9391 A RARE BLACK LACQUER PAPERWARE SIDE CABINET ATTRIBUTED TO HENRY CLAY English. First Quarter Of The Nineteenth Century. Measurements: Height: 36 1/2″ (92.5 cm) Width: 89″ (226 cm) Depth: 17″ (43 cm)
Of paperware, deal, and black lacquer with gilt brass mounts. The breakfront top with oriental scenes to the center inside a border of stylized foliate and patterned decoration, with shaped undermold above a frieze with foliate decoration raised on a conforming base with paired doors to the center of oriental lacquer decorated with oriental figures and scenery, opening to a shelved interior, flanked by two uprights, the sections to either side set with three shelves, the whole above a molded edge raised on six paw feet, the rear two replaced.
Collection of Valentino Garavani, 10 Egerton Crescent, London
This cabinet is one of the largest examples of Regency furniture to employ paperware as a principle material. In 1772, Henry Clay of Birmingham developed and patented an advanced formula for a “new Improved Paper-ware,” whereby sheets of paper were pasted together, varnished and stove-hardened. It was claimed that this new paperware could be “sawn, planed, dove-tailed or mitred in the same manner as if made in wood,”1 and its remarkable strength made it suitable even for the construction of furniture, sedan chairs, coaches and carriages.
In 1785 Clay moved his prosperous business to 18 King Street, Covent Garden, where he was patronized by notable aristocrats such as Horace Walpole and the Dukes of Bedford and Northumberland,2 as well King George III and the royal family. He claimed the title of “Japanner to His Majesty” in 1792, and by 1802 had added to his billhead the inscription “Japanner in ordinary to His Majesty and to His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales.” Clay’s prestigious and well-documented paperware production was to make him an extremely rich man, leaving a sum of £80,000 at his death in 1812, which was in the 19th century an unprecedented amount for a craftsman.
A similar lacquered paperware side cabinet by Clay, stamped three times: ‘CLAY/KING ST/ COVT GARDEN,’ can be seen in figure 1.3 Another related cabinet with an expansive scene of figures in a landscape, circa 1808, is illustrated in Clifford Musgrave’s Regency Furntiure 1800-1830, Fig. 24b (London: Faber and Faber Ltd. 1961) (figure 2.)
The English fashion for lacquer furniture was sparked by the trade between Europe and Asia in the 17th and 18th centuries, resulting in a cultural exchange, which stimulated European enthusiasm for Far Eastern decorative arts, particularly painted furniture using lacquering techniques, and European craftsmen began to develop a multitude of ways to emulate this work.
Books were published instructing the English in the art of “japanning” so that pieces could be made at home. In 1688 John Stalker and George Parker published their Treatise on Japanning and Varnishing, which provided detailed descriptions of lacquer recipes, processes, and designs. Furniture took contemporary British forms, but was decorated with distinctly Asian scenes of exotic animals and birds, flora, and landscapes. The English “worked hard to imitate the lustrous surface of Asian lacquerware, but the objects they created were distinctly European in character.”4 Japanned pieces were most often decorated with a black lacquer and decorated with raised and flat work often in the form of deities, pavilions, and fantastical creatures which were then gilded and detailed.
A revival in chinoiserie at the beginning of the 19th century renewed the interest in lacquered furniture, and “the greater part of the oriental lacquer bought in Regency days was Japanese.”5 The green and scarlet japanning that was popular in the late-17th and 18th centuries was replaced almost entirely by black lacquer,6 enhanced with shimmering metallic powder, gilded feet and gilded frames around the panels. By far the most notable of decorative schemes employing furniture in the chinoiserie taste was the Prince Regent’s Brighton Pavillion. Here, makers such as Frederick Crace and Bailey & Saunders were given free reign to create some of the most imaginative items ever to be made in the genre. The Prince Regent, as the tastemaker-in-chief to the British aristocracy, inspired many exotic rooms for the houses of the rich and noble, including the Earl of Jersey’s Middleton Park. The mania for chinoiserie and the exotic was a peculiarly English phenomenon in the early 19th century, as the fashion had given way to the archaeologically-driven “return to the antique” in the rest of Europe by the 18th century.
1. Beard, Geoffrey and Christopher Gilbert. Dictionary of English Furniture Makers 1660-1840. Leeds: W.S. Maney & Son Ltd. 1986. 176.
2. Gilbert, Christopher. Pictorial Dictionary of Marked London Furniture 1700-1840. Leeds: W.S. Maney & Son Ltd. 1996. 22.
3. Ibid., 141. Fig. 203.
4. Webb, Marianne. Lacquer, Technology and Conservation. Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann, 2000. 99.
5. Musgrave, Clifford. Regency Furniture 1800-1830. London: Faber and Faber, 1970. 132.
6. Ibid., 134.