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Antique Boxes in English Society
1760 - 1900
STYLE, MATERIALS and METHODS
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The reason I am using the term boxes in the English home and not English boxes, is because a number of important boxes were brought to England from other countries, mainly China and India. Not only were such boxes highly valued by the connoisseurs of the time, they also influenced style, techniques and decoration in England.
It is not always easy to separate style from material and technique as the one often dictates, or at least influences the other. Furthermore without an understanding of the methods used by the box makers the exposition of the stylistic influences has no foundation. Below is a brief listing of the major characteristics of the working practices of the 18th and 19th century box maker which are apparent to the eye and hopefully can serve as a guide in dating and placing boxes of the period.
Writing boxes, document boxes, printing boxes, gentlemens vanity boxes, decanter boxes and workboxes were made in solid mahogany in the later part of the 18th century. Occasionally solid oak was used as in the earlier bible and writing slopes.
Solid mahogany continued to be used for writing boxes and other gentlemens boxes until the 1830s. This is mainly because sturdiness was of paramount importance as officers during the Napoleonic wars, or travelers on the "grand tour" used such boxes.
From about 1750 thick saw cut veneers were used to cover boxes made in oak, mahogany or pine. This gave the box maker the opportunity to develop different techniques. The veneers were both of native and imported woods. This enabled judicious use of grain, as well as a wider choice of decorative devices. Edging, banding, cross banding, inlay, stringing and a variety of other methods were used to enhance the appearance of the box and overcome structural problems.
Detail showing the side of the drawer of a writing box when pulled out.
The most fashionable woods in the late 18th and early 19th century were mahogany, fruitwoods, yew, harewood, satinwood and partridgewood. Very early in the 19th century and often used with the earlier woods, kingwood and rosewood were introduced. By the 1830s amboyna, ebony, coromandel, zebrano and other exotic hardwoods which were previously mainly used only in Tunbridge Ware, were used widely by many cabinet makers.
Another group of boxes produced at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century were veneered in sycamore or other light coloured woods. This was to enable painted, penwork, chinoiserie, decoupage, printed or other decoration to be applied, often in combinations of different techniques. The surface of the box was sometimes gessoed and sanded flat before it was decorated.
With the advent of more mechanization veneers were increasingly cut thinner and by the middle of the 19th century some timbers were sliced quite thin. Although many quality boxes were still covered in thick veneers of exotic woods, walnut started replacing the more expensive woods as the favorite veneer for boxes. Walnut could be cut very thin which enabled the box maker to make the best use of the pieces of wood with the richest figure. Many beautiful boxes were produced in the second half of the 19th century in walnut veneers, as well as useful pretty boxes in larger numbers than ever before.
By the end of the century pine boxes were painted to simulate wood grain as an inexpensive alternative to veneering.
Although synonymous with wood mosaic Tunbridge ware boxes were made long before this technique and style of decoration was arrived at in the 1830s. The woodworkers in the area of Tunbridge Wells were making wooden artifacts even earlier than the seventeenth century when the town became a fashionable Spa resort. Many early items were turned, but cabinet making was certainly developed to a very high level by the second half of the 18th century when box making flourished.
Late eighteenth century boxes are not always easy to identify as Tunbridge Ware, although the predominant use of yew with fruitwood and holly inlays of high quality can be a pointer.
Another early type of Tunbridge Ware box was made in sycamore and painted in primary colours in a naive style depicting scenes with cottages, or flowers. These boxes were mostly small, sometimes circular or in the shape of baskets. This kind of work continued into the early part of the 19th century, mostly for sewing tools enclosed in more ambitious workboxes.
By the end of the 18th century a more refined type of painted work emerged. Larger and often shaped boxes were produced mostly in the early part of the 19th century, decorated with penwork, painting, hand coloured engravings or a combination of techniques. Again it is not easy to be certain that these boxes were definitely made or decorated in Tunbridge as the inspirations for the pictures were often drawn from pattern books available throughout the country. However even if they were not decorated by the Tunbridge makers many of these boxes were supplied in the white by them, for ladies to decorate at home.
Tunbridge Ware developed its own characteristic local style by the end of the 18th century with the development of geometric inlays. The parquetry and long triangular vandyke patterns, which decorate the Tunbridge Ware boxes of this period, are of such distinctive quality that they cannot be mistaken for anything else.
