WHEN Captain Basil Hall had finished one of his agreeable budgets of naval and miscellaneous gossip, he sought for a name which should indicate a collection of odds and ends, of fragments, of random sketches, and anecdotes, of bits picked up hither and thither. He thought of “Breccia,” because geologists tell us that breccia is a collection of bits and fragments; he thought of “Conglomerate,” because this implies something akin to breccia, but both appeared to be too learned; and then he thought of “Pudding-stone,” but this sounds too much like making fun; and at last he decided on “Patchwork,” because it is a good old English household word, exactly indicating a production made up of shreds and patches. Now, there are many kinds of artistic productions which we feel disposed to call patchwork, for a like reason: marquetry-patchwork, parquetry-patchwork, buhl-patchwork, niello-patchwork, damascene-patchwork, enamel-patchwork; and we can assure any person who has not duly thought on the matter, that these various kinds of patchwork often call forth considerable grace, taste, and delicate art. Of the “little bits” which compose mosaic-patchwork, we discoursed in our seventh volume, and have naught to do with them here.
A scrap of French will show us the meaning of the word marquetry. The verb marqueter means “to inlay,” and thus marquetry and inlaying are one and the same thing. But then it is understood that wood, and wood only is the material of the pieces employed; if they be aught else, it becomes mosaic, or pietra-dura, or buhl, or niello, or damasquinerie. The pieces are usually very thin, so as to be applied as a veneer to a foundation of coarser material; and they are generally of different colours, that their juxtaposition may produce graceful and harmonious designs. Some of the early nations practiced the marquetry art; but it was not until the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries that it became a favourite and recognized kind of adornment. The ruder specimens were simply checquers or unmeaning designs of black and white wood; but one John of Verona found out the way to stain his little pieces of wood, and to shape and adjust them so as to produce pictures. The next generation of marquetriers had the advantage of employing some of the beautifully coloured woods procured from America,; they also devised a peculiar mode of burning or scorching the surface without consuming the wood, by means of hot sand, and thus obtained the power of producing variations in light and shade.
It is a pretty art, this: midway between an artist’s work and a workman’s work. The design, having been first drawn on paper and properly coloured, is pricked with a fine needle, and through the perforations a little pounce is passed upon the coloured wood beneath, which thus becomes marked with an outline of the design. These outlines are then carefully cut. Supposing for the sake of illustration, that the marquetry consists of a pattern in light wood inlaid in a general surface of dark wood; in such a case the two pieces of wood are cut together, with the same application of the saw; and thus the piece cut out of the light wood corresponds exactly in shape and size with the opening left in the dark wood, so as to fit into it accurately. In the earlier work, the wood was cut by hand, the thin pieces of wood being held in a vice, and the saw held horizontally; but in our own day the pieces are cut with great rapidity and exactness by a fine saw made from a piece of watch-spring, and worked vertically by a treadle. When the marquetrier rises to the dignity of an artist, and produces wood pictures instead of unmeaning patterns, then his labour is frequently called tarsia-work, and he has much ado to procure fragments of wood suitable in colour to his wants. If he stain them, the stain may fade; and hence he loves rather to use wood in the natural colour than in a stained state, if he can obtain sufficient variety.
M. Cremer, an ébéniste or marquetrier of Paris, has lately produced some beautiful work in which the pieces of wood were previously stained by the method of Dr. Boucherie. This method is exceedingly remarkable, and bids fair to give rise to many novelties, and perhaps beauties in the colour of organized substances. It depends upon the absorption of saline and other solutions by trees. He arrived, after many experiments, at a conclusion that it is far easier to impregnate wood with any desired solution when the plant is still full of its own natural juices, than when the vessels of the felled tree have begun to contract, and a considerable portion of the natural humidity of the wood to have evaporated. He tried at first to impregnate the wood of a tree while still in a growing state, causing it to suck up various solutions by the absorbing power of the leaves. This plan, through various practical difficulties, he abandoned; and he then adopted a cheap, simple and effective process for impregnating the felled timber with liquid. He cuts the trunk of a newly-felled tree into convenient pieces; he adopts some mode of hollowing the wood near the centre, and introduces the liquid into the hollow; he employs great pressure, sufficient to drive the liquid into all the pores of the wood. If he would simply preserve the wood from dry rot, he employs a solution of sulphate of copper; if he would harden the wood, he selects a solution of pyrolignite of iron; if he would increase its flexibility, elasticity, and incombustibility, he employs a solution of chloride of calcium; if he would impart to it any desired colour, he employs a coloured solution; and thus he acquires a mastery over the wood, rendering it obedient to his behests.
