Nov 052012

In a previous blog I touched on the topic of japanned ware – be it metal or papier mâché. Some of the illustrations were from a website belonging to an Antique Dealer in London called Antique Boxes at the Sign of the Hygra. They featured a quite superb table cabinet and although it is not to be found in their catalogue anymore it really is so marvellous that I have decided to give the box a blog-spot of its own! My apologies if this repeats some information already given…

Hygra describe it as a “Rare 18th C painted Papier Mâché table cabinet on gilded carved wooden stand. The two door cabinet with hinged top is decorated with chinoiserie themes on the outside and inside with wild flowers and butterflies.


The composition is an elegant orchestration of a sweeping path from pavilions to tall oriental figures. The left side counterbalances the heavier decoration on the right with fine depictions of foliage and airy trees.


The cabinet is constructed of flat panels which points to an early date when papier mâché was made as a substitute for wood and competing with panels of decorated oriental lacquer which were being imported and used by many of the respected designer makers.

Papier Mâché has qualities which made it superior to wood for the purpose in providing a smoother surface for painted decoration.


The methods used in this cabinet date back to an influential treatise from the previous century: Stalker, John. M.A., and (George) Parker of Oxford . A Treatise of Japaning and Varnishing, being a compleat discovery of those arts … with … patterns for Japan-work … engraven on 24 … copper-plates. Oxford: 1688.

Inside there are eight drawers; the fronts have paintings of butterflies and flowers.

Chinoiserie decoration was the height of fashion during the 18th Century and early 19th Century, when the west was gripped by the glimpses of exotic cultures of the East (Cathay) which were introduced by the tales of early travellers and traders of the Silk Road. European artists accompanied formal delegations and brought back a treasure trove of art, which was exhibited, printed and generally disseminated amongst the people of inquisitive mind and eclectic taste.

This is a rare fine example of the genre in that it combines both skill and artistry in its graceful composition: it is both refined and luxurious in the best tradition of the period.

Origin: Circa: 1780 ; Materials: papier mâché, wood.

Size: 37 cm wide by 18 cm by 39 cm: (14.7 inches wide by 7.1 inches by 15 inches).





Types of japanning in an effort to reproduce lacquer had already been produced in many parts of Europe . Early forms of japanning on wood necessitated coating the wood before decoration. It was an inevitable step to extend the function of the coating to incorporate the basic material. This could reduce the necessary processes from three to two and give a new substance, which could be marketed as of superior quality and as quite distinct from oriental work.






As the 18th century progressed, it was realized that in order to render the material suitable for the making of superior objects, it had to be refined. Henry Clay is credited with the next big step of the process, but it is more accurate to go one generation back to his one-time employer, John Baskerville. Baskerville was a manufacturer of tin japanned ware at Birmingham . He was also a printer, with a passion for calligraphy. Henry Clay was apprenticed to him from 1740-49. Baskerville was an inquiring and talented man who made his own paper and ink. He already understood the principle of japanning. His printing work was reputed to be of exquisite taste. Everything was in place for the next logical step: that is, combining paper with japanning.

Baskerville and two other craftsmen had already experimented with making panels out of sheets of paper which were pasted together. In 1763, one of the other two men, Stephen Bedford, won the recognition of The Society of Arts for his superior varnish. It is likely that during the time when Clay was a young apprentice, experiments aiming at producing a superior form of papier mâché took place in Baskerville’s workshop.

Different makers did introduce different techniques and variations, but the principle remained as Clay described it. Sheets of paper soaked in paste were pressed together, on a flat plate, or board. Equal numbers were pasted on each side. The paper sheets were then separated from the plate, by planning or cutting the edges. They were then dried in a stove “…sufficiently hot to deprive them of their flexibility and at the same time are rubbed over, or dipped in oil or varnish…” The resulting material was used like wood, joining the parts by dovetailing or mitering. The final object was “…coated with colour and oils…and then japanned and highly varnished and can be brought to the highest polish by friction with the human hand”.

Chinoiserie decoration was the height of fashion during the 18th Century and early 19th Century, when the west was gripped by the glimpses of exotic cultures of the East (Cathay) which were introduced by the tales of early travellers and traders of the Silk Road.”

I think the box is exquisite. You can see more of what the lovely people at Hygra have on their books here. Suffice to say they have some beautiful tea caddies, writing boxes etc and details of a book written by them which I would love to get my hands on called Antique Boxes, Tea Caddies & Society —1700 – 1780. Do go and have a look at a fascinating glimpse into a bygone era!

A sincere thanks to  Joseph O’Kelly and Antigone Clarke at Hygra for letting me use their photographs and text.

  One Response to “Papier Mâché – a beautiful table cabinet (from The Sign of the Hygra).”


    and nowadays we have MDF which is the modern version…. this is an exquisite object and well deserves its own posting, thank you.
    I’m a great enthusiast of papier mache, it’s light and strong and durable.

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