Marquetry research, part 1

Lifelong Leeds resident Jack Metcalfe has, since taking early retirement, devoted his time to studying and learning the art of marquetry, the making of decorative images in wood veneers. This art, or craft, has been practiced for centuries, and is usually used to decorate and embellish furniture. Jack has achieved a high level of proficiency and is a published author. His book The Marquetry Course has sold well in Europe, and particularly in North America.
Since 2004 Jack has been getting his head around the marquetry that Thomas Chippendale decorated his furniture with. The trigger for this was the conservation treatments undertaken to the Harewood House writing table now in the collections at Temple Newsam House. During treatment, as various veneers had to be lifted for re-fixing, it became clear what the original colour scheme was. Holly, dyed greens, reds, purples, and its natural white, make up the vase and swags. The background uses the natural colours of Indian rosewood, tulipwood and satinwood. We mapped the colours.

Excited by the thought of the original polychrome appearance we did a little research into historic dyes, then dyed some holly to match the colours uncovered. For example, the greens are produced by an infusion of powdered Barberry bark and a pinch of turmeric (yellows), with vitriolated indigo (blue). It was possible to control the depth of green with the indigo. The purple of the vase, reminiscent of porphory, was successfully done with brazilwood dye. These dyes are plant derived. The scarlet red of historic textiles was often achieved with cochineal, derived from a species of Latin American beetle, with tin chloride as the mordant. We did the same and an amazing red resulted. With prolonged warm soaking the vital factor of full dye penetration was accomplished.

Jack then set to work making a copy of a door in what we are tolerably certain are the original colours, though perhaps not the original dyestuffs. The difference between new and old is amazing. The effects of oxidation, and bleaching from light and ultraviolet radiation have caused the colours to merge; light woods darken; dark woods and dyes fade, until everything is various shades of brown. I think sometimes it is difficult for us to comprehend how incredibly colourful some historic objects were; textiles and marquetry in particular. Jack gave a paper on this work and flew the flag for Temple Newsam at a marquetry conference in Sweden in May 2007, which also led to useful leads and contacts.

The next chapter of Jack’s quest gets more interesting as he digs deeper into Chippendale’s marquetry.

Posted by Ian Fraser

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