The Wonder of Wood

Decorative Inlay and Marquetry in Europe and America, 1600–1900, April 26-28, 2022, Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library and Philadelphia Museum of Art (USA)

Nele Lüttmann


Welcome and introduction by Chris Strand, Charles F. Montgomery Director and CEO, Winterthur. © CRAFTVALUE

For a long time, decorative inlay and marquetry have provoked wonder, delight, and even astonishment. The two techniques involve skilled craftsmen attaching small pieces of different types of wood to create images or patterns on certain elements of interior ornamentation, like furniture or flooring. Inlay and marquetry designs already occurred in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome; during the Renaissance, they were revived and have continued to flourish ever since. Over the centuries, the intricacy of the patterns has diversified considerably, from simple bands in contrasting colours to spectacular trompe-l’oeil designs featuring flowers and figures, and many other forms of ornamentation.

Name badge for the conference. © CRAFTVALUE

In April of this year Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library and the Philadelphia Museum of Art convened a “once in a lifetime” conference on this topic, an event I was able to attend through a generous travel scholarship from Forbes and Sara Maner and other kind sponsors. This was the first conference to address both European and American marquetry and inlay traditions. During a three-day, excellently organised programme, curators, conservators, historians, artists, and craftsmen from the USA and Europe delivered presentations, shared their knowledge, and gave important insight into their practical work.

Yannick Chastanang, Independent Furniture Conservator and Designer, Kent (UK), demonstrating marquetry techniques. © CRAFTVALUE

The schedule also included some lectures with practical elements: live on-stage demonstrations of various inlay and marquetry techniques, which were broadcasted by camera and shown on a large screen. Yannick Chastang’s two presentations “Boullework” and “European Marquetry in the Second Half of the 18th Century”, for example, gave an overview on materials and techniques of French and English marquetry from the end of the seventeenth century until the second half of the eighteenth century. Those craft demonstrations were immensely valuable in that they were a break away from theory towards practice, providing the opportunity to directly witness and understand the practical processes.

Video assist demonstration by Steve Latta, professor at the Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology, Lancaster (USA), during his paper “Demystifying the ‘Art and Mystery’ of Inlay: Surface Ornamentation during the Federal Period.” © CRAFTVALUE

Of the 23 papers, I have chosen to focus on those of particular interest to my research and to the CRAFTVAULE project.

Cabinet, 1690-94, attributed to Gerrit Jensen, ebony, satinwood, walnut, rosewood, gilt metal, 85.5 x 86.6 x 60.3 cm, Royal Collection Trust.

“The Marquetry of Gerrit Jensen” by Dr. Adam Bowett, Independent Furniture Historian and Chairman of the Chippendale Society Ripon (UK) introduced the Dutch marqueter Gerrit Jensen (active1634/5-1715), who was – among others – cabinet maker to William III and Queen Anne. Jensen’s marquetry techniques and styles associated with his work were discussed as well as questions of attribution and the potential role of immigrant marqueters in Jensen’s output. Given that my own research involves an immigrant cabinet maker active in early eighteenth-century London, who might have been a marqueter himself1, this talk was extremely instructive. Moreover, it also became clear, that marqueters not only designed furniture but also marquetry floors, e.g., at Burghley House, Lincolnshire. This is also relates directly to my thesis, in the elaborate parquetry floors of Richard Castle’s Irish interiors (cf. my previous blog “Tread softly….”). Did he have a background as marqueter, too, or did he have marqueters from the Dutch Republic or Germany work for him?

“Drawings for Parisian Marquetry of the Mid-Eighteenth Century” by Dr. Reinier Baarsen, Senior Curator of Furniture at the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, was another fascinating talk. Baarsen showed drawings for late Rococo Parisian marquetry furniture that had recently been acquired by the Rijksmuseum and signed “Baijer”. The identity of the draughtsman remains unknown so far. He could be a relative of the cabinet maker François Bayer. Interestingly, Baijer’s drawing style follows the German tradition of the Meisterrisse, which might suggest a German background. The paper also generally raised questions about draughting and marquetry designs. Was every marqueter also able to draw? Which types of furniture producers could also draw? These are questions I am also exploring in the scope of my thesis. I have discovered that the training of cabinet makers in the eighteenth century entailed intensive drawing lessons (cf. my previous blog “Architecture in Wood”). Highly relevant is the fact, that marqueters (ébénistes in French) did not become members of a guild, which means that many of them remained in a lower category than cabinet makers (François Bayer for example went bankrupt) and therefore are unknown to us today. This may explain why some craftsmen do not appear in the guild records.

