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to make the wood shrink and start asunder. When these conditions were
not observed, of course the work was soon ruined, and Vasari tells an
amusing story of the humiliation which befell Benedetto da Majano, who
began his career as an _Intarsiatore_, in the matter of two splendid
chests which he had made for Matthias Corvinus, from which the veneers,
loosened by the damp of a sea voyage, fell off in the royal presence.

The veneers being so thin, it is of course easy to cut through several
layers of them at once, and this suggested, or at all events lent itself
admirably to the design of the earlier examples, which are generally
arabesques symmetrically disposed right and left of a central line. If
two dark and two light veneers are put together, the whole of one panel,
both ground and pattern, can be cut at one operation with a thin fret
saw; the ornamental pattern drops into the space cut out of the ground,
which it, of course, fits exactly except for the thickness of the
saw-cut, and the two half-patterns thus filled in are "handed" right and
left, and so complete the symmetrical design. The line given by the
thickness of the saw is then filled in with glue and black colour so as
to define the outline, and additional saw-cuts are made or lines are
engraved, and in either case filled in with the same stopping, wherever
additional lines are wanted for the design. It only remains to glue the
whole down to a solid panel, and to polish and varnish the surface, and
it is then ready to be framed into its place as the back of a church
stall, or the lining of a courtly hall, library, or cabinet.

It was thus that the simpler Italian Intarsia was done, such as that in
the dado surrounding Perugino's Sala del Cambio in his native city,
where the design consists of light arabesques in box or some similar
wood on a walnut ground, defined by black lines just as I have

But like all true artists the Intarsiatore did not stand still. Having
successfully accomplished simple outline and accurate drawing, he was
dissatisfied until he could carry his art farther by introducing the
refinement of shading. This was done at different times and by different
artists in a variety of ways; either by inlaying the shadow in different
kinds of woods, by scorching it with fire, or by staining it with
chemical solutions. In the book desks of the choir at the Certosa or
Charterhouse of Pavia, the effect of shading is got in a direct but
somewhat imperfect way by laying strips of different coloured woods side
by side. Each flower or leaf was probably built up of tolerably thick
pieces of wood glued together in position, so that they could be sliced
off in veneers and yield several flowers or leaves from the same block,
much in the way of Tunbridge Wells ware, though the Italian specimens
are, I believe, always cut _with_ the grain and not across it. The
designs thus produced are very effective at a short distance, but the
method is, of course, suitable only to bold and simple conventional

The panels of the high screen or back to the stalls at the same church
afford an instance of a more elaborate method. These splendid panels,
which go all round the choir, contain each a three-quarter-length figure
of a saint. Lanzi deservedly praises them as the largest and most
perfect figures of _tarsia_ which he had seen. They date from 1486, and
were executed by an Istrian artist, Bartolommeo da Pola, perhaps from
the designs of Borgognone. The method by which their highly pictorial
effect is produced is a mixed one, the shading being partly inlaid with
woods of different colours, and partly obtained by scorching the wood
with fire or hot sand in the manner generally in use for marqueterie at
the present day. The inexhaustible patience as well as the fertility of
resource displayed by Messer Bartolommeo is astonishing. Where the
saw-cut did not give him a strong enough line he has inlaid a firm line
of black wood, the high lights of the draperies are inlaid in white,
the folds shaded by burning, and the flowing lines of the curling hair
are all inlaid, each several tress being shaded by three narrow strips
of gradated colour following the curved lines of the lock to which they
belong. When it is remembered that there are some forty or more of these
panels, each differing from the rest, the splendour as well as the
laborious nature of the decoration of this unrivalled choir will be
better understood.

