In the hands of skilled craftsmen, the unpromising
materials of waste paper and glue were fashioned into
useful and extraordinarily decorative objects.
Papier mache was a versatile material,
suitable for anything from penholders to chairs. The majority had a shiny black 'japanned'
finish that provided an ideal ground for flower painters. Daisies were a popular motif.
The literal translation of the French term papier mache is 'chewed paper'. This
wildly unromantic name is applied to some of the most beautifully decorated objects to come out of the
18th and 19th centuries.
Papier mache originated in Persia. The technique of moulding things from pulped waste paper mixed with glue spread to France in the early 18th century and finally reached Britain in the 1760s.
However, its full potential was not realized until an Englishman, Henry Clay, began experimenting with it.
In 1772, Clay patented a method of gluing together whole sheets of paper. This made moulding a much easier, neater operation.
Once the items were baked, they retained their shape remarkably well, and presented a surface smooth enough to allow a great
variety of decorative techniques.
WEALTH OF DECORATION
The most popular way of decorating papier mache' was japanning', a method of copying oriental lacquer work by clever use of paints and varnish. Clay was fond of this method, and so were his successors, Jennens and Bettridge, who took over his factory in 1816.
In 1825, Jennens and Bettridge patented a method of inlaying papier
mache with mother-of-pearl.
They also extended the range of products to include pieces of furniture, and became the largest producers of papier
mache in Victorian England.
Other decorative finishes included marbling, gilding and
applique work. Applique involved making a paper print of a design, then gluing it to the papier
mache and painting over it. Sometimes this was done with such great skill that it is impossible to tell that it was done at all.
The Victorians were not proud; they were happy to borrow decorative motifs from everywhere and every age. The
Elizabethans, Chinese, ancient Greeks and Moors, among others, all provided inspiration for
papier mache patterns and designs.
In 1860, Richard Brindley developed a method of making papier
mache that was quicker and cheaper than Clay's, and lent itself to mass production.
Other companies soon copied his lead, and while production increased, the product became heavier, rougher and more fragile.
The fine painting and inlay work that was so typical of Clay, Jennens and Bettridge and their peers gave way in large part to cheap, tawdry vulgarity. The great days of papier
mache ended when Jennens and Bettridge finally closed their factory in 1864. Little work of real quality was made after this date.
Large pieces of papier mache, such as pieces of furniture, were never cheap, and their fragility meant few survived.
Today they are pretty expensive, but small, everyday objects
- pill, snuff and powder boxes, ornamental plates and letter racks - are more affordable.
Papier mache with the decoration on a red, blue, green or yellow background is of greater
value than the more common black or orange.
Plain pieces from the early 19th century may be more valuable than the later,
elaborately decorated pieces.
It is very important to check the condition of any piece you are thinking of buying. The
surface should be smooth to the touch. Objects that have raised painting are best
avoided. Look out particularly for chips, cracks or damaged edges.
Painting and inlay should be of good quality. Some painting may have been restored. This is fine as long as it is well done; beware, however, of very bright colours, as this usually means the piece has been
revarnished, and this lowers the value. Bad paintings of seascapes or hunting or coaching
scenes in the middle of plain trays are hallmarks of 1930s fakes.
Mother-of pearl inlay was often made up of a mosaic of small chips; make sure there are none missing.
Check that the lids and bases of boxes belong together; it should
be possible to tell from the fit.
Good pieces may be stamped with the maker's name. Look out for Clay and Company,
Bettridge, B Walton and Co and Spiers and Son. An authentic stamp adds
greatly to the value of a piece.
Clay made a wide range of things but is most noted for his trays, which were often oval in shape. Earlier ones were painted all over with floral designs, but later, Clay restricted himself to decorating the borders.
Particularly desirable pieces will be lustrous and may have been painted by noted artists of the day. Naturalistic sprays of flowers were at the peak of perfection between 1830 and 1850.
William Jackson specialized in lilies of the valley, and David Sargent in ferns. The signature of either of these men, or that of Samuel Raven, will add greatly to the value of a piece.
Trays and table-tops may have good copies of old master paintings on them. If so, they were probably made before 1842.