Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Tear and Paste

QUESTION: I just purchased a beautiful antique papier-mâché tray at a large antique show. I’ve never seen anything like it before. In fact, I never knew that furnishings and accessories were made of papier-mâché. I still remember making things out of papier-mâché as a kid in school. Is this the same process? If so, it must have taken a long time to make this tray. What can you tell me about it?

ANSWER: Yes, for nearly 100 years papier-mâché furnishings and accessories were all the rage. And, no, the process is a bit different from the sculptures you made in art class when you were a kid.

People don’t often think of papier-mâché when they think of furniture and accessories. But, in fact, it was very popular, especially at the beginning of the 19th century. Papier-mâché is quintessentially Victorian.

Its origins date back to 17th-century England when craftsmen first used a compound of plaster mixed with organic matter such as straw, bark, or nettles to create molded architectural ornaments. The idea was for the frugal decorator to use these prefabricated cornices and rosettes instead of hiring a plaster craftsman.

By the early 18th century, cabinetmakers began using papier-mâché to decorate the frames of looking glasses, chairs, tables. But its main application remained architectural.
Beginning in the last quarter of the 18th century, manufacturers began turning out a range of accessories. Trays were popular through the early decades of the 19th century,  Makers produced tea trays, in particular, in great numbers, in response to the spread of tea drinking among the English middle class.

From the beginning, makers japanned papier-mâché housewares by covering them with a hard varnish imitation of Asian lacquer. At first, they kept the decoration simple, with a black or red ground embellished with a guilt border. But in the 1790's they covered the entire surface. Not surprisingly, Chinese scenes were popular. A typical example of this fanciful Oriental taste are the gilt and black trays featuring a painting of a Chinese couple standing by a pagoda. Trays like this have sold for over $6000.

Collectors highly value Regency papier-mâché. One of the finest pieces to come on the market in recent years was a Chinoiserie tray that sold at auction for $24,000. However, this tray didn’t have the black faux-lacquer ground, but instead it had a brightly painted landscape—a rocky topography shaded by willow trees, pagoda-like structures, and men wearing pointy hats. In this case, the artist went overboard with cliches of Oriental life. This decoration form is attributed to Henry Clay, who was the most prominent papier-mâché manufacturer at the time.

Clay promoted papier-mâché as a new material on which to paint. Another tray bearing Clay’s stamp had an overall floral design on a black ground. The lush realism of this tray showed the high level of skill of the industry’s painters. It sold for nearly $3500.
Clay was also a pioneer in manufacturing papier-mâché furniture.  He undertook a series of experiments in durability that resulted in a much stronger material. His experiments enabled papier-mache to be sewn and dovetailed, just like wood.

The firm of Jennens and Bettridge, which took over Clays business in 1816, continued to find new uses for papier-mâché. They expanded the traditional repertoire of salvers and snuff boxes to include the whole suites of chairs, and even piano casings.  Even though papier-mâché was sturdy, manufacturers still thought it prudent to build the seating furniture around a wooden frame.

Jennens and Bettridge developed the use of mother-of-pearl in the decoration of papier-mâché.  Since they patented their technique in 1825, the date makes a useful dividing line in trying to date.

It can be a challenge to find papier-mâché pieces in good condition. But they’re easy to recognize, with their japanned surface and painted floral motifs, highlighted by mother-of-pearl inlay. Though a piece may appear in a high-end antique shop from time to time, collectors find most at middle to high-end antique shows.