Of all the examples of pictorial Intarsia the most elaborate are perhaps
those in the choir stalls of Sta. Maria Maggiore in Bergamo. They are
attributed to Gianfrancesco Capo di Ferro, who worked from the designs
of Lotto, and was either a rival or pupil of Fra Damiano di Bergamo, a
famous master of the art. They consist of figure subjects and
landscapes on a small scale, shaded with all the delicacy and roundness
attainable in a tinted drawing, and certainly show how near Intarsia can
approach to painting. Their drawing is excellent and their execution
marvellous; but at the same time one feels that, however one may admire
them as a _tour de force_, the limitations of good sense and proper use
of the material have been reached and overstepped. When the delicacy of
the work is so great that it requires to be covered up or kept under
glass, it obviously quits the province of decorative art; furniture is
meant to be used, and when it is too precious to be usable on account of
the over-delicate ornament bestowed upon it, it must be admitted that
the ornament is out of place, and, therefore, bad art.

The later Italian Intarsia was betrayed into extravagance by the
dexterity of the craftsman. The temptation before which he fell was
that of rivalling the painter, and as he advanced in facility of
technique, and found wider resources at his command, he threw aside not
only those restraints which necessity had hitherto imposed, but also
those which good taste and judgment still called him to obey. In the
plain unshaded arabesques of the Sala del Cambio, and even in the figure
panels of the Certosa, the treatment is purely decorative; the idea of a
plane surface is rightly observed, and there is no attempt to represent
distance or to produce illusory effects of relief. Above all, the work
is solid and simple enough to bear handling; the stalls may be sat in,
the desks may be used for books, the doors may be opened and shut,
without fear of injury to their decoration. Working within these limits,
the art was safe; but they came in time to be disregarded, and in this,
as in other branches of art, the style was ruined by the over-ingenuity
of the artists. Conscious of their own dexterity, they attempted things
never done before, with means quite unsuited to the purpose, and with
the sole result that they did imperfectly and laboriously with their
wooden veneers, their glue-pot, and their chemicals, what the painter
did with crayon and brush perfectly and easily. Their greatest triumphs
after they began to run riot in this way, however interesting as
miracles of dexterity, have no value as works of art in the eyes of
those who know the true principles of decorative design; while nothing
can be much duller than the elaborate playfulness of the Intarsiatore
who loved to cover his panelling with sham book-cases, birds in cages,
guitars, and military instruments in elaborate perspective.

It would take too long to say much about the art in its application to
furniture, such as tables, chairs, cabinets, and other movables, which
are decorated with inlay that generally goes by the French name of
marqueterie. Marqueterie and Intarsia are the same thing, though from
habit the French title is generally used when speaking of work on a
smaller scale. And as the methods and materials are the same, whether
used on a grand or a small scale, so the same rules and restraints apply
to both classes of design, and can no more be infringed with impunity on
the door of a tall clock-case than on the doors of a palatial hall of
audience. Nothing can be a prettier or more practical and durable mode
of decorating furniture than marqueterie in simple brown, black, yellow,
and white; and when used with judgment there is nothing to forbid the
employment of dyed woods; while the smallness of the scale puts at our
disposal ivory, mother-of-pearl, and tortoise-shell, materials which in
larger works are naturally out of the question. Nothing, on the other
hand, is more offensive to good taste than some of the overdone
marqueterie of the French school of the last century, with its picture
panels, and naturalesque figures, flowers, and foliage, straggling all
over the surface, as if the article of furniture were merely a vehicle
for the cleverness of the marqueterie cutter. Still worse is the modern
work of the kind, whether English or foreign, of which so much that is
hopelessly pretentious and vulgar is turned out nowadays, in which the
aim of the designer seems to have been to cover the surface as thickly
as he could with flowers and festoons of all conceivable colours,
without any regard for the form of the thing he was decorating, the
nature of the material he was using, or the graceful disposition and
economy of the ornament he was contriving.



The woods in ordinary use by cabinetmakers may be divided broadly into
two classes, viz. those which by their strength, toughness, and other
qualities are suitable for construction, and those which by reason of
the beauty of their texture or grain, their rarity, or their costliness,
have come to be used chiefly for decorative purposes - veneering or
inlaying. There are certainly several woods which combine the qualities
necessary for either purpose, as will be noticed later on. At present
the above classification is sufficiently accurate for the purposes of
this paper. The woods chiefly used in the construction of cabinet work
and furniture are oak, walnut, mahogany, rosewood, satin-wood, cedar,
plane, sycamore.

