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).
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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 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.