The range of wood used to decorate these boxes is unparalleled. It includes: naturally green fungus-attacked oak, holly, burrs, patterns made in the wood by fungus infection or peculiar growth, snakewoods (bamboo or palm treated with black polish to create snakeskin effect) as well as fruitwoods, root woods and exotic timbers newly arrived in England. The makers laid out the patterns, using the contrasts and harmonies of the material, with total respect for its natural beauty and quality. The artistic judgement of the woodworkers in selecting and arranging these pieces, created some of the strongest and most beautiful boxes ever made.
Another type of Tunbridge Ware geometric design was created by the stickware method. This was the gluing and binding together of triangular sticks of wood in contrasting colours, which were made into rods. The rods were then sliced into transverse sections and used as decorative veneers of small geometric patterns. Alternatively the prepared rods were turned to make small objects or toys. It was of paramount importance that the rods to be turned were prepared with the utmost precision so they could withstand the vicissitudes of the lathe. Small turned boxes as well as many sewing implements and pens were made in stickware.
Another variation was the gluing together of sticks in different geometric shapes, which when set were cut across and used to create patterns of more variable angles.
In early 19th century boxes, parquetry, vandyke and stickware are often found in decorative combinations, although boxes from the first two decades are more restrained and only feature parquetry and vandyke patterns. The background wood in early 19th century boxes is usually rosewood.
An exceptional Early Tunbridge Ware Three Compartment Tea Caddy
Boxes from the first two decades are more restrained and only feature parquetry and vandyke patterns.
In the late 1820s the small mosaic Tunbridge Ware technique was developed, became popular by the 1830s and remained so to the end of the nineteenth century. This technique entailed selecting and sticking thin sticks of wood of different colour to create a preselected pictorial pattern. When set, the block was sliced to make veneers repeating the same pattern. The pictorial veneers were then stuck to the surface of the box. The result was that the box looked as if it was decorated with inlaid tesserae.
In the best examples of mosaic contrasting colours of wood were used carefully, to create well defined patterns. The wealth of timber varieties available, combined with the great skill of the Tunbridge ware craftsmen made this possible. The timbers used, unlike Italian Sorrento ware, were in their natural colour, although sometimes this colour was enhanced with chemical processes.
The mosaic technique was used to create geometric border patterns as well as more ambitious representations of flora, fauna, people and buildings. Many of the patterns were copied from Berlin woolwork and motifs of Tunbridge Ware boxes of this period are often referred to as Berlin woolwork designs.
The timbers used as the background veneers for the boxes of this period are varied. Rosewood was still predominant, but birds eye maple, fruitwoods, ebony and other woods were also used.
The mosaic technique is a very interesting example of the aptitude of the Tunbridge Ware workers to assimilate and adapt techniques and designs from other cultures. Stone mosaics were uncovered in the much talked about excavations of the 18th century. Mosaic covered boxes were known in England by the beginning of the 19th century by which time exquisite Sadeli Mosaic had already been introduced from India.
The Tunbridge Ware makers must have studied and understood the principle of this technique as the triangular stickware is an adaptation of Sadeli in wood. The later mosaic is a further development, rejecting geometric pattern and adopting Berlin woolwork naturalistic representations, to create an altogether different effect.
A maverick among Tunbridge Ware makers was Robert Russell who developed his own version of marquetry. This was reminiscent of ecclesiastical neo-gothic patterns and was used either on its own or in conjunction with mosaic work. In an advertisement of 1863 he claimed his new marquetry to be of "superior character". Not many pieces of Russell have survived.
Tunbridge Ware makers became very brand conscious by the 1830s and labelled many of their wares. With a little effort it is not difficult to identify pieces of Berlin mosaic work. It is much more difficult to identify the earlier pieces, but this is of no consequence as their quality speaks volumes by itself.
By the end of the 19th century Tunbridge Ware declined. The competition from cheaper boxes made from thin veneers and strips of simple geometric designs proved fatal to the Tunbridge workshops. Not only were these boxes produced in much larger quantities they were also produced for a very specific purpose i.e. writing boxes, work boxes or tea caddies, which was easier to market to the increasingly wealthy middle classes.
2. Papier Mâchè
Papier mâchè was the European craftsmens answer to Oriental lacquer. Decorated lacquer furniture and accessories were becoming increasingly fashionable by the second half of the 18th century. Natural materials for producing lacquer were not available in England, but this did not daunt the native makers. Inspired by the imported wares they set their mind to producing a material, which would have the same qualities as lacquer.
To this end various attempts were made in combinations of different materials and varnishes. Papier mâchè substances were known in England as early as the 17th century when they introduced from Persia and the east via France.