What untiring patience many of these workers in little bits of wood exhibit! Let us call to mind some of the productions which all the world went to see in Hyde Park. Here is M. Bisso’s table from Genoa, on the top of which are the twelve signs of the zodiac, and a flaming Sol riding in a flaming chariot, all made of bits of wood. Here is M. Magni’s table, also from Genoa, and also glorying in the twelve signs of the zodiac. Here is an ambitious table by M. Claudo of Nice, in which the battles of the Nile, Trafalgar, Waterloo, and Moodkee are represented in marquetry, the coloured pieces of wood having been skillfully shaded by the scorching action of hot sand. Here is the sumptuous pianoforte by Messrs. Broadwood, with its delicate and graceful ornamentation in parquetry (if our memory serve us, this noble instrument as since been presented by the makers to the Royal Academy of Music). Here is the octagonal library-table, composed of fourteen thousand separate pieces of wood. But greatest and most marvelous, here is the Spanish table, with a magnifying glass suspended in front, and a crowd of persons waiting their turn to examine the mosaic wood-work through this optical medium; for the pieces are so small, and the pattern so delicate, that they can scarcely be appreciated by the naked eye. M. Parez of Barcelona, the maker, says that eh table-top contains three million separate and distinct little bits of wood. We have not heard of any visitor having stayed to count them.
Because parquetry rhymes with marquetry, it does not necessarily follow that parquetry and marquetry are twin children. It does nevertheless happen that the one, like the other, is a kind of inlay or wood-mosaic; parquetry being more usually applied to floors, and marquetry to ornamental furniture. Generally speaking, parquetry is in two colours only, and the devices are geometrical patterns rather than pictures. Some of the parquetry produced on the continent is very beautiful. Carpets are not used there so much as with us, and hence there is a motive for making the floor as attractive as possible. Some of the more costly specimens are composed of oak satinwood, mahogany, and rosewood; but the average examples have two kinds only; and a delicate damask-like effect is occasionally produced by one single kind of wood alone – the direction of the grain in the inlay being different from that in the ground.
Patchwork may consist of bits of wood combined with bits of other substances, as well as of wood alone. And bits of cardboard may in like manner be built up piecemeal. We know a young amateur who, in moments of leisure, has built up a model of Westminster Abbey with more than ten thousand little bits of cardboard and wood; and every boy who has a sixpenny pocketknife is familiar with some or other kind of whittling, connected more or less with some ingenious scheme or other of wooden patchwork. There is, however, one recognized art, in which little bits of metal are interspersed with bits of wood in such form as to produce a very pleasant patchwork, applicable to costly articles of furniture. We are speaking of buhl-work.
