Life at № 42 by E.M. Coutinho
“This striking bureau cabinet, decorated with chinoiserie scenes imitating Oriental lacquer, takes its inspiration from the form of early 18th century Anglo-Dutch examples, which quickly took root as important pieces of furniture in the grand palaces of the Venetian aristocracy and rising merchant class.
The demand for Oriental lacquer far outstripped supply and soon European cabinet-makers started to produce their own imitations of Chinese and Japanese lacquer. From the 16th century, lacquerware inspired by Oriental models was produced in Venice and the taste for lacquer furniture reached its zenith in the 18th century, with Venice being pre-eminent in its production.”
Isn’t that magnificent? I’m a huge fan of Italian painted furniture. The North produced really glorious, interesting and whimsical pieces. Over the weekend I’ll be posting pictures of a really charming Venetian console table done in the same technique which is often referred to as lacca povera or arte povera. Technically that only referred to pieces where prints were applied to wood furniture, then gilt or painted, then varnished repeatedly (until it looked like lacquer) – but the term is now a catch-all that refers to anything resembling lacquer-ware which was made in Northern Italy. The prices these pieces command at auction are partly their rarity, and partly the finesse of the combination of gilding with a masterful use of colour.
The Italians (like the Spanish and Portuguese) were rather magnificent at gilding. The process whereby real metal leaf is applied to furniture using an adhesive base (rabbit skin glue for the good stuff.) This creates a wonderful reflective surface. When you look at gold metal, you think you’re seeing gold, but in reality you’re seeing a whole range of other colours reflected in the metal, all bathing in a golden glow. People have attempted to reproduce that effect in modern times, but have consistently failed. In the Belle Epoque era they came up with the idea of mixing aluminium particles with paint, a precursor to the more recent version of metal particles in resin/varnish. The result comes nowhere close to gilding because the visual effect of the real thing is metallic shine whereas paints and varnishes are read by the eye as a single, solid colour. Not to mention the fact that real gold is stable. Like real platinum it doesn’t tarnish which means you don’t need to dull the metallic shine with varnishes or waxes.
When you combine the reflective metal effect with a good colour, you end up with something almost magical.