In England Henry Clay who had mastered the technique by 1772 made the first papier mâchè boxes and other objects in Birmingham. Clay ware was made by laminating sheets of paper and varnishing the finished product. This method continued to be used well into the 19th century. However early in the 19th century other firms introduced the pulped method, which became very popular especially for smaller items such as boxes.
Early boxes are mostly rectangular, except for tea caddies, which can also be oval or hexagonal. They are small single container caddies with fine hinges. The decoration on the 18th century boxes is in the style of 18th century paintings, Chinoiserie, or very restrained classical motifs, sometimes incorporating Wedgwood cameos. Boxes from this period are now rare.
Henry Clay won himself the distinction of Royal appointment, which passed on to Jennens and Bettridge in 1815 when they took over Clays firm. This firm expanded both the popularity and decorative styles of the medium. In 1825 mother of pearl inlay was introduced, which was mostly painted over giving an iridescent effect. This technique was incorporated in painted motifs of birds, flowers and buildings. Stylised Moorish designs of mother of pearl and gilding were also created to great effect.
By the middle part of the 19th century, there were a few firms producing papier mâchè boxes of quality, decorating them with gilding, painting and mother of pearl. The firm of Lane specialised in fine reverse painting on glass incorporated on the lid of papier mâchè and tortoiseshell boxes. These are now pretty rare.
In the 19th century papier mâchè boxes were made for a variety of purposes. The nature of the material which was by now made by the pulped method and pressed into moulds enabled the makers to create interesting shapes such as bombe, concave and sarcophagus, often standing on plinths or round feet.
Work, jewellery, stationery and glove boxes as well as tea caddies were very successfully made in papier mâchè. Because of the fragility of the material only small writing slopes were made. The main decoration was on the sloping front, which gave the artists quite a large flat area, which they often used to great effect.
Table cabinets were made in papier mâchè in impressive architectural designs, with the doors opening to reveal a series of drawers. They were decorated throughout and often featured an enclosed writing slope, sewing tray and jewellery drawer.
Many small boxes especially snuff boxes were made in the 18th and first half of the nineteenth century. Snuff boxes were mostly round in the 18th century with painted portraits or landscapes. In the nineteenth century more novelty shapes were introduced, such as shoes, bombe, oblong etc. Mother of pearl and inlaid metal decoration replaced the earlier painted surfaces. In the first two decades of the 19th century round prints were stuck on the tops of round snuff boxes and hand painted.
Papier mâchè was exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1851 by some of the most notable makers. However after this date the work produced in the papier mâchè workshops began to decline. Shapes became heavier and decoration less refined. By the end of the century commercialism had overtaken the industry and only transfer printed small boxes were produced.
This precious material was used from the later part of the 18th up to the middle of the 19th century to veneer oak, pine and mahogany tea caddies, sewing boxes and sometimes small writing boxes. It was also used in the same way for small trinket boxes. The boxes made between 1780 and 1820 are of a light blond colour in very simple shapes, which maximizes the effect of the natural colour striations in the shell. The wooden structure of the box was first gessoed in white and then veneered with the thin shell. The effect was exquisitely subtle and restraint.
The shapes for single caddies were square, hexagonal, or polygonal, with a flat or pyramid shaped top. Double caddies were rectangular, occasionally polygonal with a flat top. As the size of the shell was restricting the size of the possible panels, thin pieces of metal were used to separate book matched patterns on the larger caddies.
Flat sewing boxes were also made during this period and these have four matched panels on the top separated by metal lines. The larger ones also have a border, again separated by metal strips. Basically, the larger the box the more it needed to use decorative tricks to accommodate the smaller size of the shell.
Occasionally the gesso was coloured with ground powder pigment made from semiprecious stones, which gave the Tortoiseshell veneer a green or red colour. Such boxes are much rarer than the boxes in natural colour.
During this early period the decoration was restricted to simple silver or silver plated escutcheons, central plates, loop handles or small finials. Thin ivory edging lines and facings were also used, although many early boxes have boxwood facings.
At around 1800 different shapes and styles began to emerge. The green colour was dropped and the emphasis was no longer on maximizing the effect of the shell.
Small single tea caddies were made in straight or sarcophagus shapes with such features as carved edgings, pagoda shaped tops, stepped lids and pediments. These stood on ivory or silver-plated feet.
Double caddies were made with similar features to the single caddies. Like the earlier ones these were made using panels joined by metal strips.
A few triple large caddies standing on gilded feet with gilded handles were made in the early part of the 19th century. They are of sarcophagus and sometimes slightly bombe shape. These have three panels of shell joined up at the front. This design was soon dropped, probably as the triple joining proved difficult to be as effective as the double " book match".
