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Decorative Marqueterie

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

THE practice of enriching the flat or plain surface of woods by the addition of other substances or varied colourings of similar materials dates from very early times. It is from the East that we get those wonderful mosaics, metallic inlays, porcelain cloisonne effects, and damascened curios. Such works have been produced throughout the Middle Ages, and even in our own times ; and such curios and antiques ranging over several centuries in the period of their manufacture continue to be brought to this country. It is to the East, too, that we turn for ancient inlays, some of which are found in Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon. In early times in those countries clever craftsmen used ivory, ebony, and vitreous substances, as well as precious stones and marbles, in the decoration of their halls, their thrones, and their seats of state.

Sometimes foreign substances and overlays have been used for strengthening the carcass, but in furniture marqueterie overlays and additional ornament have been used as secondary for the purposes of enrichment. The ancient arts in which inlays were applied to furniture were under a cloud during the Middle Ages ; but they broke out in full power and glory during the Renaissance. The Italian Renaissance provided artists with plenty of scope for their skill ; and during the revival, which dates from the thirteenth century, extending to the seventeenth, some magnificent pieces were ornamented ; and special talent was expended upon the inlays of wood stalls and panelling in Continental cathedrals and churches. The processes adopted in this work have been divided into two distinct methods. The one intarsia, and the other marqueterie. Briefly, the distinguishing marks between them might be summed up into intarsia as patterning the groundwork by incising or cutting it away, and inserting other substances, and marqueterie as patterning two thin materials, and then using them as veneer upon a stouter body or frame.

The root meaning of the word intarsia is found in the Latin word interserere, to insert, and refers chiefly to the damascened or inlaid metal work, such as is met with in Eastern countries.


The intarsia work is older than marqueterie, and is traceable to craftsmanship which flourished several centuries before the Christian era.

The metal intarsia is represented by many fine examples in the Victoria and Albert Museum, and also in the inlays and enamels of Anglo-Saxon days. Greek artists inlaid their chairs, seats, beds, and other objects with precious metals. The Greeks also used a variety of woods--some very rare even in those days.


The second process more commonly understood, known as marqueterie or marquetry, comes from the French word marqueter, to mark. This process is quite easily performed by cutting through two or more layers, and then pressing or fitting into the cut portion of one layer the corresponding piece of the other.

That process serves in simple marqueterie, but in the more elaborate designs and those in which there are colour effects, like the older mosaics, more intricate methods are necessary.


As it has been stated, the more important early inspirations in inlays came from Italy, although at a much earlier period inlays had been the special province of Eastern nations. The Italian artists took up marqueterie as early as the twelfth century. It then took the form of marble inlays, in which table tops and other pieces of furniture were ornamented with tiny pieces of marble and other substances, arranged so as to produce pictorial and other effects by the right shading and colour secured by careful choice of materials.

Siena became the seat of the industry, and from that town many fine ecclesiastical pieces came. Eventually the mosaics, which have since gained such fame, were made in Florence. It is from that city that so many wonderfully inlaid chests have been brought. Scenic views and quaint and effective designs were produced by the use of different substances and rare woods. Mr F. Hamilton Jackson, in his handbook on " Intarsia and Marquetry," relates an interesting story of Leonardo d'Antonio da Majano, a master in wood and stone work, who was one of the most noted fifteenth-century workers. This clever inlayer had made two chests, and ornamented them with wood mosaics. He sought Royal favour, and when they were completed they were packed safely, as he thought, and the intrepid wood-worker set sail with them for Hungary to show them to Matthew Corvinus, King of Hungary. On his arrival, after a somewhat tempestuous voyage, he was received by the King with much favour, and ordered to unpack the chests and bring them into the King's presence. Alas ! the sea water had damaged the package in its voyage, and the moisture had softened the glue, so that the inlays fell in a heap. Nothing daunted, the craftsman started to repair the injury, and in due time restored the chests, and when completed showed them to the King, who was well satisfied with the result.

The names of many famous artists have been preserved, among them Francesco di Giovanni di Matteo da Firenze and Guido da Seravallino, both of whom made furniture for Pisa Cathedral. In 1486 we learn Christophano d'Andrea da Lendinara and Jacopo da Villa made a seat for the choir. Some of the most interesting pieces still to be seen in the cathedral are the work of Giuliano da Majano. They are described by Mr Jackson, in his exhaustive work upon the subject as follows : " One represents King David with his harp in one hand, and with a label in the other hand ' Laudate Pueri Dominum.' The other two figures are prophets, and have scrolls, 'Benedicam, benedicam,' and 'Ve qui condunt legem.' "

