We have the pleasure of collaborating with some of the finest British specialist craftspeople working with in some of the most beautiful disciplines. One of the most interesting decorative techniques that clients sometimes ask for is marquetry, a centuries-old, complex process of covering a surface or piece of furniture with thin layers of wood – or veneer – that are cut and pieced together to create intricate designs, patterns or pictures of contrasting colours and grains. The technique is traditionally used in cabinet making, although can also be used to decorate chairs, chess and games tables and even these days as wall art.
Marquetry is a centuries-old technique traditionally associated with cabinet making. (source: Wikicommons)
Marquetry is a close cousin to another technique called inlay, which involves overlaying materials such as veneer, ivory and brass onto a solid base. Like inlay, marquetry also uses other materials, including mother of pearl, pewter and tortoiseshell, and both techniques were inspired by the ancient craft of ‘intarsia’. Unlike another craft called parquetry, which typically involves creating geometric designs, marquetry work is often figurative. Tastes have changed over the centuries, but particularly popular forms include flowers, birds and landscapes.
Fish Tails Artwork - Designed & made by ACE Marquetry
Of course, humans have decorated furniture for thousands of years; the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun’s tomb was stuffed with objects covered in inlay, as well as precious gemstones, gold and ivory. And from the Roman Empire, to eighth-century Japan, to 16th century Germany, wealthy homeowners have long employed craftspeople to create stunning pieces of furniture. But it was in 13th century Italy that marquetry specifically was first developed by an order of Dominican monks known as the Olivetans, who decorated churches with biblical scenes, scrolls and flowers.
The history of marquetry
What we know as marquetry today, though, rose to popularity in the 16th century thanks to the Flemish centres of master cabinet making, such as Antwerp. The discipline spread across Europe, reaching France in the mid-17th century, where André-Charles Boulle – one of the country’s most esteemed cabinet makers, or ébénistes, taken from the word ebony – became a distinguished marquetry artist, alongside J.F. Deben, J. Henry Reisner and David Roentgen. All were favoured by French royalty, but it was Boulle who would give his name to a specific style of marquetry still used today, which uses metal, wood, or tortoiseshell together to create arabesques and intricate leaf motifs.
A casket by Andre Boulle. Even today, his name is associated with his own, instantly recognisable style of ornate marquetry. (source: Wikicommons)
By the age of 30, Boulle had been given lodgings in the galleries of the Louvre, reserved for Louis XIV’s most favoured artists. The royal decree described Boulle as a chaser, gilder and maker of marquetry and he received the esteemed post of premier ébéniste du roi (premiere cabinet maker to the king).
Louis XIV was such a fan of this craft that, in around 1743, he formed the Marqueters Guild, providing workshops where apprentices worked for six years before taking their exams. It was here that a tool named the ‘donkey’ was developed, which allowed marqueters to cut multiple pieces of veneer in one go. The donkey was still being used in the 20th century by famous marqueters such as George Dunn, whose work can be seen in Buckingham Palace.
Marquetry donkeys, first invented in the 18th century, are still used by masters of the craft today. (source: Wikicommons)
Marquetry arrived in England in the late 17th century, following the death of Oliver Cromwell and the restoration of the crown. Charles II returned from exile in 1660, bringing with him a group of Huguenot and Dutch master craftsmen, skilled in the art of marquetry. After Cromwell’s austerity, Charles’s reign ushered in a new era of elaborate furniture making. Demand for ornate designs and luxury materials exploded, while increasing trade with the New World introduced new types of wood, such as ebony and rosewood.
But it was under William and Mary – who ruled between 1689 and 1702 – that marquetry flourished, alongside walnut as the prime choice for furniture making (until now oak had been the British choice of furniture makers). During this period, floral and leaf motifs, such as carnations, peonies and acanthus leaves, were particularly popular. These gave way to a more swirling arabesque style – also known as seaweed marquetry – in the 18th century, although flowers and foliage regained popularity in the Victorian era.
In the 20th century marquetry became particularly fashionable as a decorative feature on luxury ocean liners – and is still popular today with yacht designers. It was also a popular choice in steam train design, with British firm A. Dunn & Son commissioned to restore and remake marquetry panelling for the new Orient Express trains.
Web & Insects Artwork - Designed & made by ACE Marquetry
Originally hand cut by fret saw, knife, scalpel or guillotine and using exotic materials, marquetry is traditionally an expensive, time-consuming craft that involves multiple stages, from drawing the design out onto card and pricking and carving the veneers, to fitting the pieces together, one at a time, before scraping, rubbing down, waxing and polishing the surface. As technology progressed over the years, artisans were able to speed up the process, with tools such as the jigsaw blade and scroll saws introducing the opportunity for mass production.
All sorts of veneers can be used in marquetry and a key part of the skill comes from working with the different textures, colours and grains of the natural wood to create the beautiful designs. Indeed, many marquetry artists will tell you that they work with wood in much the same way that an artist works with paints. Colour can also be introduced by dyeing some of the veneers, with blonde sycamore being the most suitable.
Marquetry craftsmen work with wood in much the same way that artists work with paints. (source: Wikicommons, copyright: Thomas Quine)
“This is painstaking work,” says DAVIDSON founder Richard Davidson. “all done by hand, traditionally. The different effects that you can create are remarkable. For instance, an artisan might cut a leaf and then dip it in very hot sand so as to singe the wood and to give the effect of shading. They might also engrave or scratch the surface so that the leaves look like they have veins.”
Technology has moved on again and, increasingly, CAD and laser technology is now used to create the design and then cut the veneer to very precise specifications. “Some people feel that it lacks soul,” says Richard, “but I do think it’s helping to protect this ancient craft. Besides, clients love the accuracy and the intricacy of the designs that you can create that simply wouldn’t be possible by hand. It’s a beautiful craft and one we’re proud to support when our clients ask us for it.”
If you’re looking for bespoke furniture that celebrates the best of British craftsmanship, get in touch to make an enquiry or an appointment with the DAVIDSON team. We look forward to hearing from you.