Ancient and modern marquetry at the Wallace Collection

An exhibition of classic French marquetry coincides with the completion of a contemporary cabinet-maker’s work with the same technique—but cut by laser

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The public may flock to the Wallace Collection to admire its grand collection of 18th-century French furniture and works of art, but there is currently a dearth of people undertaking serious scholarship into the subject and it is hard to find specialists in the field. People enjoy these complex and elaborately decorated objects as tours de force, but they find it hard to relate to them or understand how and why they were made.

This need is addressed by “Paintings in wood”, at the Wallace Collection (4 October to 31 December), a specialist exhibition that studies the use of marquetry: how it was made; the woods that were used and the sources for designs. We are used to the subdued tones of these pieces, but originally the colours of the wood were dazzlingly bright, using exotic imported woods, including yellows, greens and reds as well as ebony, tortoiseshell and brass.

“While it is important that people understand the technical and craft element of making these pieces,” said the director of the museum, Rosalind Savill, “even more importantly, we hope those who find it hard to appreciate French furniture can begin to see it through the eyes of the people who made it. By understanding the cabinet maker’s skill in using complex materials, techniques and sources of decoration and how his masterpiece would have looked on completion, a piece can more readily become a work of art to be admired and enjoyed.” One contemporary cabinet maker who stands out from the crowd by his fascination with the grandest and most exotic pieces of historical furniture is David Linley. His company has recently completed a pair of boulle bow fronted commodes which can be seen in their Pimlico saleroom priced at £87,000. “We are always setting ourselves challenges, to show clients that we can make absolutely anything,” Linley explained. “The boulle inlay has been one of the biggest yet.”

The panels of the commodes are based on the inlay of a wardrobe door in the Wallace collection, but there the similarity ends. “We were not interested in using traditional techniques,” explained Linley, “but in working out how to make them, using all the skills of our marquetry cutter and cabinet maker combined with modern techniques.” The marquetry panels were made in Wales. Silver was used for the metal inlay and, instead of tortoiseshell, which is no longer readily available, quartered madronna burr, taken from the strawberry tree. This surrounds a central panel of plane-cut, ebonised sycamore. Both the silver inlay and the veneers were laser cut with incredible precision so there is absolutely no difference between the two commodes and veneer and silver fit perfectly. The panels were then vacuum pressed onto the support which consists of thin layers of laminated walnut glued with a modern cascamite adhesive.

The panels were sent to Yorkshire and the cabinets were created by a Yorkshire cabinet-maker who works almost exclusively for David Linley. It took 15 months and seven craftsmen to complete them. A top of nero assoluto granite from Southern Italy completes the commodes.

These showpieces look very flash compared with the prevailing taste for minimal design and decoration. Yet how modest they are when compared to some of the more opulent creations of the 17th and 18th centuries now on display at the Wallace Collection. It was a bold move to make them.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Boulle ancient and modern'

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