It is with great pride that I show thirteen years work, producing a marquetry replica of Thomas Chippendale’s most prestigious piece, the celebrated Diana & Minerva Commode, made in 1773 for Harewood House, nr Leeds.
This was a joint project that started in 2003, with myself, a practicing marquetry specialist, researcher and writer, and retired furniture maker Ron Dickens. Ron constructed the carcass, made to exact dimensions of the original, and he also constructed parts of the marquetry work. These were the two goddesses, Diana and Minerva, the eight daisy flowers that fit across the outer edge of the domed door, and the marquetry attached to the six legs. I installed all the remaining marquetry and veneering, plus the research into the tools, materials and original techniques used by me on this replica construction.
In 2003 we saw this project as an opportunity to achieve, as near as possible, an exact replica, not only in the colour scheme, but in the marquetry work using 18th century tools and techniques. As for the now faded dyes, I struck lucky, because in 2007 I was fortunate to meet a furniture conservator/scientist, Dr Heinrich Piening, Schloss Nymphenburg, Munich, Germany, while presenting a marquetry paper on this commode, in Vadstena, Sweden. At that international marquetry symposium Heinrich presented a paper on his recently proven technique, UV VIS Spectronomy, a process of identifying dyestuffs on antique marquetry furniture, without affecting the integrity of the original marquetry work. For me, it was like discovering gold. Heinrich had opened pandora’s box, revealing his magical rainbow, and I knew I had to get Heinrich over to Leeds to perform his tests on the said commode. This wish was fulfilled the following year, and the results of Heinrich’s findings have played a major and vital part in this replica’s final appearance. We now know, thanks to Heinrich’s scientific analysis, that the colours you see on these replica panels, are as they would have appeared on the original commode when it was new.
It was also clear that Chippendale used engraving for the very best commissions, and we see it applied on this particular piece. In addition to engraving the marquetry work, Chippendale had it applied to the ivory for the flesh parts of Diana & Minerva. Engraving highlights facial features and shadows, expressed by applying crosshatching. A very skilful process. The engravers tool, a Burin, takes many years to attain the necessary dexterity. It is true to say, any marquetry work, can be either enhanced or ruined by the quality of the finishing. In the case of Chippendale’s classic style marquetry, its even more pertinent, since the extensive marquetry engraving, applied to this commode, relies on the highest skill level.
My research led to identifying the type and size of fret saw possibly used to construct the original commode. The treadle saw has been the only fret sawing machine I have used over the past ten years. My thanks go to fellow marqueteur Malcolm Slater, who made a host of models, beginning with a floor-standing wooden frame type, leading to the bench-mounted aluminium model, which has become my trusted model. Construction of these models are described and illustrated in my forthcoming book.
A bold statement must be understood at this juncture. It is not possible to cut intricate shapes with a craft knife (scalpel), into satinwood or tulipwood veneers. These tropical hardwoods are by far too hard for a knife to penetrate successfully. Yes, straight lines cut against a straight edge is achievable, but not cut freehand round shaped motifs. Only the fret saw achieves this technique.
I offer these images and techniques as a learning aid to marqueteurs, furniture makers, restorers, conservators and historians, together with curators of museums and stately homes, where mid 18th century marquetry furniture exists.
While it is obvious that Heinrich Piening’s timely discovery played the major part in this replica copy, I have to mention another contributor to the success of this project. Mark Forster, Director of SPA Laminates Leeds, provided me with the two background veneers that dominate every panel on the piece. Satinwood and tulipwood are both exotic tropical hardwoods, used regularly by Chippendale on many of his commissions. Mark offered me both veneers in full flitches (bundles), more than enough to complete the whole commode. I am, and always will be, immensely grateful of his generosity in making this voluntary donation. Mark also offered to glue, press and sand my large marquetry top in his factory. His technician, Glen Blair, expertly applied the work using a belt sander, a machine I had seen in used in Italy some years earlier and I knew the skill level required to operate the machine was paramount. I had spent the best part of one year to construct the intricate marquetry on that large panel, seen below. I valued and trusted Glen’s obvious skill which proved to be highly successful. Other coloured veneers, in particular the green and pink, which dominate the marquetry work, were purchased from Art Veneers, prior to the companies closure. It is thanks to the then managing director, Michael White, for finding the two colours which proved a perfect match against the satinwood background. The remaining dyed and natural coloured veneers came from my own personal stock.
Over 7ft long and 2ft wide
Notice the tight joints across all elements. This is made possible by using the 18th century two-part fret sawing technique, and a treadle saw, which provides accuracy.
Other contributors to this project include, Mellissa Gallimore, then curator of Harewood House, who allowed Ron and I to make copious drawings and take many photographs of the original commode. We also recognise, Geoff Collier of Collier Castings, Eastbourne, who we commissioned to cast and produce the brass mounts that decorate the columns between the drawers, and the six legs. My final contributor is a man who I cannot pass without mentioning, he was my teacher, uncle, friend and mentor. The late Tommy Limmer, taught me the ground rules of creating marquetry, designing and building jigs and replicating past skills that have become my modus operandi.
It became obvious to me from the outset that a project of this magnitude could not achieve completion without these external skills and influences. Time has proved me right.
The domed door
Thanks to the marqueteur who built the original door, and left the one vital clue, showing me how to replicate this challenging conundrum. Of course the answer will be revealed in my forthcoming book, “Chippendale’s classic Marquetry Revealed”.
The domed door was always going to be my ultimate challenge. The shape demands laying the veneers by the original hammer veneering technique, but also laying them on a surface that curves in three separate directions. Compound angles consist of vertical, horizontal and diagonal influences occurring simultaneously, pulling veneers where you don’t want them to go. The satinwood background consists of eight equal segments, which spread across the dome left to right. The vertical lengths of the veneers are broken where the marquetry green swags are inlayed. This separation removed the stress at the steepest part of the dome. The green swags, drops and tiny daisy flowers are inlayed using my handmade ‘inlay knife’ precisely the same as used to lay the original. I am proud, as anyone would that the work was successful. I even recorded the work on video, and when the footage is put together to form a composite recording, I will add it to this website.
The brass acanthus leaf (left) was one of eight castings. Two side cheeks, (centre) fitted left and right to each leaf, required sixteen castings in total. The acanthus leaf (right) was one of twenty-four, castings to wrap around each of the six legs. The original models needed to form the castings, were skilfully carved and shaped by Ron himself.
The centre drawer illustrates Ron’s perfectly constructed compartments, replicating exactly the original. My half-round fans continue across all drawer fronts and wrap around the two sides, providing the symmetry to balance the classic movement.
Building the Guilloche (pronounced gee-osh)
The guilloche was a favourite motif used in the 18th century, not just in marquetry, but also as woodcarving. Its intertwining rope effect, wrapping around red roundels, makes a challenging construction in the marquetry form. I had to make two; one situated either side of the two incurved end panels, each panel consisting of quarter book-matched satinwood background veneers. I offer step-by-step illustrations of all 18th century construction techniques, in my book, when published.
Thomas Chippendale’s tercentenary exhibition 2018
To celebrate Chippendale’s 300th birthday in 2018, the Chippendale Society, in conjunction with Leeds Museums and Galleries is planning an exhibition to showcase his work. The Leeds City Museum will exhibit work belonging to the Chippendale Society, and hopefully borrowing from other collections, and I will publish details of the event nearer the time. Yorkshire has a great concentration of houses with Chippendale furniture, and hopefully they will be part of the tercentenary celebrations too, celebrating one of Yorkshire’s greatest sons, whose design influence echoes down the centuries.