The eighteenth century was a period of ever-increasing choice in matters of decoration and finish. Marquetry, turned work and lacquer work gradually went out of fashion. Carving and free-flowing curves became popular as Rococo forms were introduced in the 1730s. These were based on imaginative compositions of scrolls, shells, foliage, figures, masks and animal forms, and were undertaken by a specialized group of chair-carvers. These hardwood carvers were distinct from the frame-carvers who worked picture and mirror frames in softwood.
Gilding became popular in the first half of the century due to the influence of William Kent. He designed parcel-gilt decoration for furniture objects as well as wholly gilded pieces, especially console tables with matching gilded looking-glasses. The gilding process became part of the repertoire of the softwood carver as it became associated with mirror and picture frames. Many businesses advertised themselves as carvers, gilders and picture frame makers.
In 1770 there was a revival of painted furniture, due mainly to the influence of Robert Adam. Painting direct onto primed wood was the usual method, with the designs forming garlands, medallions and borders. Sometimes the base veneer was visible; otherwise, the whole cabinet might be painted in light colours as a background for the designs. Adam motifs included festoons of husks, vase figures, honeysuckle, paterae, ram heads and medallions. The painting was linked with various finishing methods such as carving, inlay and ormolu. There was a close association between painting and japanning, often with the japanner painting the ground and applying the varnish whilst the more artistic furniture painter applied the detail. By 1800 painted furniture was far more popular than marquetry.
The combination of other materials with timber was most fashionable in the case of ceramic plaques and medallions. France's use of porcelain plaques during the reign of Louis XVI was also copied in England by the use of Wedgwood plaques in the latter part of the eighteenth century.
Finishing processes included lacquering or japanning, varnishing and polishing. Japanning remained popular through much of the century although the process gradually was simplified and cheapened by omitting priming, and substituting materials such as bronze powder for gold. Fine examples of japanning can be found on Chippendale's work for the bedroom at Nostell Priory, but the decoration on Garrick's famous suite is executed in tinted varnish on an oil paint ground, a more common technique by the last quarter of the century. In North America carving began to supersede turning, except on Windsors, as a major decorative technique and japanning was also important. The japanning technique was highly developed in Boston. In this work, the use of smooth maple wood fronts with pine frames obviated the need for gesso to be used so the ground was prepared using white size covered with numerous coats of varnish.
Transparent finishes for woodwork, such as clear lacquer, improved during the eighteenth century, the most famous being 'Vernis Martin', patented by the Martin Brothers in France. In 1730 they were granted a monopoly for imitations of Oriental lacquer, but their best-known products are the smooth lacquered panels used in many applications and often based on grey, green or blue base colours with painted decorative scenes. The painting was then given an antique effect by craquelure which was then lacquered over with a clear glaze.
Sheraton's Dictionary gives four methods of polishing wood surfaces. These are (a) unsoft-ened wax rubbed with a cork for interior surfaces; (b) turpentine and beeswax with a little red oil applied and polished off; (c) linseed oil (which may be coloured with alkanet) and brick dust which produces a polishing 'putty' which will secure a fine polish; (d) a hardish composition of wax, turpentine, copal varnish, red-lead and colour worked into a ball, used for polishing chairs.
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