The sewing boxes of the early 19th century are in more complex shapes than the earlier ones and stand on feet.
Slightly later, from about 1820 the shapes and decoration of Tortoiseshell boxes became more varied and complex. More stepped spreading supports were used with serpentine, bombe, concave, sarcophagus and other forms.
New decorative techniques were applied to the new shapes. Embossing, which had first appeared in simple patterns became rather complex by the 1840s in "Gothic revival" designs of ecclesiastical tracery.
Mother of pearl inlays of flowers and birds were popular from the second decade of the 19th century. The best inlays feature pieces with well defined engraving. Sometimes chinoiserie designs were executed in mother of pearl, in the whimsy Regency style, which gave them a charming period look. Fine silver lines were often incorporated in mother of pearl decorated boxes.
A few pre 1840 tortoiseshell boxes were decorated in fine silver piqué. Later in the 19th century boxes were mounted with embossed silver decoration. By the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century Tortoiseshell was used in combination with silver for decorative smaller boxes. Most of these have piqué swags of flowers.
This term is a tribute to the cabinetmaker Andre Charles Boulle who worked in the late 17th and early 18th century in France. He was ebeniste to Louis XIV and perfected the technique of creating patterns in tortoiseshell and metals or other materials. When early in the 19th century the Prince Regent purchased some items of French boulle work, English cabinetmakers seized the challenge and began to produce furniture and boxes using the same technique.
Most boxes in boulle work are in red- backed tortoiseshell interlaced with brass in stylised floral patterns. Early ones are sometimes mounted on heavy gilded feet. They are very different from the English designs, in that the decorative pattern is more prominent than the figure in the shell.
A word of caution: cheaper versions of boulle work were made using a form of papier mâchè. The varnish on these is usually crackled. These boxes are very pretty in their own right, but they are not tortoiseshell.
Ivory was not used extensively in England for the making of boxes. Its most important use was for veneering the late 18th century tea caddies. These were hexagonal or octagonal with flat or pyramidical tops. They had exquisitely made silver hinges, escutcheons, small loop handles, finials and initial plaques. If they were decorated at all they were decorated in fine silver or gold piqué, or finely engraved edging lines.
Sometimes they had a miniature inset in the center of the large front panel. Occasionally the panels of ivory were reeded. The inner lids of the caddies were often made in plain wood, oak, pine or mahogany, which constituted the basic body of the box.
This is a material often used in inlays but seldom used in its own right. Some boxes were made of it in the 1830s to 1860s mostly tea caddies, small perfume bottle boxes, or necessaires. Very few larger boxes such as sewing boxes or jewellery boxes were ever made mainly from this material.
Boxes were veneered in squares or diamonds of mother of pearl no bigger than an inch. Often abalone shell squares were inserted to give interesting colour. Sometimes these were used to veneer parts of Tortoiseshell boxes, to create contrasts of dark and light shell.
The finest and extremely rare examples of mother of pearl boxes were inlaid in abalone shell. This work was very skilled in that it entailed inlaying one hard and brittle material into another. The inlays, usually of flowers are of extraordinary quality. They give life to an otherwise rather cold material.
Straw workboxes were made in England in the early part of the 19th century by Napoleonic prisoners of war. By making and selling these boxes the prisoners were able to improve their living conditions. The boxes were made out of inexpensive pine, which was then covered in pictures created by natural and died pieces of straw assembled at different angles to maximize light values. This delicate work required both considerable skill and patience.
Frequently the hinges were made out of twisted circular strips of metal and were rather rudimentary.
On account of the fragile nature of the material it is unreasonable to expect to find these boxes in perfect condition. Their interior, which was also covered in straw work, is often better preserved. The designs are of stylised flowers, birds, buildings and ships. Sometimes watercolour paintings are incorporated under glass panels. Although perhaps too frail now for robust use these wonderful boxes have a great period look and are well worth treasuring and enjoying for their sheer beauty.
Although the Napoleonic prisoners of war brought straw work to the attention of the wider public, they were by no means the first exponents of this art in England. Straw work was practised in Europe as early as the seventeenth century and straw covered boxes were brought to England first from Holland and then from France. By the 18th century English makers were known to use the technique for decorating boxes, mainly tea caddies.
The caddies dating from the late 18th century are trunk shaped, or shaped in the preferred tea caddy forms of the period. They were usually made in pine and veneered with straw work designs, which were first applied on paper. The designs include stylised flowers, herringbone and parquetry. These early boxes have a sturdier basic structure than the Napoleonic prisoner of war boxes and their hardware (hinges, locks i.e.) is of professional quality.