Two drawings of marquetry furniture, c. 1760-65, J. L. (?) Baijer, pen, brush and graphite on paper, 18.3 x 29.2 cm (left), 20.0 x 30.8 cm (right), Rijksmuseum.

“Observations on the Furniture Attributed to Jean Henri Riesener” by Jürgen Huber, Senior Furniture Conservator at The Wallace Collection, London (UK), was also inspiring. Huber reported on his detailed exploration of more than 50 pieces of furniture attributed to the famous furniture maker Jean-Henri Riesener (1734-1806) within the five-year research project “The Riesener Project”. Particularly insightful were the digital deconstructions. The Riesener furniture examined during the project was documented digitally and presented using the interactive platform Sketchfab. The 3D models show, for example, how the body of the furniture is constructed, the number of pieces of wood veneer, and the different states of the marquetry (today and at the time of delivery to Marie-Antoinette in 1780). Given that at CRAFTVALUE we also generate digital models (cf. Andrew Tierney’s blog “The Staircase at Damer House”), it is interesting to see how techniques and platforms are used by other research projects.

3D model of Jean-Henri Riesener’s chest of drawers, 1782, The Wallace Collection (F248).

As if that was not enough, the conference programme also included a trip to the Philadelphia Museum of Art on the second day. We were the only visitors there and were allowed to spend one half day there, taking a first-hand look at some of the pieces of furniture that had previously been discussed.

Chamber or Dressing Table, 1705-1720, American, walnut, cedar, tulip poplar, white cedar, yellow pine, brass, 75.6 × 84.8 × 51.1 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Furthermore, we were given access to the exhibitions of Winterthur Museum, which are dedicated to American history, craft, design, and preservation.

Exhibition display of Winterthur Museum’s “With Hammer in Hand. A Story of American Craft.” The image on the right shows a view into the late eighteenth-century American woodworking workshop of the Dominy family of craftsmen. © CRAFTVALUE

On the final day we were taken on a tour of Winterthur House – the former home of Henry Francis du Pont – with its collection of more than 90,000 objets d’art and impressive interiors and had the pleasure of exploring Winterthur Garden, a vast and beautiful garden bursting with spring flowers and nestled amidst picturesque meadows, woods, and waterways.

The grounds of Winterthur Garden. © CRAFTVALUE

Finally, I would like to express my deepest gratitude to the sponsors, who made it possible for me and 23 other scholarship holders to participate in this conference. I would also like to direct my warmest thanks to the conference organisers, who succeeded in putting together three fantastic days packed with interesting content. And last but not least, I extend my deep gratitude to the team around Lois Stoehr, who took care of us European scholarship recipients from our arrival to departure.

The European Scholarship Recipients: Philip Ross-Burrows, Kirsten Friese, Nele Lüttmann, Amy Lim, Antonia Gerstner, and Lindsay Macnaughton (L-R). Photo: James Kelleher.

Further Reading

Anderson, Jennifer L. Mahogany: The Costs of Luxury in Early America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012.

Bowett, Adam. Woods in British furniture-making 1400 – 1900: an illustrated historical dictionary. Wetherby: Oblong Creative, 2012.

Brunne, Ulf, ed. Marquetry Past and Present. 2nd Scandinavian Symposium on Furniture Technology and Design. Vadstena: n.p., 2007.

Chastang, Yannick. Paintings in Wood: French Marquetry Furniture. London: The Wallace Collection, 2001.

Jacobsen Helen, Rufus Bird, and Mia Jackson, eds. Jean-Henri Riesener, Cabinetmaker to Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. London: Philip Wilson Publishers, 2020.

Kopf, Silas. A Marquetry Odyssey: Historical Objects and Personal Work. Manchester, VT, and New York: Hudson Hill Press, 2008.

Lincoln, William Alexander. The Art and Practice of Marquetry. London: Thames and Hudson, 1971.

Ramond, Piere. Masterpieces of Marquetry. 3 vols. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2000.

Williams, Donald C., Michele Pietryka-Pagán, and Philippe Lafargue. To Make as Perfectly as Possible: Roubo on Marquetry. Fort Mitchell, KY: Lost Art Press, 2013.

1 Johann Gottlieb Borlach is referred to as model cabinet maker or pattern cabinet maker (German Modelltischler) in the guild records. Does this mean that he was actually a marqueter? A remark in a contemporary book could confirm this suggestion. Here reference is made to “Borlach, célèbre Ébéniste à Dresde, se fit une grande réputation par de beaux modèles de sa façon”. Cf. Jean Auguste Lehninger, Description de la ville de Dresde, de ce qu’elle contient de plus remarquable et de ses environs (Dresden: Walther, 1782), 130.

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