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Stenciled Furniture

( Originally Published 1919 )

Were you ever lucky like me, do you think? Did you ever find a set of stenciled chairs, softly brown and glowing with gold pomegranates and formalized flowers, and all six for six dollars? I did, and ever since then I have been wanting to tell you what can be done with stenciled furniture — old stencils when you can get them, new when you can't; for very few people know at all the charm of this quaint, early-nineteenth-century type, the far-away country cousin of the wonderful, long-ago oriental lacquer. Besides, in the late eighteenth century, Angelica Kaufmann, Pergolesi, and Cipriani, all painters of great vogue, worked for Robert and James Adam and deco-rated the furniture that these masters designed. If you have read "Quinney's," I am sure you have not forgotten the tragic affair of the satinwood commode with panels painted by the charming Angelica, and Jo's despair at its loss. In the reign of Louis XV, Martin, the famous French coach-painter, perfected his marvelous process of enamels now known as vernis-Martin, and even from mediaeval days certain pieces of mobiliary furniture have been adorned and embellished by the addition of vivid color like the "sapphire, pearl and rich embroidery" that Shakespeare pictures as buckling below the bending knee of fair knighthood. From these dignified dynasties my simple stencils can claim only distant de-scent, and yet they are so attractive, so full of vigor and stamina and with such wonderful decorative possibilities, that I am sure you will love them as I do, once you know them. I cannot think of a better way to bring tone and the quality of color into a room than by their use.

I am going to begin by walking directly to my side-board, and taking down my little canister, black-surfaced, straight-lined, and not more than five inches in height, but, oh, so delightful! It has two compartments, one for green tea, one for black, and a tiny lock, for, in those thrifty days, our ancestors had to be very careful indeed of their precious Oolong and Japan. A brass lion's head forms the handle, thus marking it beyond doubt as belonging to the full Empire period; and the stencil itself makes me think of the old nursery rhyme about the nut tree "that would nothing bear but a silver apple and a golden pear" —my design in silvers and golds precisely. Why, I am almost daily expecting a visit from the Queen of Spain's daughter "all on account of my little nut tree." And my tea-caddy has something more than quaint charm to recommend it; the color-scheme of golds and silvers has the merit of binding together the pewter on my sideboard and the brass on the table beyond.

On my dining-table is another interesting piece, this time combining more colors. The background is black, the heavy, japanned black that takes long years and rough usage to wear away; on the four curved-over edges are alternate designs of blue and rose conventionalized flowers set in a wreath pattern of gilt and silver, and the stencil on the bottom is plain gold. It is quite twelve inches wide and the photograph gives no real idea of its capacity, for it will hold nearly a dozen smallish oranges. It is in almost "proof" condition; the colors are merely dulled by time, not rubbed away, and because there are so many combinations of tone in it, it makes a most admirable fruit-dish, harmonizing with any-thing: oranges, golden-red plums, or crimson-hued peaches and apples. Many such dishes are still to be found through the countryside; sometimes the design is completely worn away, in which case a piece of this kind seems to me practically worthless, and I should not advise redecoration. At other times, the colors are warm and glowing; desirable bits to be picked up both for decoration and actual use.

I wish that I could show you the stencil on the columns and cornice of my Empire clock, but it is so dim that, although the effect is yet very pleasing to the eye, any adequate reproduction is impossible. Still, bear my counsel in mind, and, if you ever find a clock with stenciled pillars and cornice, remember that it is worth buying.

I have chosen four standard types of chairs to show you, all excellent of their kind. The first has a charming decoration of gold, with little, naive flecks of green and red picking out the pattern; an unusual touch comes in the turning and stenciling of the brace, and, most valuable point of all, there is a lion's head inset like a medallion in the top of the back. The seat is round, another excellence. Altogether, it is one of the most desirable stenciled chairs that I have ever seen. The design when it was found was so dulled that it had to be done over, but the reproduction has-not. a flaw. The next chair is completely old — you will see that the stencil is dimmer — but the gold fruit and flowers on the black background are very agreeable to look at. The seat is the square rush, more common than the rounded one, but still well worth while. The third chair is the most delicately shaped of all; notice how charmingly turned the legs and brace are. You will sec, too, that the finish is light; in this resembling the Adam style in satinwood, and the decoration, redone twenty years ago, is formed by clusters of golden grapes. The fourth chair has been restenciled recently, but in shape is the style of rocking-chair that was made between 1820 and 1830, as both the form of the rockers and the inset cane-seat indicate. Cane was used for seating the later types, and, while rush is prefer-able to anything else. I have frequently found such chairs with splint bottoms.

