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Furniture Decoration Through the Ages

Aug 17, 2007
The earliest way of decorating a wood article was perhaps by means of carving. In the case of oak, the hardness of the timber severely limited the craftsman, but the coming of walnut was more encouraging. It lent itself to the chisel readily, and in some instances the carving was decorated additionally with gilding to give a very rich effect. Pieces treated in this manner, partly polished wood and partly gilt, are known as 'parcel-gilt'.

Mahogany was the carver's delight, and he was able to show with it all his skill. In addition, fretting was applied sometimes to mahogany pieces. This took two forms: the wood was pierced in a pattern with a fine saw, or the effect of a thin pierced sheet stuck down on the surface was imitated by carving. This latter type is known as 'semi-fret', and ir often to be seen in Chippendale's designs.

One other wood must receive a mention: pine. This was in use from the end of the seventeenth century, and its texture provided an excellent medium for carving. In most instances this was concealed under gilding or paint, and almost all the elaborately carved mirror-frames and tables of the eighteenth century will be found to have been made from this timber.

Towards the 2nd of the seventeenth century a certain amount of furniture was made of which all or most of the surface was covered with embossed sheets of silver. A famous suite of this description, consisting of mirror-frame, candlestands and a table is at Windsor Castle; there is another at Knole, Kent, and yet another was sold by auction in 1928 for no less than 10,100 guineas.

At about the same period, in imitation of gold, pieces of furniture were painted with successive thin coatings of a plaster composition called 'gesso' (pronounced 'jesso'), carved in what appear like embossed patterns, and then spread with gold leaf. Later, in the eighteenth century, the gesso was painted on carving and followed the design of the woodwork itself. Tables, and even chairs, were treated with gilding, but the most popular furnishings to be decorated in this manner were mirror-frames.

The gold leaf, pure gold beaten into small flat sheets thinner than tissue-paper, was made to stick to the plaster surface by means of a type of gum or by oil-size. The former, which needs greater preparation of the groundwork is called 'water-gilding', and can be highly polished afterwards; the other, 'oil-gilding', is a simpler method and the work cannot be burnished.

At the same time as carving came into use, there was introduced an alternative type of decoration: inlay. This took many different forms over the years, varying from simple straight lines in wood of contrasting colour to the ground (called 'stringing'), to the elaboration of marquetry in which the inlay often covers a greater proportion of the surface than the ground.

This latter was in great demand shortly before 1700, when the form known as 'seaweed marquetry', so complicated in pattern that the walnut ground could scarcely be seen at all, came into prominence. This fashion did not last for long after the start of the new century, but there was a revival of it in a weal: manner in about 1860. Many different woods were used in marquetry; some were dyed in bright colours and others darkened by scorching to enhance the effect. Pieces of bone, tortoiseshell and mother-of-pearl were also used sometimes.

A popular inlay on walnut furniture is known as 'herringbone', and consists of a band of two narrow strips of the same wood placed together with their grain meeting diagonally. The effect accounts for the name, which is alternatively 'feather-banding'. A further type of inlay is known as 'cross-banding'. It consists of a band of inlaid wood, often to be found at the edges of a table-top, in which the grain of the wood runs outwards.

Inlaying with a narrow strip of brass was done occasionally in the eighteenth century, but mostly in Regency times when more ambitious shapes, such as stars, were attempted also. It was very popular, and is looked on now as a feature of the period.
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