Friday, August 15, 2014

American Folk Marquetry

English Apprentice Board c.1885

The last few days I have been thinking about geometrical designs in marquetry.  One of the reasons is that I need to prepare new samples to take to the WIA show next month in Winston Salem.  The other is that I just finished restoring a series of nice pieces which had amazing marquetry surfaces.

It seems that my work goes in stages, from one topic to the next.  Perhaps the secret of my success is that I just follow the flow as it arrives and focus my talents on the job at hand.  Early in my career I realized a pattern to the work which made it easy.  The first week, for example, I remove the hardware and finish, studying each job as to the proper approach.  I would do this with several projects at the same time.  I cannot really work well if I have only one job.  I need to juggle many jobs simultaneously, to be happy.  The next week would be spent with repairs, filling the bench with clamps and glue.  The next week after that I would focus on sanding and coloring the surfaces as needed.  Then I would spend time cleaning up the shop so I can shellac and polish everything at once.  Since the shop was then clean, I would spend a week upholstering.  This pattern would repeat itself with little variations for most of my career.

That said, there are exceptions.  Yesterday I spent the day outside the shop weaving cattails into a natural rush seat for an antique French chair.  The weather was nice, and I have a place in the shade on the North side of the shop with a gentle breeze.  It was a pleasant distraction from the routine.

However, back to the topic this morning.  American Folk Marquetry.  What is it?

In 1998 there was an exhibition at the Museum of American Folk Art in New York and a book published by Richard Muhlberger, which is in my collection.  This book "is the first volume to record the history of marquetry and the American masters who handed down the tradition from father to son.  Never before has American folk marquetry been investigated, cataloged, or recognized as a distinct body of work."  Obviously more work needs to be done in this area.

In reviewing this book I notice a common thread.  All the work relies on some form of Tarsia Geometrica and Tarsia a Toppo, and the last two posts on this blog have been an effort to explain how this work is done.  One of the important facts about this work is that it is made with either a veneer saw or knife.  A chevalet is not needed, but in some small areas a hand held fret saw is used for curves.

Another fact emerges in this book.  The most important analysis of these pieces focuses on how many pieces of wood and how many species of woods were used.  No discussion of the form or overall design is really attempted.  Most of the pieces stand as a miscellaneous combination of unrelated marquetry motifs.  There is no serious relationship between the form and the decoration.

Here is Frederick Hazen's (1829-1908) secretary, made in Massachusetts between 1862 and 1869.  The  author is careful to mention that it contains 21,000 pieces of wood.

Lots of Pieces!
Another thing I note about this book and its discussion of these pieces is the terminology.  The term "Male Quilting" is promoted and a long discussion of the relationship between marquetry and sewing makes the strange claim that they are somehow connected.  "The making of quilts and marquetry is similar in that they both depend on a patient, additive progression from detail to detail, until plain cloth or naked wood is embellished with multiple designs that are also made of cloth or wood."

By this reasoning, I can easily point out that Painting in Wood and Painting in Oil are related.  Therefore, marquetry is an art and deserves to be appreciated exactly like fine art is in the market place.  Unfortunately, the real world does not support this idea.

Here is a rather standard Davenport desk form covered with Tarsia Geometrica, and featuring the cube:

Circa 1860
Here is a box on stand with drawers covered in Tarsia a Toppo:

Not made by Shakers!
I am fortunate to have a talented business partner, Patrice Lejeune, who graduated from ecole Boulle and has worked with me for nearly a decade.  He spends his "extra" time here at work picking up scraps of veneer from projects and designing modern marquetry panels.  He is not American nor is he a Folk artist.  His work is very professional, modern and high style.  That said, I think you might be able to see a relationship with his work and the American Folk Art shown above.

For example, this is one of his pieces of wall art:

"Rain on the City" by Patrice Lejeune

Here is another:

"City Map #2" by Patrice Lejeune
I think his work is wonderful and something I could never do.  I am too old fashioned.  However, when I see his designs, the first thing that comes to mind is not, "how many pieces?"  What I think of is how beautiful the art is, and the deeper subliminal meanings it inspires.

Finally, in reading the Forward to this book, American Folk Art, I find this interesting observation:

"The craftsmen whose work is celebrated in this book did not make their livings at marquetry.  The hours of labor necessary to ornament an object with marquetry were worth far more than anyone was willing to pay for the product.  Consequently, the men who made folk marquetry always required a means of support other than selling their fancy woodwork."

That remark reminds me of the day I proudly opened my antique store in June, 1969.  Another antique dealer in the neighborhood walked in to examine my stock and the first thing he said was "What do you do for a living?"  As if being an antique dealer was a hobby and you needed a "real job" (as my father always reminded me) to survive.  My immediate response was "I'm an antique dealer!"

Well, it has been 45 years and I still make my living as an antique dealer, furniture conservator, furniture maker and, most importantly, marquetry maker in America.

That said, Patrice's work is Art and should be worth millions!  Support the Arts!


Unknown said...

I have a two piece vintage marquetry cabinet with inlaid geometric designs. I inherited them when we rented a warehouse full of miscellaneous items. The top looks like an owl and the bottom is a cabinet with four skinny legs. It may have been used for jewelry because we found a couple of jewelry pieces in there. It has many drawers and a lot of geometric designs. I would love to send you a picture of it. I am trying to get more information on it.

W. Patrick Edwards said...

You may send photos to my email.