The origins of Marquetry at a glance
Marquetry is a word of French origin, which in theory refers to the finish given to pieces of wood, by covering them with sheets (veneers) or pieces of different woods for decorative purposes, which emerged in the mid-sixteenth century in Italy.
In Spanish, however, it is used to describe a group of ornamental techniques based on the assembly of coverings through a mixture of materials, which generate a powerful effect of contrast, both optical and haptic.
The origins of these techniques are unclear, however they can be traced back to artefacts from ancient Egypt, suggesting by their complexity that they were masterfully crafted from very remote times.
It is a versatile finish, and examples can be found on all kinds of artefacts, from furniture to weapons.
Marquetry is the art or technique of veneering or inlaying pieces of wood into a structure to form decorative patterns, designs or pictures. The technique can be applied to furniture, flooring, chairs, small hand-held objects or even panels.
Parquetry is very similar to marquetry, in fact they are techniques that complement each other very often. Both are traditional woodworking techniques, which evolved in France in the 17th century, with the decoration of furniture and floors in the Palace of Versailles being the greatest exponent.
Marquetry differs from inlaid wood, this being a very similar Castilian technique of carving and inlaying, although it is more disparate in the use of elements and not as focused on wood as marquetry.
A bit of History
The technique of veneer marquetry has its inspiration in 16th century Florence and Naples. Marble engraving techniques involving inlays of precious or semi-precious stones were developed. This technique, called “opere di commessi”, has its parallel in central Italy in the Middle Ages, called cosmati, with engraved work on marble floors, altars and columns. This technique is called “pietra dura”, because of the stones used, onyx, jape, cornelia, lapis lazuli and coloured marbles. The Medici Chapel in San Lorenzo, is completely covered in coloured marble using this laborious technique of fretwork sawing (true origin in the Muslim world. Recommended to look for other sources).
Wood marquetry techniques were developed in Antwerp and other Flemish centres of luxury, such as the creation of chests of drawers in the 16th century. This technique was intensively adopted in France after the first half of the 17th century, to create in the royal factory, furniture of a luxury not seen before, by Goelins, in charge of decorating the furniture of the Palace of Versailles and other royal residences of Louis XIV.
One of the first masters of marquetry was the Flemish Pierre Golle and his stepson, André-Charles Boulle, who founded a dynasty of royal craftsmen in “ebenistes” chests of drawers, giving their name to the technique of using tortoiseshell, bronze and tinplate in arabesque or intricate leaf-shaped patterns. Boulle marquetry fell out of use around 1720, but was revived in 1780. In the intervening decades, carefully cut quatrefoils of sheet metal and bronze were employed in various shapes and designs. Floral marquetry became popular in the 1750s, being employed by chest makers such as Bernard van Risenbergh, Jean-Pierre Latz and Simon-François Qeben.
The most famous maker of royal furniture with veneer marquetry was Jean Henri Riensener in 1770 and 1780. The “Bureau du Roi” was one of his most famous creations.
Marquetry was not a popular furniture design technique outside the major urban centres. It was first introduced at the London Furniture fair at the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, by Dutch printmakers, much influenced by Antwerp. Panels with elaborate boxed fretwork in the form of seaweed contrasting with walnut began to appear on tables, chests of drawers and grandfather clocks.
In the late 17th century, they arrived in England, but in the anti-French climate, with a taste for furniture inspired by Chinese techniques after 1720. Marquetry boomed again in London in the late 1760s as a vehicle for neoclassicism and a taste for Frenchness. Prominent London cabinetmakers of the period 1765-1790 included Thomas Chippendale, and lesser-known cabinetmakers such as John Linnell, the French craftsman Pierre Langloisy, and the firm of William Ince and John Mayhew.
The veneers or decorative elements are mainly of wood, although they may be of bone, ivory, tortoise shell, mother-of-pearl, or bronze. Coloured straws were used as a particular technique in European spas at the end of the 18th century. A large number of exotic woods can be used, even dyed to achieve more colours.
The simplest form of marquetry uses only two layers of different veneers, which are temporarily glued together and cut with a fine saw, producing two panels of the same design but contrasting colour ‘partie et contre-partie’ (part and counterpart).
Nowadays in marquetry, cutting knives are used, but as this is a time-consuming technique, many marqueters have switched to jigsaws or contour saws. Different glues and techniques are used to glue the pieces together, such as glue and board.
The finishing of the pieces requires different types of abrasives and varnishes to glue the pieces together. The technique of sand shading is also used, which gives the pieces a more three-dimensional finish. The pieces are dipped in hot sand for a few seconds before being incorporated into a tableau. Another process is to carve fine lines into the wood and fill them with dyes.
The creation of mosaics was developed in the Islamic world more than anywhere else, and great examples of such work come from Near Eastern countries such as Lebanon and Iran.
At Tonbridge and Royal Tunbridge Wells. were veneered with wooden mosaics, usually geometric patterns, but including motifs such as landscapes. They were formed by a laborious technique of assembling and gluing together thin contoured strips, which could be cut sideways to provide numerous mosaics of the same pattern.
Marquetry work also appeared in the creation of German chests of drawers in 1710. The artist and craftsman David Roentgen, Newuwied and Paris, left work unparalleled even among 18th century Parisian craftsmen.
While marquetry was not a trend in 18th century Italy, we find remarkable Neoclassical marquetry work by Giuseppe Maggiolini in Milan.
Classical 18th century illustrations were created by Roubo in the Encyclopédie des Arts et Métiers in 1770. The most notable example of marquetry in the 20th century was the Parisian Pierre Verlet.Ince and John Mayhew.