Marquetry is the process of making decorative designs using various wood veneers of contrasting colours and grain patterns. Unlike parquetry, which relies on using wood to make geometric designs, marquetry utilises a more figurative approach, creating often complex designs with flowers, foliage, birds, figures, and landscapes.
Intarsia, a precursor of marquetry inlay, flourished in Italy as early as the 16th century. One of the best surviving examples exists in the studio of the Ducal Palace in Urbino; the walls lined with intricate mosaic patterns and trompe l’oeil motifs characterise this early Italian technique. As it developed further, other materials were incorporated into designs, including mother-of-pearl, tortoiseshell and ivory.
In England, during the Commonwealth period of the mid-17th century, furniture designs were much simpler; plainly carved oak panels were favoured over elaborate decoration. Under Oliver Cromwell, furniture reflected the overall sense of austerity experienced across Britain. Post-Cromwell, an exciting shift in cabinet-making occurred, as the pent-up demand for ornate designs and luxurious materials emerged, flourishing during the Baroque era. Expanding trade with the New World introduced exotic species of wood such as ebony, kingwood, rosewood, and satinwood. Charles II, on his return to England in 1660, brought with him a number of skilled Huguenot and Dutch craftsmen who popularised marquetry in English furniture design. In France, the undisputed master was André-Charles Boulle, ebeniste du roi to King Louis XIV.
Boulle’s Dutch contemporary, Jan van Mekeren, specialised in floral marquetry. Inspired by Dutch still-life paintings, his marquetry designs are far more fluid in execution. The elegance and sophistication of his forms mirrored the opulence and grandeur of the late 17th century, subsequently influencing the designs of English cabinet makers.
The process involved is time-consuming and complicated. Only skilled craftsmen were able to create the most intricate designs that characterise the technique. Initially, patterns are drawn on card and then finely and carefully pricked onto the desired veneers, before being cut out to create the interlocking patterns. Walnut was commonly used as the ground material, being a local and readily available wood, while contrasting coloured imported woods were used sparingly to add a sense of sophistication to the overall aesthetic. While the most common type of furniture to feature inlaid decoration were cabinets, tables and chests of drawers, marquetry was incorporated into a diverse range of pieces and can be found embellishing the surfaces of a wide range of furniture and works of art.
Made for the most fashionable members of population, marquetry was especially in vogue during the reign of William and Mary. Floral and foliate designs tended to dominate, with carnations, peonies and acanthus leaves featuring prominently. In the 18th century more elaborate and complex patterns developed as designers became more innovative. ‘Seaweed’ or ‘arabasque’ marquetry, a tight design of swirling, frilled and scrolling foliage, was particularly popular at the beginning of the 18th century.
Marquetry furniture enjoyed a revival in the 19th century, particularly during the Victorian period. The rich naturalistic arrangement of flowers, c-scrolls and swirling foliage produces a fluid and elegant aesthetic: directly appealing to the highly decorative Victorian taste. Forthcoming in our next Fine Furniture & Works of Art auction is a beautiful selection of furniture which illustrates the quality and sophistication of marquetry design in Europe, discover more in the link below.