Her Majesty possesses one of the earliest and finest specimens of buhl-work, in a writing-table which was exhibited at Gore House a year or so ago. André Charles Buhl, or Boule, was a famous manufacturer of “meubles d’art” during the reign of Louis the Fourteenth; he held the office of “tapissier en titre du Roi;” an office which would seem to have been honorary rather than practical, for it had been previously held by the celebrated Molière, whom we are in the habit of regarding much more as a poet than as a tapissier or upholsterer. Be this as it may, Buhl was really a cabinet-maker, and invented that style of inlaid work which is known by his name. A large manufactory was carried on for many years by himself and others of his family; indeed, it is supposed that the greater part of the fine early specimens were produced by him or his relations. Many of the cabinets and other articles of furniture made by Buhl were designed by Berain, “dessinateur de menusplaisirs du Roi.” In the Queen’s writing-table, mentioned above, the buhl-work is exceedingly beautiful; the play of the surface, and the variety of curvature in different parts of the work, are admirably adapted to show off the advantage the rich materials employed; these materials being silver, brass, copper, tortoiseshell and enamel. It need hardly be said that great delicacy and care are required in cutting the little grooves into which the filaments of metal are introduced, and in inserting those filaments so exactly as to fill all the cavities, and yet to leave no protuberances above the general level of the wood.
A very pretty patchwork is produced by that called damascene, in which the right trusty artistic metal-workers of past days produced fine results. This art consists in expressing on the surface of one metal, a picture or design by means of anther metal, incrusted in the former. In the middle ages, it was much practiced at Damascus, whence its name; and it was introduced into Europe from the Levant. The incrustation was silver on gold, gold on silver, silver or gold on iron, silver or gold on copper – indeed, almost any two metals would suffice; and if more than two were employed, the work produced might still be damascene. The damascenists went to work in different ways, according to the qualities of the metals which they had selected. Sometimes, when the metal to be damascened was hard, its surface was wrought into fine lines crossing each other; the design was cut into this crossed surface; the metal inlay, in fine wire or thread, was laid upon the incisions, and forced into them by strong pressure or by blows with a hammer; and the entire work was finally burnished, by which the cross-lines left uncovered by the incrustation were erased, and a fine polish given to the surface. Sometimes, as a means of causing the incrustation to adhere well in the incisions, the latter were preciously hatched or cross-lined, but the remainder of the plate left plain. Sometimes the incrustation was left in relief; when the incrusting metal was soft and ductile, the design or pattern was incised in outline, and the body of the design was left of a level with the general surface of the plate; a thin piece of the ductile metal was then laid upon the design, and fixed by the insertion of its edges into the incised or engraved lines; the incrustation itself was afterwards occasionally engraved or pounced. Sometimes the damascenists practiced a kind of “picqué” work, in which a pattern or ornamentation is produced by means of small pins or studs. By one or other of these various kinds of damascening were produced ornamented swords and sword-hilts, etuis, boxes and caskets, inkstands, shields, tankards, basins, candlesticks, and other objects. But the most glorious work in this art is the famous shield by Benvenuto Cellini. It was presented by Francis the First to Henry the Eighth, and is now the property of Queen Victoria. The shield is made of embossed steel, damascened with gold and silver; and any one who would see what can be effected in this art should forthwith go to Marlborough House, wherein, in a gracious and liberal spirit, which is fully appreciated by all lovers of art, this and other artistic productions of great value have been placed for public exhibition by the Queen. The shield has represented upon it, in compartments separated by terminal figures, scenes from the history of Julius Caesar, each consisting of numerous and very highly-finished figures in relief. The damascene is almost as extraordinary as the embossing and chasing; for it is in this kind of work that is executed in inscription running round the edge. The inscription comprises twelve Latin lines, containing sixty-eight words, or nearly four hundred letters; and when it is considered that every one of these letters is formed by hammering a bit of gold wire into a little cavity cut or engraved in hard steel, it will be seen what patient patchwork this damascening must have been.
What the Cellinis of past days could do, those of the present day certainly ought to be able to accomplish, if the art-question and the money-question could be brought to bear upon the subject at the same time. One M. Falloise, and artist-worker of Liége, is in the habit of producing ornamental articles in wrought iron, damascened in silver by a process differing somewhat from those of the mediaeval artists. The indentations for receiving the incrustation are cut with a chisel and hammer, and are made with inclined sides, so as to give greater power and boldness of relief in different parts. M. Falloise has produced bracelets, cups, vases, chalices, and other articles, made of steel, iron, or copper, damascened in gold or silver with graceful designs of birds, flowers, foliage, bassi-relievi, and arabesques. There was a kind of damascening formerly practiced at Damascus, on the sword-blades, which have been so renowned for their excellence, somewhat different from that above noticed; but it belonged to the same family of arts, in so far as it was an incrusting of one metal in or on another.
