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.