Designer Helen Ward on creating paper entomology

We chat to artist Helen Ward about how she creates beautiful paper butterflies

Artist Helen Ward in her home-based workshop

How did you become interested in Victorian endpapers?
After training as a traditional bookbinder, I started working at a bindery. They used these beautiful old marbled endpapers. Some of them dated to the 18th century but most were Victorian. The shop was closing and I felt so sad about them being lost. I had a real emotional connection to them and felt strongly that they should be preserved, so I bought the whole, vast collection.

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What do you love about them?
They’re so incredible, you can’t quite believe they’re handmade. They’re so detailed but all entirely unique. Some look like lunar landscapes. I can cut the same shape 50 times and they’ll always look different because the patterns on each sheet are so variable.

An array of Helen Wards cut paper butterflies in a vintage frame

Where did the idea for using them for your entomology pieces come from?
To start with, I didn’t know what to do with the papers but, one day, when looking at some of the patterns, I thought how they reminded me of butterfly wings. It all went from there. I later learned that the blue ink used in some of the papers was made from crushed beetle shells. It fits together.

Have you had to buy any more papers since leaving the bindery?
I’m a hoarder and have kept them all – I actually have way more than I’d ever use. I do incorporate other ephemera though and have bought a stack of letters and handwritten documents from eBay, dating from the 1880s.

How important is preservation to you?
Some of the papers are so old that they’re crumbling away. I have to be really careful and put a lot of effort into preserving them. I use acid-free mounts and conservation-grade glass so none of the UV rays can get through.

Helen Ward's handmade paper butterflies in a black frame
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Do you have a special interest in the Victorian era?
For me, it’s not about nostalgia but looking forward. I love repurposing the papers and making them relevant for now. I also bought a stash of Victorian specimen drawers from the Natural History Museum when it was updating its collection, which I reuse as frames. The drawers have tiny holes where hundreds of insects were pinned. I love all the imperfections.
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