Loving the leather

Leather screen decorated with chinoiserie motifs at Greyfriars, Worcestershire. © National Trust Collections

Friend, francophile and and fellow blogger Susan Walter suggested that I post something about the leather screens often to be found in historic houses (she recently did a post about the leather panelling at Cheverny).

Leather screen decorated with scenes derived from Coromandel lacquer, at Blickling Hall, Norfolk. © National Trust Collections

There do indeed appear to be a number of such screens in various National Trust houses. They seem to be something of a Cinderella category, sitting in a corner of the dining room or lurking in a corridor like wallflowers at a party.

Detail of the Blickling leather screen. © National Trust Collections

Their relative obscurity is compounded by the fact that little is known about who made them, and they are difficult to date exactly. What is clear, however, is that they are often decorated to look like east Asian lacquer, and they appeared in the slipstream of the popularity of lacquer screens in European interiors.

Leather screen decorated with chinoiserie motifs at Tintinhull, Somerset. © National Trust Collections

The excellent book by Hans Huth, Lacquer of the West (University of Chicago Press, 1971) does mention a few useful facts about imitation-lacquer leather screens.

Fragment of leather decorated in imitation of Coromandel lacquer set into a firescreen at Lyme Park, Cheshire. © National Trust Collections

Huth writes that the craft of making leather hangings was probably introduced to Britain in the Restoration period. in 1666 a certain Hugh Robinson applied for a permit to settle in London stating that he had learned his leatherworking skills in Amsterdam and could produce leather ‘brighter than gold’.

Leather screen decorated in imitation of black and gold Chinese lacquer, at Dunham Massey, Chesire. © National Trust Collections

In 1716 the London Gazette carried an advertisement from leather gilder Joseph Fletcher proclaiming that he could provide ‘leather hangings in the latest fashion of the Chinese style to cover walls, settees and screene.’ The area around St Paul’s Churchyard seems to have been a centre for the leatherworking trade.

Leather screen decorated in imitation of Chinese wallpaper or Indian chintz, at Batemans, East Sussex. © National Trust Collections

According to Huth most leather screens can be dated to the first half of the eighteenth century. After about 1740 lacquer and leather screens were increasingly being replaced by screens covered with decorative paper or wallpaper.

Leather screen decorated in imitation of Chinese wallpaper or Indian chintz, at Clandon Park, Surrey. © National Trust Collections © National Trust Collections

Leather screens were made from calf- or goat-skin. The leather was smoothed and covered in silver leaf which was then burnished and coated with transparent yellow japanning. The design was painted on top in oil paints and the backgound might be tooled, whereupon the whole panel was varnished.

17 Responses to “Loving the leather”

  1. deana Says:

    The first time I saw pressed leather on a wall I was in love. The texture and patina was pure magic. I was extremely wicked and even touched the surface to see what it felt like.

    I have used the paper version on sets and in a penthouse I worked on, having the scenics paint it to look like the old leather as an homage to the real deal.

    These screens are remarkable… how on earth could they be relegated to dark corners? They should be front and center!! Thanks so much for sharing.

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Deana, it’s great that you share my enthusiasm. One reason why these screens have been sidelined a bit is that when they were originally made they some very clear jobs to do – to keep out draughts and to reflect fire- and candle-light – but subsequently those jobs became less prominent, with the increase in heating and lighting in country houses. And because they can be quite large they can easily ‘get in the way’ and are therefore often placed in corners. But on the other hand their striking attractiveness has probably contributed to their survival in reasonable numbers.

  3. Parnassus Says:

    These leather screens are magnificent. Like Deana, I wonder about their relationship to traditional embossed-leather wall coverings. We’ll also have to keep an eye out for damaged leather panels recut and reused in other objects.

    Among the smaller Chinese objects I collect, I have often seen leather given this kind of lacquer treatment, in fact it is often difficult to tell at a glance what the base material is. Lacquered leather is very common for small boxes such as tobacco boxes, and also for pillows, which is a very suitable use given the soft nature of the leather.
    –Road to Parnassus

  4. Andrew Says:

    Fascinating. Were these leather panels a somewhat cheaper alternative to imported lacquer, using the skills of more local craftsmen, or another expensive luxury product?

    When did embossed leather wall coverings become popular? I have seen some sources saying that the techniques came from the Arabs via Spain. Was it an alternative to tapestry, or an antecedent?

    And then later on Anaglypta and Lincrusta.

  5. Andrew Says:

    Ah, I see Wikipedia has some material about cordwain or cordovan, referring to the style of Spanish leather from Cordoba. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leather#Cordwain.2C_.22Cordovan.22_or_.22Spanish_leather.22

  6. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Parnassus, yes these leather screens seem to have been the fruit of the marriage between the European embossed leather tradition and the east Asian lacquer screen tradition, so to speak.

