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Decorative Leathers



Socrates got the poison cup when he quarreled with Anytos, the rich and politically powerful hide tanner of Greece-then the hide tanning center of the world. Even in Homer's time four centuries earlier, no one but a beggar, he said, would sleep on an untanned hide.

Athenian housewives used bright dyed leathers, preferably yellow, blue and red, for clothing, couches, chairs and rugs. They put leather over partitions, making handsome wall hangings and dividing the Greek hall into rooms for more privacy, much as early Japanese u s e d lacquered leather screens in their houses.

Sparta's rigorous code forbade dyed materials though they allowed soldiers red leather garments for battle, to help conceal their wounds. Yet Sparta's populace loved color, as did the rest of the East, and her scarlet sandals became famous throughout the ancient world.

Two thousand years, and more, before this, Egypt was tanning leathers with acacia and sumach, dying them yellow with lotus bark and pomegranate skins, red with madder or kermes, blue with indigo or woad or with "blue stone"-made from hanging stones in a bath of copper vitriol. The blue gathered on the stone like grapes to a bunch and this, immersed in water, dissolved off to color the leather. They dipped or brushed one color over another, producing combinations of color in endless variations--a blue-dyed leather dipped in yellow gave green, blue dipped in red gave violet. All the in-betweens were a matter of richness of dye bath and number of dippings.

King Tut's Slippers and Bull Hides from Britain

Tutankhamen's slippers were made of fine goat skin dyed red-the forerunner of Morocco's famous leather. One pair was decorated with beads. Another carried the picture of a Libyan slave on one sole, a Syrian on the other, while toes and heels were filled with bows, thus the king "trod" his ancient enemies underfoot. A fine braided thong from great toe to ankle strap held the slippers on.

Rome imported hides extensively, including ox hides from Britain and fine leathers from Babylon. Roman emperors wore "purple slippers" from Parthia and the famous Parthian rose-colored goat skin, dyed with boiled ivy sap, cradled many a regal Roman foot. While Rome's own soft aluta, so called from the alum salts used in its curing, even made beauty patches which Roman women glued to their faces to enhance eye charm and lip appeal.

The Northern Hordes crushed Rome's culture and the making of fancy leathers along with the other arts, returned to the lands that cradled them across the Medi, terranean. Then leather craftsmen from the city of Ghadames followed the fighting Moors to Spain, and Cordova leather developed by Spanish "Gadamaceleros" (leather artists) spread over Europe and the Western world.

On taking his examination for admission to the craft after long apprenticeship, the Spanish leather worker had to be able to tan the hides, dye them, tool, emboss, incise, carve, inlay, applique, patch and stitch, lacquer, paint, illumine, and otherwise make a.ll manner of leather goods and decoration. Travelers in Spain wrote of the wonderful leather sections where the painted, dyed and gilded leathers, stretched on frames on the streets, blazed their colors to the sun.

Moroccan Leather and Spanish Cordovan

Europe's cathedrals boasted Cordova covered gospels and altar fronts. Kings and queens sported Cordova shoes, went visiting with Cordova leather trunks or chests-nail studded and reinforced with wrought metal plates and bandings. Their horses were accoutered with Cordova saddles, spurs and bridles or harness. Cordova pillows, bellows, bottles and book satchels were prized. Cordova leather covered palace walls and floors.

Sometimes these wall hangings were dyed brown or red and stamped with small designs in the Moroccan manner, preserving the texture and fine graining. Most, however , were brilliantly dyed, elaborately tooled, with much embossing (raising) of leaves, flowers, fruits, medallions, and arabesques, in imitation of the rich brocaded silks from the East.

Embossing made the pattern stand out like repousse silver. Cutting, carving and incising emphasized the lines and figures. Gold and silver leaf, applied and painted upon with bright colored, transparent lacquers which let the metal gleam through, had the richness of illumined manuscripts. Even great painted compositions in the glory of Renaissance flesh tones, lapis lazuli blue, gleaming gold and brilliant vermilion, decorated these leather wall panels.

Leather Wall Panels and Armor, Bottles, and Shoes

The twenty-four red leather wall panels and red leather summer carpets from Aragon which Charles V of France gave his brother, the Duke of Orleans, were indeed a King's gift.

Italy learned from Spanish craftsmen and Venetian leathers with their ornate toolings, bright colors - often outlined with black to dramatize the pattern, their transparent lacquers and wealth of gold leaf, made book bindings, cases, and coffers of all kinds. Florentine wall panels caught Europe's fancy. The prepared leathers were brushed with white of egg despite its bad odor, and sprinkled with resin-where the gold leaf was to go. The fragile leaf was laid on with a soft oiled brush and stamped down with warm tools tested against overheating with the old "spit and sizzle" test our grandmothers used on flat irons.

Belgium and Flanders also practiced leather craft after the Spanish and Italian manner. Ruben's studio is said to have been hung with green leather stamped with gold. Titian's gold-tooled flat blue leathers, and his blue and yellow lacquers over silver leaf are reported to have enchanted his followers.

France became famous for her cuir bouilli or "boiled leather." Simmered in oil till it was oiled through and very soft, it could be molded into all manner of bottles, cases, panels, armor and shoes. It was decorated with tooling, incising, embossing, gilding and painting. Its pliability and firmness seem to have varied to the leather maker's treatment. Shoes were pliable, durable and handsome; china and silver cases, firm and protective.

From Illumined Manuscripts to Carved Ox Hide Stirrups

Illumined manuscripts w e r e produced largely by the studios of the monastaries, principally on parchment and vellum. Theophilus tells in his book on art that leather for illuminating must be prepared by two or three coats of gypsum whiting. Gold leaf and bright colored painting and lettering over this really was "illumined."

Even as the Moors fetched their leather craft to Spain, the Conquistadores brought it to the Western world. The American Indian, like the prehistoric Swiss Lake Cave Dwellers and the present Alaskan Eskimos, knew hide curing-the soaking, burying and homely chemicals which loosened hair and flesh. They knew fat curing with brains and marrow which softened and rain proofed the hides like the old "oil tawing" of Greece, and egg yolk softened leathers for England's famous glove trade.

Southwest Americans adapted the leather arts to fancying up hat bands, glove cuffs, boots and chaps, saddles and bridles. The West adored them. Dude cowboys sport them today. Modern America's sophisticated leather crafts give rich upholstery and inlays for furniture, smart sports clothing and handsome cases of all kinds. Like Sparta's red sandals, America's beautiful shoes are world famous.

So the ancient leather arts flower and bear fruit in North and South America, Mexico and Guatemala. The raw, sawtooth carved ox hide stirrups of the present Chilean huaso gather a crowd before a travel bureau window on Chicago's Michigan Avenue. Returning tourists exhibit their wondrously dyed, carved, tooled and embossed leather bags and cases, prized possessions of today, collectors' pieces of a far tomorrow.



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