From the second part of the 18th to the middle of the 19th century the English applied arts came under influences both from the Far East and the classical world of Europe and the Middle East. Such a wealth of new intellectual, aesthetic and social ideas burst onto English society that the possibilities of diversification in the arts became infinite. It was the time of the great romantic poets, expounding new ideas, of creative novelists, of travelers and merchants bringing back tales of other lands.
The group of boxes I am about to discuss, reflect perhaps more than any other group, the way these influences were translated into box pictorial decoration. Many of the new designs were received from pattern books, sketches, pictures or letters.
The published accounts of the first tentative diplomatic steps to the far east, as well as first hand narratives, conjured up pictures of men, beasts and plants never previously exposed to such an extend to the non specialist public. "You in the meantime will be taking a trip into China, I suppose. How does Lord Macartney go on?" Edmund asks Fanny in Jane Austens Mansfield Park.
Both professionals who specialised in chinoiserie and classical decoration and private ladies who decorated their own boxes were eager to prove to the world that they were up to date with their cultural reading. Designs showing an understanding of classical symmetry, pictures experimenting with peculiar eastern perspectives "pagodas and the fantastic fripperies" as Hogarth called chinoiserie, imagined Indian scenes, Gothic ruins and observations from nature are all to be found on boxes dating from the end of the 18th to the third decade of the 19th century.
Like most observations, which are perceived second hand, the result is a distillation of the original, transformed by the perceptions and experiences of the receiver into his/her interpretation. The pictorial boxes of this period have a unique and delightful quality, which results from the excitement of discovery and the eagerness to express it. Each one is a gem of social history.
The archaeological activities of the time opened up the possibilities of classical decoration both in terms of pictorial arts and of architectural forms. Thus we find that a great number of decorated boxes were made in much more "structural" shapes using pediments, sarcophagus shapes, stepped tops, panelling, gadrooning, feet and handles harking back to ancient Greece, Egypt and Pompeii.
Originally all the boxes in this category were varnished. Most of the varnish has become brittle with dryness and tends to fall off naturally. Caution. Do not try to take off the varnish, as it is likely to take off the decoration with it. Just leave it alone.
Most of the penwork pictures on boxes are derivative of oriental work and like linear lacquer decoration, they show people and animals in landscapes. There are also stylised motifs of flora and fauna, pictures observed from nature such as ruins, or natural scenes.
Penwork was often done by people at home and as such an individuals idiosyncrasy is often reflected in the work.
The techniques used for this decoration are not always consistent. The boxes were made in sycamore or other light coloured woods. Then they were either varnished and then decorated, or gessoed and painted over the white surface. I have also found another interesting technique used in such boxes: A shallow embossed imprint of the design made on the wood. By the time the design was painted in and varnished the surface of the box would again be smooth.
Penwork decoration was often done in black fine lines on a light background. Sometimes this was done in reverse, i.e. the background was blacked and the design was light. At times other colour inks, paints, or gold leaf were used in addition to the black ink. Often hand coloured prints were pasted in the center of boxes, which were decorated with penwork, borders. The prints were edged with gold leaf decorated in lines of ink. The whole thing was then varnished.
Boxes were also painted using paints rather than ink, either direct onto the wood or on gesso or thin paper. Oriental scenes were not so popular. Most painted boxes depict naturalistic flowers, classical scenes, animals or people.
They are even rarer than the penwork boxes and each one has its own individual merit and beauty. They are some of the most stunning boxes ever made.
Although the term chinoiserie is loosely used to describe Oriental style European decoration in boxes in general, what I am going to describe here are boxes which were made to look as close to oriental lacquer as possible.
Oriental lacquer was built up in many layers on a base of very thin wood. In England the basic box was made from wood in normal thickness which gave it sufficient structural support. The undecorated item was then varnished, or thinly gessoed and varnished.
As sap from the rhus tree, which was used in oriental lacquer, was not available, the English makers experimented with various lacs, pigments and techniques as early as the 17th century.
The boxes, which were made in the second half of the 18th and the very early part of the 19th century, are mostly of black background with gold and colour decoration. Sometimes red, green or creamy-white was also used as the background colour. Raised decoration was achieved by building up gesso and painting over it.
The decoration is of people, buildings and landscapes. The style does not conform to any western rules of proportion and the peculiar perspective adds to the charm of these boxes.
Rolled paper and leather were used to cover wooden boxes. As very few types of such boxes were worthwhile, they will be dealt with in the chapters relating to the box type. (see tea caddies)
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