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Inlay, Intarsia, And Marquetry Are Relatives

When Catherine of Braganza came from Portugal as bride of Charles II, she brought Indian furniture inlaid with ivory trees, birds and flowers such as had never been seen in London. For it was the East India trade which popularized this inlay design throughout the West. Tiny pieces of wood, shell, ivory, bone, stone, porcelain, or metal, generally set in wood, but sometimes in stone or metal, made this decoration.

Teakwood, rosewood, and ebony chests, tables, cabinets and chairs had lifelike birds perched in leafy trees, all of inlaid ivory, mother-of-pearl, rare woods, jewel stones, or metals. Inlaid vines and flowers enriched doors and drawers of cabinets. Inset and jeweled peacocks met beak to beak across chair backs. Pearl or dot borders, generally of ivory or mother-of-pearl, ran down the structural lines of chairs. Inlaid sandalwood boxes (Bombay work) became the love tokens of the rich.

Besides furniture, India inlaid the walls of her palaces and tombs with bands of white marble and with enameled plaques and floral patterns in jewels. Even precious jade objects were inlaid with emeralds, rubies, turquoise, and enameled designs.

Anciently India had inlaid gold in steel in her kuft work we call damascene. Her bidri (from Bidar) usually was silver in a blackened alloy of tin, lead and copper. Lacquer, glass and fused jewel dust are inlaid in her brass, copper and steel trays, vases, jugs and candle sticks we call Moradabad vwork, so popular in art, shops over America.

Inlaying Is an Ancient Oriental Decoration

In the temple of the mother goddess at biblical Ur, two columns holding the door lintel were inlaid with triangular pieces of black and red stones and mother-of-pearl. The walls were inlaid with black shale panels set with birds, animals and humans carved of stone and shell. Queen Shubad's wood and gold harp, inlaid with lapis lazuli, preceded by 4500 years Victorian harps inlaid with mother-of-pearl and rare woods.

Chicago's Oriental Museum shows the replica of an Egyptian vase from 2750 B.C. inlaid with lapis lazuli. The great cedar door of the Temple of Horus was inlaid with metal. And Tutankhamen's throne chair had inlaid faience, glass, jewels and silver.

Assyrian palace walls were inlaid with glazed tiles of hunting scenes and Babylonian rosettes. The walls of the fortress of Tiryns were inset with alabaster panels elaborately inlaid with blue glass. Greek furniture of ebony, cedar, oak and fancy grained citron wood, had inlays of tortoise shell, enamels, rare woods and ivory.

Rome's veneers spread valuable imported wood over fine furniture. Her "sectile inlays" of "sliced jewels" vied with her allover picture inlays. Still life mosaics inlayed her walls. Byzantine furniture gave us the Throne of Maximian, 6th century A.D., made of wood inlaid with carved ivory panels and borders.

China anciently inlaid bronze vessels, furniture and mirrors with gold, silver and turquoise, coral, jade and enamels. She inlaid wood with ivory, jewels and lacquers; and lacquers with jewels, metals and ivory, mother-of-pearl, and the iridescent purple and green "sea ear" shells, using symbolic patterns of fruits, flowers and animals. Her inlaid porcelains fascinated the world.

Trade Revived and Built European Inlay Art

Italy's early "intarsia" (inlay) was geometric in design, and in light woods, such as holly and poplar, or in ivory or metai, on dark walnut or ebony. When artists learned to dye wood, bone, ivory and horn for color, and smoke or scorch woods with a hot poker, sand or acids, for shading, pictorial inlays became the vogue. They were used for doors, walls, and furniture. Pietro duro, inlays of sliced ivory, metals, shells and stones, charmed Europe. So did Sorrento's inlaid olive wood boxes.

Spain's inlays of silver wire in fanciful patterns, plus mother-of-pearl in rosettes and bands, originally started (in Spain) by the Moors, were revived by the East India trade. Holland's India trade brought rare woods for checkerboard, realistic flowers and birds and cherubs.

Queen Anne took some of this inlay to England where Seaweed inlay of stems and leaves (that looked like seaweed) was preferred to florals, birds and arabesques. England's Tonbridge inlay of 19th century vogue, was made of colored wood rods glued together in pattern (like millefiori glass rods), then sliced in sections and inlaid in wood frames, furniture, jewel or keepsake boxes, and "lace boxes."

In Germany Adam Eck made relief intarsia by shading with low relief carving. Black and white inlays as fruits, flowers, architectural and biblical scenes were made to decorate arms, musical instruments, doors, walls and furniture.

French craftsmen quartered their veneers for grain pattern in larger pieces as marquetry (inlay). Andre Charles Boulle made furniture history with his inlayed tortoise shell, brass and copper. Reisner followed with rosewood, tulip, purple and snake wood. Roent(ren. created chinoiseries (designs in the Chinese manner) and pastorals (rural scenes) for Marie Antoinette and Russia's Catherine.

The Making of Inlay or Intarsia

Few tools were necessary. An intarsia self portrait of Antonio Barili, Italian, shows him using a pocket knife, gouge, pencil and short bladed knife with a long square handle resting against his shoulder. Tweezers took the wood from the hot sand.

Dyes include saffron for yellow; madder, Brazil wood, or kermes for pink or red; log wood and blue for purple; and log wood plus iron filiniz for black. Copper or indigo made blues. Verdigris plus vinegar made green. The woods were soaked in them. Ivory was set in then brushed with color.

Tortoise shell was warmed in vinegar to soften it for cutting. Then the underside was often painted or set in over gold leaf to bring out the shell's beauty and transparency.

Natural woods darkened with time. Dyed woods faded, ivory yellowed, and metals tarnished. But mother-of-pearl and Sevres porcelain, or Wedgwood plaques, did not fade or darken. They had to be combined carefully with other materials so not to give a spotted effect.

In shading woods, care was used not to weaken or destroy the grain by the chemicals or scorching. Engraved lines filled with mastic or colored wax sometimes added pattern. Spain drove tiny ivory and ebony pegs through her inlaid pattern to help it hold in place.

Inlays were generally one eighth to one fourth inch deep, and only as permanent as the glue. In the early work each tiny piece was driven into place in the prepared (grooved out) design, and glued there. Later the many parts of a composition were glued face down to a paper pattern, clamped to dry, then set into the furniture, wall or floor. In wood inlay the interstices were filled with glue and wood dust.

Finally the paper was cleaned away and the surface polished. Water was avoided as it warped and stained the woods, swelled the grain, and even loosened the inlay. A fine sanding, then oil and rotten stone dipped onto a cloth, polished the wood inlay. Charcoal polished tortoise shell.

Modern Inlay or Marquetry

Commercial marquetry veneering brought fine furniture from the palaces into the homes of the people. Where once each bit of pattern was cut by hand, and later two pieces could be cut together, the modern jigsaw can cut many layers of veneer at a time for larger inlay work or marquetry.

The inlaid design is dried in clamps or cauls, then fitted into place, sanded down to surface level, and varnished to keep stains from the woods. Finally it is rubbed down and polished to bring out the beauty of the grain. For in veneer marquetry the ricn grain of the wood is important to pattern beauty.

But in the old work of gouged-out pattern and driven-in pieces of wood, ivory, shell and stone, bone, metal, glass and lacquer, pottery and porcelain, the 'textures, colors, and patterns of the inlays themselves are the most important.

Among the modern marqueteers, Andrew Szoeke has won fame for his bold designs of human, bird and animal forms in a variety of woods, from cottonwood to myrtle burl. But Oriental inlays continue to "cross the waters" and join our modern masterpieces as well as our European and American heirlooms.

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