The oak has been made the standard by which to measure all other woods
for the qualities of strength, toughness, and durability. There are said
to be nearly fifty species of oak known, but the common English oak
possesses these qualities in a far greater degree than any other wood.
It is, however, very cross-grained and difficult to manage where
delicate details are required, and its qualities recommend it to the
carpenter rather than to the furniture-maker, who prefers the softer and
straight-grained oak from Turkey or wainscot from Holland, which, in
addition to being more easily worked and taking a higher finish, is not
so liable to warp or split.

There is also a species called white oak, which is imported into this
country from America, and is largely used for interior fittings and
cabinet-making. It is not equal to the British oak in strength or
durability, and it is inferior to the wainscot in the beauty of its
markings. The better the quality of this oak, the more it shrinks in

Walnut is a favourite wood with the furniture-maker, as well as the
carver, on account of its even texture and straight grain. The English
variety is of a light grayish-brown colour, which colour improves much
by age under polish. That from Italy has more gray in it, and though it
looks extremely well when carved is less liked by carvers on account of
its brittleness. It is but little liable to the attacks of worms. In the
English kind, the older (and therefore, generally speaking, the better)
wood may be recognised by its darker colour.

Of mahogany there are two kinds, viz. those which are grown in the
islands of Cuba and Jamaica, and in Honduras. The Cuba or Spanish
mahogany is much the harder and more durable, and is, in the opinion of
the writer, the very best wood for all the purposes of the cabinet or
furniture maker known to us. It is beautifully figured, takes a fine
polish, is not difficult to work, when its extreme hardness is taken
into account, and is less subject to twisting and warping than any other
kind of wood. It has become so costly of late years, however, that it is
mostly cut into veneers, and used for the decoration of furniture

Honduras mahogany, or, as cabinetmakers call it, "Bay Wood," is that
which is now in most frequent demand for the construction of the best
kinds of furniture and cabinet work. It is fairly strong (though it
cannot compare in that respect with Cuba or rosewood), works easily,
does not shrink, resists changes of temperature without alteration, and
holds glue well, all of which qualities specially recommend it for the
purposes of construction where veneers are to be used. Many
cabinetmakers prefer to use this wood for drawers, even in an oak job.

Rosewood is one of those woods used indifferently for construction or
for the decoration of other woods. Though beautiful specimens of grain
and figure are often seen, its colour does not compare with good
specimens of Cuba veneer. Its purple tone (whatever stains are used) is
not so agreeable as the rich, deep, mellow browns of the mahogany; nor
does it harmonise so readily with its surroundings in an ordinary room.
It has great strength and durability, and is not difficult to work.
Probably the best way to use it constructively is in the making of small
cabinets, chairs, etc. - that is, if one wishes for an appearance of
lightness with real strength. The writer does not here offer any opinion
as to whether a piece of furniture, or indeed anything else, should or
should not look strong when it really is so.

Satin-wood, most of which comes from the West India islands, is well
known for its fine lustre and grain, as also for its warm colour, which
is usually deepened by yellow stain. It is much used for painted
furniture, and the plain variety is liked by the carver.

Cedar is too well known to need any description here. It is commonly
believed that no worm will touch it, and it is therefore greatly in
demand for the interior fitting of cabinets, drawers, etc. It is a
straight-grained wood and fairly easy to work, though liable to split.
It is impossible in a short paper like the present to do more than
glance at a few of the numerous other woods in common use. Ebony has
always been greatly liked for small or elaborate caskets or cabinets,
its extreme closeness of grain and hardness enabling the carver to bring
up the smallest details with all the sharpness of metal work.

