Surface decoration and finish

In the first half of the seventeenth century, cabinet work was often decorated with split turnings and raised faceted mouldings that were applied to surfaces and sometimes painted black and inlaid with bone or mother-of-pearl. Carving was generally flatter than previously, with acanthus scrolls, guilloche, lunettes and gadrooning. The Commonwealth period encouraged simpler decoration. From the Restoration, decorative processes became very important again due to the practice of veneering cabinets.

The techniques associated with the use of veneer (Figure 1.13) include cross banding, marquetry, parquetry and oyster veneering. All these practices involved applying veneers of

Figure 1.13 Detail of a marquetry table top, English, c.1674. Oyster work (walnut), cross banding and pictorial decoration executed using contrasting wood

decorative wood to a suitable substrate, sometimes separately, other times in conjunction with each other. In most cases banding was part of the scheme as it provided a finished edge treatment. Parquetry and oyster work used woods to create a geometric effect, whilst 'seaweed' marquetry used arabesque designs to great advantage. Although seaweed marquetry appears to be the height of the marquetry cutter's skill, it was relatively straightforward in that only two woods were used - box or holly for the pattern and walnut for the ground. The skill in seaweed marquetry was in using a very fine saw to keep to the design lines and at the same time cut at an angle, to ensure as close a fit as possible between the pieces. These methods were often the only way certain woods could be used satisfactorily.

There was a great demand for floral marquetry in the last part of the century, perhaps because it depicted the popular Dutch flower painters' scenes; at any rate it certainly showed the skills of the cabinetmaker. By the end of the century, marquetry was toned down to two shades of brown. Veneers were also carefully matched to form geometric patterns by book-matching or quartering.

Interest in oriental products, particularly imported lacquer wares, encouraged European makers to attempt to copy them. Oriental lacquer imported into Europe had two distinct type characteristics. One type had the orna-


ment in relief; the other, sometimes known as Bantam work, had the ornament incised or cut into the surface. The process was imitated by 'japanners' who cut out a pattern in a gesso ground then coloured and gilded the result. In 1688 John Stalker and George Parker published their Treatise of Japanning and Varnishing. This publication identified three elements essential to the art of japanning. These were gums, metals and colours. The gums were used to prepare varnishes; metals were used in powder or dust form and were worked into the varnish, and colours were put down to make backgrounds (Figure 1.14).

Around 1660, varnishing was introduced as an alternative wood finish. Stalker and Parker (1688) also gave recipes for shellac spirit-varnish which was used for coating all sorts of wood products. After the application of each coat, the spirits evaporated leaving a thin film of shellac on the surface. After this had been built up to ten or twelve coats, it was given a high polish with a mineral called Tripoli. This high quality finish was favoured for walnut and later for mahogany and satinwood. In other cases oil was used hot, to rub into walnut to give it a 'black and sleek' appearance.

Japanned cabinets were often made to fit onto gilded or silvered stands. These stands were roughly bosted and then gesso was applied in thin coats. Once it had hardened, it was re-carved, sanded and gilded. After the Restoration, the fashion for gilding required both water gilding and oil gilding processes to be used. Water gilding required a wet clay base, which was sometimes double gilded and usually burnished. Although this was the finer finish, oil gilding was the more durable method and hence more popular.

Other decorative processes included verre eglomisé (the process of decorating glass by drawing and painting on the underside and backing this with metal foil). Mirror surrounds at the end of the century were most likely to incorporate this process, using red or black ground, and silver or gold foil. In the 1670s straw work was introduced as a decorative finish using marquetry designs and continued in popularity through the eighteenth century with an impetus from the French prisoners of the Napoleonic wars.

Around 1680 the earliest Tunbridge ware was recorded. Originally produced in Tunbridge Wells, the process flourished for the next one hundred and fifty years. The process was initially one of tiny cuts of veneers built into a mosaic pattern, often with a cubic or elongated rectangular theme. It should not be confused with the end-grain mosaic work produced there in the nineteenth century.

The use of metal in furniture decoration in the period was not common but did occur. Furniture covered in sheet silver or made from solid cast silver was produced in the Restoration period, though little now survives. During the last quarter of the seventeenth century, boulle work was introduced which used brass or pewter inlays in a tortoiseshell base, sometimes framed by an ebony veneer. André-Charles Boulle worked in Paris as ébéniste du Roi from 1672 and his distinctive process was adapted by Gerritt Jensen for his work in London. The boulle process is considered similar to marquetry in that both sheet materials, metal and shell, were cut simultaneously. Recent research seems to show that early boulle work was not necessarily cut in this way, but individually from the same pattern. It was only in the eighteenth century that multiple cutting (of several pattern repeats at one time) was adopted.

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