The stalls of the Cathedral of Lucca were the work of Leonardo Marti ; they were removed in 1620 to the Church of the Reformati of S. Cerbone, where they remained for some two hundred years, until they became carefully preserved museum curios. The examples of the marqueterie of the Renaissance, which have been handed on either as museum specimens or kept intact in their original positions, are but fragments of the wealth of marqueterie representing such an enormous expenditure of labour in the days of the Renaissance. It is difficult indeed to realise the time that must have been spent upon such work, and the cost which must have been considerable. In 1519 the Chapter of the Cathedral at Lucca renewed their contract for marqueterie decoration, which was not completed until 1525, the later work being carried out by M. Angelo Discaccia of Cremona, the gilding being effected by Baldassare dalla Viola and Albertino dalla Mirandola. Describing this wonderful example of the patience and skill of Italian marqueterie workers, Mr Jackson in his book says : "There are three rows of seats, 132 in all, and the episcopal throne in the middle. The upper row is of 56 seats without the throne, the middle one is forty-two, and the lowest thirty-four. Originally there were 150, but in the alterations of 1715 nine from each side were taken away, as the high altar was then placed further within the apse." The intarsia shows drawings of sacred objects and perspectives of fine buildings drawn from various parts of the city. Two of the best preserved portions show the ducal castle and the ancient ducal courtyard with the still existing staircase constructed by Ercoli I. in 1481.

There is much fine work in St Mark's, of Venice ; and in the cathedral at Siena there is the splendid work of Antonio Barili, who was born in Siena in 1453. Some of his work, extending over a period of twenty years, was performed with very simple tools, consisting chiefly of a folding pocket-knife, a long-handled knife, and a square-handled gouge. Mr Jackson describes the wonderful beauty of the intarsia in the splendid palace of the Duke of Urbino, which was built between 1468 and 1480, at a cost of 200,000 golden scudi. He says : "Among the decorations of the Palace which still remain is the panelling of a small studio on the piano nobile close to the tiny chapel, which was entirely surrounded by an intarsia of the finest description, which represents in the lower part a seat, something like the misereres of choir stalls, surrounding the apartment, some parts of which are raised and some lowered. In the spaces rest some portion of the Duke's arms, a sword, a mace, etc., leaning in the corners, and on the lower parts of the seat are musical instruments, fruit, and sweetmeats in dishes, cushions, and books. The upper panels show cupboards with doors partly opened, showing all sorts of things within in the usual fashion, and there are four figure panels inserted at intervals, containing the portrait of the Duke, and the Christian virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity, which he strove to exemplify in his life. At one end of the room are two recesses divided by a projecting pier; in the one to the left the armour of the Duke is represented as hanging piece by piece on the wall. In that on the right is shown his reading desk made to turn on a pivot with books upon it and around, and on the pier between a landscape seen through an arcade with a terrace in front upon which are a squirrel and a basket of fruit. Close to the reading desk is a representation of an organ with a seat in front of it, upon which is a cushion covered with brocade or cut velvet which is most realistic, and on the organ is the name of Johan Castelano, which is supposed to be the name of the intarsiatore."

In the study of another palace of Duke Guidobaldo, some of whose intarsia is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, there were emblematic representations of music, literature, geography, and war ; bookcases, or rather cupboards, with their contents, among which there were a ship, a tambourine, a cage with a parrot in it, and other ornaments. Many of the palaces of Italian nobles were similarly decorated, and some very interesting fragments are to be seen in the South Kensington Museum, among them panels covered with inlays of bone in Hispano-Moresque geometrical designs on chestnut, the bone in several instances being coloured green. Another interesting piece in the museum is a cabinet, on the sides of which the inlays represent the story of the Flood, very grotesque looking animals being shown entering the ark, under the direction of Noah.


Marqueterie and various inlays from Continental towns are to be found, not only in museums, but in several instances in the actual buildings for which they were made. The mosaics of coloured woods made at Augsburg in the sixteenth century became noted, the marqueterie workers there giving special attention to the ornamentation of cabinets. Some of these decorations took the form of ruins and architectural scenes, as well as well-executed arabesques. Dresden was the home of several inlayers in the early portion of the seventeenth century, and some fine marqueterie was executed for the town halls of Lubeck and Dantzig ; and from other parts of Germany some interesting examples have been collected together in the Berlin Museum. Schleswig-Holstein is said to be full of fine inlays, the work of men whose names have been preserved in the State archives. Among others are Andreas Sallig, who was Court joiner in 1608, and Jochim Rosenfeldt, who was carver, and a year or two later Hans Preuszen, a carver, and Adam Wegener, a figure-cutter. Many small objects were decorated in the seventeenth century in South Germany, such as musical instruments, jewel boxes, and cabinets ; but marriage chests were made the chief subjects of inlays.

The best Dutch marqueterie was made towards the close of the sixteenth and during the first few years of the seventeenth centuries. Dutch inlays followed those of Venice, but came before the work of French artists. Dutch influence made itself felt in England, and the chief designs of the Dutch workers are referred to in a subsequent paragraph.


Jean Mace, of Blois, who learned his craft in Flanders, was one of the early inlayers in France, having brought the marqueterie of the Netherlands to that country. It was his daughter who married Pierre Boulle, in 1619, and one of their sons was Paul Boulle. It was Andre Charles Boulle, however, a nephew of Pierre Boulle, who was born in 1642, who became so famous for the wonderful metal work inlays he so cleverly executed.