Trays you will find almost as often as chairs, and they vary from small ones, such as are shown in the photograph grouping four together, to great salvers, very useful and very decorative. Sometimes the trays have an irregular, fluted, "pie-crust" edge like the two on either side of the large tray. The upper one is more of the usual shape, but it is re-deemed by the brilliance of its decoration, a bird of paradise nestling in unknown and luxuriant flowers. The large tray (on page 19) is a beautiful one; of most unusual design, too, with vivid flowers on gold bands that glow with a happy radiance. I wonder if you will like the one with the swans as much as I do? And G has another must like it, only bigger. Frankly, I think it is lovely. I find myself envying the fortunate bride who went to house-keeping somewhere in the early eighteen-hundreds with these charming trays to keep her company. There must have been three of them at first, — "nests" of trays they were called, — and how I wish I could find that other wandering lost one! Those dear, queer, conventional swans on a blue pond in front of a little thatched cottage! If you could look at the trays themselves, you would see that the windows have the tiny panes that such a cottage should have, and that immense sunflowers form a floral back-ground:

"Gorgeous" is the adjective that was meant to describe the next tray. It is perfectly preserved; it might have been finished an hour ago as it stands there in its fresh black and gold livery, except that they do not make such lovely things nowadays. It be-longed to the great -gra ndmother of a friend of mine, and her descendant, owning it, is a happy woman. The way the stencil is applied, covering as it does nearly the whole surface, adds to its rarity.

I thought it the most attractive one I had ever seen until D and I found this lovely last one in a little dingy antique shop where treasures are often to be picked up. I didn't believe that such things existed, and I stood holding it in my hands and wondering. To begin with, it is very large, its oval shape is quite uncommon, and, best of all, it has a stenciled rim. There is not an imperfection in it, and the colors are simply exquisite, browns — I never saw a brown tray before — decorated in golds with little touches of crimson. It is a piece to marvel at, almost to worship.

All through my descriptions I have said "stenciled," not "painted" furniture, and with the best of reasons back of my statement, because the early nineteenth-century pieces, these honest, sturdy chairs and trays and dishes, were decorated by the process of stenciling. I have seen must one painted tray, interesting because it interprets so primitively the story of Jacob and Rebecca, but nowhere nearly so attractive or artistically good as the ones with the formalized patterns. I do wish the modern decorators would return to the good old paths. Now the process is free'-hand,' though sometimes the design is traced on oiled paper, then filled in with chalk and so transferred to a chair-back that way. Twentieth-century painted - furniture is often pretty, but it rarely suggests the "feeling" of a hundred years ago.

In mid-August it was my privilege to talk to a man who has spent nearly all his life and he is ninety-one years old'— in decorating furniture, and who probably knows more about it than any other living soul. Shall I ever forget the day of my pilgrimage? He lived miles away; -the "noonday stood still for heat," and the road stretched, a dusty ribbon, ahead of me. And then at last the-little welcoming white cottage, smaller than mine, and older, for it dates back to 1768. Even the green-latticed sheds built long out at the side looked as if, friendly, they had caught hold of hands with the house, and were running down the little slope to 'meet me. It was cool, so cool, inside, so pleasant to sit there with Mr: In-galls - he is the ." rosy-apple" type of old man — and discuss stencils while the day blazed outside. When he was a lad he had learned the trade from his father who was a coach-painter, and at that time they worked entirely with stencils; he remembered the piles that used to lie in his father's shop. Little by little they were broken and destroyed, and at last the old order changed for something different and not so intrinsically good. Nobody works with stencils now; the color has remained but the "feeling," the "soul," has vanished. Still, I think it is a craft that could as well be revived as the weaving of blankets and coverlets and rugs.,

Perhaps, all this time, you are thinking, "But, nevertheless, it is just peasant furniture, the product of homely workmanship." And so it is, and it would be more wonderful, undoubtedly, to own a splendid, authentic bit of vernis-Martin, or such a red-lacquer cabinet as Anne Douglas Sedgwick describes in her delicately modulated "White Pagoda." And yet I am thinking that so many of you must be, like me, living in "middling" houses on "middling" incomes, and wanting things pretty — and real! Fancy how charming you could make a cold, north-exposed breakfast-room with the yellow glitter of brass, warm brownish walls, and gold-brown stenciled furniture weaving the colors together into a unit of comfort. Or think of the appropriate prettiness of sprigged china and pink lustre on an old tea-tray, its tones as exquisitely mellowed as theirs. Remember, too, that "the love of the genuine is a very healthy human instinct." I know nothing that has more of this quality than the simple, honest, unpretending stenciled furniture of the early nineteenth century.

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