There was a famous kind of patchwork practiced by the Italians in past years, and carried by them to a high degree of excellence, which is very little known in our own day, although some artists are resolutely seeking to revive it. This art is called niello-work. The chief agent employed was a mixture of silver, lead, and sulphur, with or without copper; and as the sulphur had the effect of blackening the other ingredients, the mixture was called ingellum, and afterwards niello. This kind of metal-work was noticed by the mediaeval writers from the seventh to the thirteenth centuries, and it was evidently an object of much attention. The art is, in fact, like damascene, an incrusting of one metal with another. The article intended to be thus incrusted, usually made of gold, or silver, or copper, had incised upon it the required design, into which niello was inlaid in small grains; this niello, after being fused by the action of fire, was polished. Originally the incisions or channels in the metal were cut broadly, and of an equable depth; giving to the entire work, after the introduction of the niello, the appearance of a rude picture, the outlines of which were formed sometimes by the metal and sometimes by the niello. But in a later and improved mode of practicing the art, the designs on the metal were engraved with great delicacy, and when needful, were carefully shaded by lines. The celebrated Florentine goldsmith, Finiguerra, about the middle of the fifteenth century, introduced a method of taking impressions from plated he had engraved, on thin paper, with a view of ascertaining their fitnedd to receive the niello; these impressions have in some few cases been preserved, as art-curiosities, and they, as well as the plates themselves, are termed nielli.
Most of the niello-work is on silver plates; and the contrast between the darkness of the niello and the brightness of the silver produces an effect not much unlike that of a print from a steel or copper plate. For many ages no one practiced this pretty art; but within the last few years, M. Wagner, a goldsmith from Berlin, has revived it at Paris; and some of the London goldsmiths are beginning to turn their attention this way. It is, however, the old school of goldsmiths who threw themselves heart and soul into this delicate craft. About four years ago there was a remarkable exhibition in the rooms of the Society of Arts, of ancient and mediaeval art; in which the capabilities of niello-work were fully developed. It can scarcely be a matter for question that this niello process is capable of producing very pleasing effects. The Science of Art Department of the Board of Trade have purchased a chalice, and placed it in the museum at Marlborough House as a specimen of modern English skill in this art, and in the sister art of incrusting metal surfaces with enamel; the chalice, with its silver groundwork, its parcel-gilt adornment, and its incrustations in niello and enamel, is a beautiful production.
A patchwork of enamels is another variety, in which a groundwork of metal is adorned with pictures or ornamental designs in enamel. An enamel painting, as understood and practiced in our own day, is a very patient application of opaque coloured glass, or enamel to a copper ground, by the aid of heat, and with such an attention to the colours of the enamel selected as to produce the design intended. But the enamel workers of earlier days had very elaborate modes of interspersing the metal among the enamel and the enamel among the metal. One of the old methods, was so practiced that the design was produced in outline by thin bands of metal plate, and afterwards filled by enamel among the metal. In another method, the design was formed on a solid plate of metal, most frequently copper, by sculpted recesses or channels, into which enamel was inlaid. It is evident, therefore, that in one case a metallic outline surrounded as enamel picture, while in the other an enamel outline surrounded a metallic picture. Seven hundred years ago, the citizens of Limoges produced works in these kinds of enamel, which have ever since maintained a high rank in the estimation of connoisseurs.
And thus it is that patchwork is not merely and economical motherly mode of making a quilt out of bits of printed cotton and chintz; but it is also a mode by which men, whose workmen’s fingers are aided by the artists’ brains, can combine together bits of wood, glass, enamel, metal, and other materials, and out of them elaborate beautiful and delicate works.
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