Sycamore, beech, and holly are frequently stained to imitate walnut,
rosewood, or other materials; of these the first two are used
constructively, but the latter, which takes the stain best, is nearly
all cut into veneer, and, in addition to its use for covering large
surfaces, forms an important element in the modern marquetry

Bass wood, on account of its softness and the facility with which it can
be stained to any requisite shade, is extensively used to imitate other
woods in modern furniture of the cheaper sort. It should, however, never
be used for furniture at all, as it has (as a cabinetmaker would say) no
"nature" in it, and in the result there is no wear in it.

Other woods, coming under the second category, as amboyna, coromandel,
snake-wood, orange-wood, thuyer, are all woods of a beautiful figure,
which may be varied indefinitely by cutting the veneers at different
angles to the grain of the wood, and the tone may also be varied by the
introduction of colour into the polish which is used on them. Coromandel
wood is one of the most beautiful of these, but it is not so available
as it would otherwise be on account of its resistance to glue.
Orange-wood, when not stained, is very wasteful in use, as the natural
colour is confined to the heart of the tree.

Silver, white metal, brass, etc., are cut into a veneer of
tortoise-shell or mother-of-pearl, producing a decorative effect which,
in the opinion of the writer, is more accurately described as "gorgeous"
than "beautiful."

There are many processes and materials used to alter or modify the
colour of woods and to "convert" one wood into another. Oak is made dark
by being subjected to the fumes of liquid ammonia, which penetrate it to
almost any depth. Ordinary oak is made into brown oak by being treated
with a solution of chromate of potash (which is also used to convert
various light woods into mahogany, etc.). Pearlash is used for the same
purpose, though not commonly. For converting pear-tree, sycamore, etc.,
into ebony, two or more applications of logwood chips, with an after
application of vinegar and steel filings, are used.

A good deal of bedroom and other furniture is enamelled, and here the
ground is prepared with size and whiting, and this is worked over with
flake white, transparent polish, and bismuth. But by far the most
beautiful surface treatment in this kind are the lacquers, composed of
spirit and various gums, or of shellac and spirit into which colour is



If we wish to arrive at a true estimate of the value of modern
embroidery, we must examine the work being sold in the fancy-work shops,
illustrated in ladies' newspapers or embroidered in the drawing-rooms of
to-day, and consider in what respect it differs from the old work such
as that exhibited in the South Kensington Museum.

The old embroidery and the modern differ widely - in design, in colour,
and in material; nor would any one deny that a very large proportion of
modern work is greatly inferior to that of past times.

What, then, are the special characteristics of the design of the present

Modern design is frequently very naturalistic, and seems rather to seek
after a life-like rendering of the object to be embroidered than the
decoration of the material to be ornamented.

Then again it may be noted that modern designs are often ill adapted to
the requirements of embroidery. This is probably because many of the
people who design for embroidery do not understand it. Very often a
design that has been made for this purpose would have been better suited
to a wall paper, a panel of tiles, or a woven pattern. The designer
should either be also an embroiderer or have studied the subject so
thoroughly as to be able to direct the worker, for the design should be
drawn in relation to the colours and stitches in which it is to be
carried out.

The more, indeed, people will study the fine designs of the past, and
compare with them the designs of the art-needlework of the present, the
more they will realise that, where the former is rich, dignified, and
restrained, obedient to law in every curve and line, the latter is
florid, careless, weak, and ignores law. And how finished that old
embroidery was, and how full! No grudging of the time or the labour
spent either on design or needlework; no scamping; no mere outlining.
Border within border we often see, and all the space within covered up
to the edges and into the corners. Contrast with this very much of our
modern work. Let us take as an example one piece that was on view this
summer at a well-known place in London where embroidery is sold. It is
merely a type of many others in many other places. This was a threefold
screen made of dark red-brown velveteen. All over it ran diagonal
crossing lines coarsely worked in light silk, to imitate a wire trellis,
with occasional upright supports worked in brown wool, imitating knotty
sticks. Up one side of this trellis climbed a scrambling mass of white
clematis; one spray wandering along the top fell a little way down the
other side. Thus a good part of the screen was bare of embroidery,
except for the trellis. Naturalism could not go much farther, design is
almost absent, and the result is feeble and devoid of beauty.

