and to their families. The last of these master papermakers was Claude Cantelauze, who died in 1934. The third room is called "Tsai-Lun", from the name of a Chinese papermaker who used to work in a paper mill near Canton, author, in 1905, of a text in which he defined the rules of the art of papermaking. In this room, a fresco on the wall represents the route that paper took to arrive from China to Europe.

Some showcases contain samples of writing supports such as parchment, rice paper and papyrus. In the fourth room there are five pinewood hammer hollanders, still used today as in the past to shred cotton rags. The wood of the hollanders and the hammers must be periodically renovated, and completely replaced every 15 years. The fifth room contains typographic machines that were used until 1845; a sheeter similar to today's modern ones and a machine which glazes paper through the use of an agate stone.

In the same room are located some common and chiaroscuro filigree from various countries and periods. The remaining rooms are dedicated to papermaking: here we can find the ancient instruments used, such as the beater tub and the printing press. On the upper floor, together with the offices and a small laboratory were floral paper lampshades are created, we can find a large area dedicated to the sale of the many products of the mill: paper sheets of various sizes, colour and grades, souvenirs ad various other objects for sale. On the top floor of the building, two large attics host the drying area.

In the Richard de Bas mill, paper is carefully selected. Each sheet is scrupulously examined and if even the most minimal defect is found, the sheet is discarded. Here, 25 Kg of paper are produced daily and shipped worldwide, especially to the USA. The mill and the museum are open every day of the year, 25th December and 1st January excluded.

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