The Fabric of Furniture

In this August issue, Bearne's compares the quality of modern-day and antique marquetry pieces.

Richard Bearne of Bearne's compares the quality of modern-day and antique marquetry pieces

On a recent holiday trip to the beautiful Amalfi coast of Italy, one of the tours in Sorrento was to a factory and shop specialising in the long-established local tradition of marquetry inlay. This factory produces everything from small decorative boxes (on sale in every single tourist shop in the area) to large, important-looking cabinets, clocks and games boards. Despite the fact that the craftsmen producing these pieces clearly take a great deal of pride in their work, I could not help noticing a difference in the quality, when compared with the antique marquetry pieces I have seen and even older traditional 'Sorrento ware', which turns up in our saleroom from time to time.

A degree of modernisation in production processes has come into play certainly. Our guide proudly boasted about the layers of lacquering, which make the furniture resistant to damage from water and heat - but which also give the pieces a garish, high-shine finish that disguises any traces of the craftsmanship that might have been involved in the manufacture.

Even beyond this, the quality of carving and the skill with which the work is executed does not compare favourably with the work of craftsmen past. Another great industry of the area is the production of cameos and conch-shell carving. The examples I saw of this art seemed of disappointingly low quality compared to their 19th-century equivalents.

Please do not think that the purpose of this article is to criticise the noble tradespeople of southern Italy. My disappointment lies rather with the modern age and the increasing mechanisation, begun in the 19th century, which has affected all areas of the creative arts ever since. Of course, along with the highest-quality craftsmanship, we have also dispensed with slave labour and huge inequalities in society that permitted the time and effort to be put into these works. At least we have in the western world, which must be a good thing. So I seek solace in the world of antiques I inhabit.

Moving from Italy to the Low Countries, some of the most commonly found and popular marquetry is that on Dutch furniture of the 18th and 19th centuries. Since the time of William and Mary there was always a crossover of cabinet-making talent between Holland, England and Flanders. There is a style of heavily carved and darkly stained oak furniture known as 'Anglo-Flemish', which gained some popularity in the 19th century though it has rather lost it now, and there still seems to be some uncertainty as to where it was made.

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Much later 17th-century English furniture, with its rich walnut hue, use of inlays and shaped design, owes more than a nod to Dutch furniture of the same period. The use of decorative inlay in England is notable on Sheraton furniture of the early 19th century (and, of course, its Edwardian revival), but this is very different to its Dutch equivalent.

Before the smaller, more commonplace pieces of furniture appeared, there was a taste in the wealthier Dutch homes for splendid cabinets or 'Kas'. Generally made of walnut and ebony and often inlaid with ivory, they were the proud centrepieces of the home, but they gradually gave way to the practical items that we are more familiar with today - bureaux, chests of drawers and armoires, for example.

Walnut was the leading cabinet wood in Holland in the 18th century, and the standard shapes of Dutch furniture make it easy to identify. Bombe commodes with their distinctive shaped corners were popular, as were display cabinets or bookcases with arch-shaped tops, also dining chairs very similar to those produced in England in the Queen Anne style, except often with more shaped outlines.

It is an increasingly accepted theory that the Dutch went through a very similar phase to the English during the 19th century, decorating antique pieces in the contemporary taste, with significant additions of carving or inlay. It is, therefore, now believed that virtually all the floral marquetry to be found on 18th- and early 19th-century Dutch furniture was added later. This does seem surprising since there is so much of it, but there are many examples where this is clearly the case and these instances cast doubt on many of the others.

And this, I suppose, takes me back to Sorrento in 2008. Much antique Continental furniture is valued for its decorative value, but does not have the quality of construction of English furniture of the same period. This is especially the case with some Dutch pieces. Equally the marquetry inlay is of varying quality, some of it not bearing too close an inspection. Despite this, the colour and charm of these pieces means there is always a market for them. The craftsmen who added the marquetry knew what would sell and this still holds good today.

So, who am I to criticise the inlaid woodwork of Sorrento in the 21st century? It's decorative, useful, popular and pretty much dishwasher-proof.