If we turn now to material, we shall find that embroidery, like some
other arts, depends much for its excellence on the minor crafts which
provide it with material; and these crafts supplied it with better
material in former times than they do now. A stuff to be used as a
ground for embroidery should have endless capacities for wear. This was
a quality eminently possessed by hand-spun and hand-woven linen, which,
with its rounded and separate thread, and the creamy tint of its partial
bleaching, made an ideal ground for embroidery. Or if silk were
preferred, the silks of past centuries were at once thick, firm, soft
and pure, quite free from the dress or artificial thickening, by whose
aid a silk nowadays tries to look rich when it is not. The oatmeal
cloth, diagonal cloth, cotton-backed satin, velveteen and plush, so much
used now, are very inferior materials as grounds for needlework to the
hand-loom linens and silks on which so large a part of the old
embroidery remaining to us was worked. And so very much of the beauty of
the embroidery depends on the appropriateness of the material.[1] Cloth,
serge, and plush are not appropriate; embroidery never looks half so
well on them as on silk and linen.

It is equally important that the thread, whether of silk, wool, flax, or
metal, should be pure and as well made as it can be, and, if dyed, dyed
with colours that will stand light and washing. Most of the silk, wool,
and flax thread sold for embroidery is not as good as it should be. The
filoselles and crewels very soon get worn away from the surface of the
material they are worked on. The crewels are made of too soft a wool,
and are not twisted tight enough, and the filoselles, not being made of
pure silk, should never be used at all, pretty and soft though their
effect undoubtedly is while fresh. Though every imaginable shade of
colour can be produced by modern dyers, the craft seems to have been
better understood by the dyers of times not very long past, who, though
they may not have been able to produce so many shades, could dye colours
which would wash and did not quickly fade, or when they faded merely
lost some colour, instead of changing colour, as so many modern dyes do.
The old embroidery is worked with purer and fewer colours; now all kinds
of dull intermediate tints are used of gold, brown, olive, and the like,
which generally fade rapidly and will not wash. Many people, admiring
old embroidery and desiring to make their new work look like it at least
in colour, will use tints as faint and delicate as the faded old
colours, forgetting that in a few years their work will be almost
colourless. It is wiser to use strong good colours, for a little fading
does not spoil but really improves them.

So we see that many things combine to render embroidery as fine as that
of the past difficult of production, and there is nothing more against
it than machinery, which floods the market with its cheap imitations, so
that an embroidered dress is no longer the choice and rare production it
once was; the machine-made imitation is so common and so cheap that a
refined taste, sick of the vulgarity of the imitation, cares little even
for the reality, and seeks refuge in an unornamented plainness. The
hand-worked embroidery glorified and gave value to the material it was
worked on. The machine-work cannot lift it above the commonplace. When
will people understand that the more ornament is slow and difficult of
production, the more we appreciate it when we have got it; that it is
because we know that the thought of a human brain and the skill of a
human hand went into every stroke of a chisel, every touch of a brush,
or every stitch placed by the needle, that we admire, enjoy, and wonder
at the statue, the picture, or the needlework that is the result of that
patience and that skill; and that we do not care about the ornament at
all, and that it becomes lifeless always, and often vulgar, when it has
been made at little or no cost by a machine which is ready at any moment
to produce any quantity more of the same thing? All ornament and pattern
was once produced by hand only, therefore it was always rare and costly
and was valued accordingly. Fashions did not change quickly. It was
worth while to embroider a garment beautifully, for it would be worn for
years, for a lifetime perhaps; and the elaborately worked counterpane
would cover the bed in the guest-chamber for more than one generation.

These remarks must be understood to apply to the ordinary fancy-work
and so-called "art-needlework" of the present day. Twenty years ago
there would have been no ray of light in the depths to which the art of
embroidery had fallen. Now for some years steady and successful efforts
have been made by a few people to produce once more works worthy of the

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