There have been many German invasions—commercial and otherwise—one of these was in the middle of the eighteenth century when many craftsmen settled in Paris. Among the most noted was David Roentgen, who was born in 1743, and was in business at Neuwied am Rhein, in 1772. He was eventually appointed ebeniste mechanicien to Queen Marie Antoinette. In a few years he founded a new style in marqueterie, in which the shades were neither burnt nor engraved nor darkened with smoke. This clever inlayer gained fame all over Europe, receiving commissions from Catherine of Russia, and from the King of Prussia, who bestowed upon him the title of Secret Councillor, and made him "Royal Agent on the Lower Rhine." Having left France at the time of the Revolution David Roentgen's effects were sold.


The earliest English inlays occurred about 1625, when those who wrought such beautiful wainscots caught the inspiration of Hispano-Moresque design. There was some difference in the way of interpreting it, some producing monotonous diaper patterns, others giving it a more decorative effect. The chief influence during the reign of Charles I., however, was Italian, an influence which governed most English inlays until the days of the Restoration.

The chief features worthy of note in the inlays of that period were the acanthus - leaved arabesques and birds grouped in conventional designs. In these the acanthus (endive) leaves usually ended in a flower; the birds were mostly of the parrot type, although an eagle-like bird is not infrequently recognised. Such features were the chief characteristics of English marqueterie until about 1680, when there was a stagnation for a short time.

With the Restoration under Charles II. inlays revived, and a new style of ornament, which included floral embellishments and more lifelike birds and more realistic sprays, sprang up. The colours used were much brighter, and from that time onward Dutch influence was observable. In addition to the more sombre-coloured woods hitherto used woods brightly stained were intermixed with bone and ivory. The floral designs became more definite, and jasmine flowers were conspicuous. The arrangement of the sprays and of the ornament was altogether more realistic.

Although following Dutch lead English marqueterie was more delicate, and some English inlayers were copying Dutch styles, and, borrowing their decorative ornament, were able to render them more effective and pleasing. There was greater attention to detail—for instance, the acanthus leaves were more sharply pointed or piked, and there was a much more successful attempt at shading.

In Fig. 75 is shown a splendid fall-down bureau, the interior of which is fitted with quite a number of small drawers and pigeon-holes inlaid with marqueterie in ivory and coloured woods. The exterior is exceptionally well decorated with marqueterie. The double panel falls down, forming a writing-desk. It is the work of a skilled artist, and was evidently made about 1690.

Fig. 76 is a well made table with twisted legs and a beautifully inlaid marble top ; the stand is inlaid with marqueterie.

An impetus was given to English marqueterie in the reigns of William and Mary, and Anne, for although many Dutch pieces were imported English marqueterie workers were encouraged. There was a grander style in ornament, too, especially so in table tops, drawer fronts, and in the falls of the bureaus. The designs of tables made at that period chiefly consist of a large oval flanked at the four corners by corner patterns. These corners were filled in with flowers, black being the groundwork upon which the inlays were worked. The oystered veneers had already come into general use, the style being so denominated because cross-cut walnut or lignum vitae was used, giving the appearance of oyster shells. After the death of Queen Mary seaweed patterns took the place of the earlier types. Cross-banding, feather-edging and herring-boning were freely used, along with enclosed panels, and may often be seen on chests, bureaus, and the cases of grandfather clocks, many of which were completely covered with marqueterie work.

In connection with the change going on in marqueterie, it should be noted that at that time a great change was taking place in drawer handles large brass handles and handle - plates were being used instead of wood knobs or carved handles. It was at that time, too, that handle-plates, key escutcheons, and brass nails of large size were conspicuous in the decorations.

During the reign of Queen Anne there was a general disposition to make everything quite plain, and to avoid superfluous ornament. Marqueterie fell into disfavour, and was for a time discontinued. It was not until about 1765 that public taste changed once more, and with the change in design and style, largely under the inspiration of Adam and Sheraton, marqueterie was once more desired. The large and coarse marqueterie of earlier days was abandoned, and the new arrival was of quite a different type. The marqueterie then produced was used to decorate mahogany and satinwood furniture of the styles in vogue during the last half of the eighteenth century. Such inlays were mechanical in design and oft repeating. Some of those used by the Brothers Adam were, however, decorative in the extreme, and consisted of inlays of ebony, harewood, and kingwood, as well as holly, which was stained in a variety of colours. Later there came the painted inlays, and the use of delicate panels, on which were pictures by or after Cipriani and Angelica Kauffmann. Finally, under the inspiration of Sheraton there were the delightful ovals with beautifully inlaid shells so delicately shaded and realistically painted.

To go back for a moment to the reign of George I. the connoisseur is invited to examine the narrow herring-bone inlays which relieved the mahogany and walnut furniture of that day. That kind of ornament, which was more or less a success, continued right on until the close of the eighteenth century, and even early in the nineteenth century, as decorative borders or edgings. Marqueterie then fell into disuse, and was unknown as a practised craft during the greater part of the Victorian Age. In quite recent years reproductions of marqueterie have been made free use of in modern furniture, replicas of old styles ; and in order to cheapen the cost much machine work has been introduced.

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