    At Honington Hall, Warwickshire, there is some Coromandel-style leather which was used as wall panelling in the early eighteenth century. This ‘Chinese Closet’ is a very rare surviving example of that use of imiation-lacquer leather. An image of it can be seen here: http://bit.ly/NSrdy9 and historic paint expert Patrick Baty mentions it in a post here: http://bit.ly/KBDgzF

    In the Victoria and Albert Museum there is a Japanese inrō pouch made of carved lacquer but imitating the look of European embossed leather: http://bit.ly/MXnIYy – the exact opposite of the English leather screens shown here imitating Asian lacquer :)

  7. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Andrew, yes I think price must have had something to do with it: local producers providing a cheaper alternative for the fabulously expensive import product, and that ‘second-tier’ product then taking on a life of its own and developing distinct stylistic parameters.

    I am afraid I don’t know that much about the general history of leather wall coverings, but that helpful link you provide may give us a starting point.

    And indeed in the nineteenth century one gets high-quality paper imitation-leather panelling, which for instance survives at Tyntesfield, near Bristol. And believe it or not there is a Japanese workshop, called the Kinkarakami Institute, producing high-quality paper imitation-imitation-leather panelling today: http://bit.ly/R4eQ5v

  8. Randi Says:

    Fascinating! I’ve never seen anything about these leather screens before and wasn’t aware of their existence. I may have seen them before in photos of old houses and thought they were lacquer.
    They are all exquisitely done, but the one at Tintinhull (fabulous name, by the way) is my particular favorite. I wonder if there are any examples in old American homes?
    It’s odd to think that nowadays, a contemporary lacquered screen would probably be cheaper than a similar leather one!
    I think this National Trust Treasure Hunt website is one of the best on the web and have recommended it to many, particularly to the members of a web discussion-site for collectors of Asian pottery.

  9. Mark D. Ruffner Says:

    The screens are all very handsome, especially that fine one at Dunham Massey. I find it odd, though, that a material as handsome as leather should be used in such a way as to hide its own distinctive properties. Having said that, I’d still be delighted to be gifted with any of these!

  10. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Randi, thank you very much for your kind words. Yes it would be interesting to find out if a similar category of chinoiserie leather screens was produced in America in the eighteenth century. I wonder if there are any at Winterthur, for example?

    Mark, yes I suppose we are now all influenced by the Bauhausian ideals of truth to materials and form following function. But in the baroque period there seems to have been a strong tendency to value the almost theatrical or alchemical skill of transforming something into something else entirely. So being able to turn leather into ‘gold’ (as Hugh Robinson was claiming to do) or ‘lacquer’ would have been a winning formula then.

  11. style court Says:

    I’ve been a fan of these leather screens for a while but the NT examples here are especially gorgeous and make me like them even more.

    Maybe the fashion for ‘japanned’ leather came back a bit during the late 19th century in the form of those faux bamboo tables with embossed and decoupaged leather tops (or inset panels). The tables are usually humbler but they are kind of like distant cousins :)

    Thanks for the inro link!

  12. Hels Says:

    You are correct…. I don’t think I have ever seen delicately decorated leather screens before. And your dates are especially interesting – the first half of the 18th century. The passion for Japanese taste was greatest at other times.

  13. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Courtney, yes indeed this type of screen, and leather panelling in general, may well have been revived towards the end of the nineteenth century as part of the wave of revival styles at that time, with an additional bit of influence from japonisme thrown in perhaps. The Tyntesfield faux-leather wallpaper seems to have been part of that particular historicist taste.

    Helen, yes this touches on the complicated echoes and cross-currents of chinoiserie and japonisme: ceramics being called ‘China’ and lacquer ‘Japan’ and Chinese wallpaper ‘India paper’, and the fashion for east Asia reappearing at different times in different guises – early 17th century, late 17th century, mid 18th century, late 18th/early 19th century, late 19th century (japonisme), 1920s-1930s (Chinese motifs in Art Deco) – and then previous phases of chinoiserie being ‘referenced’ in the late 19th century and the 1920-1930s. And not to mention the different degrees of authenticity and fantasy. That all makes it such a fascinating subject.

  14. Susan Walter Says:

    Thanks for this Emile. I know the one at Blickling, and must have seen a couple of the others, but there were several I’d never heard of in your post. At some stage I’ll write about the leather wall covering in the dining room at Candé, which I believe is 19th century – I assume installed by the Cuban owner who preceded Fern and Charles Bedaux.

  15. Jolie Beaumont (@JolieBeaumont) Says:

    Thanks so much for this post! Besides being a treat to look at, you’ve once again highlighted a little-known decorative object that I can definitely see using in one of my mystery stories.

  16. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Jolie, you’re welcome – yes they definitely offer dramatic/narrative possibilities, don’t they :)

  17. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Susan, so that one at Candé might be part of the nineteenth-century revival of the use of leather panelling – interesting.

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