“The distinct relief in which the patterns could be embossed, the brilliancy of colour of which the leather was susceptible, the high burnish which could be given to the gold, the durability, ease of application and resistance to damp, rendered the material peculiarly fitted for panels and hangings.”1
Gilt leather hangings rivalled tapestries in importance, and those wealthy enough to afford the cost aspired to have at least one room decorated with them. The earliest reference to them is in an inventory of Charles V of France dated 1380 and it is clear that by the early sixteenth century the silvering of the leather and the painting of designs were well established in Córdoba.
It seems probable that Arab traders introduced into Spain a number of the processes that were later employed in the production of gilt leather hangings. The chief of these was the method known as tawing, which involved the immersing of the raw hide or skin in a solution of alum. After soaking, the skins were staked by being pulled over a blunt-edged blade of wood or metal in order to soften them. They were then ‘fed’ or ‘stuffed’ by having fat, grease, flour and egg-yolk worked into the fibrous structure of the leather.
The skin was then given a coat of size made from parchment scraps and covered with a layer of silver leaf. It was hung up to dry and subsequently nailed to a board, cleaned and then cut to approximate size after which the surface was burnished with a lump of hematite. A design would either be drawn free-hand onto the surface, using ink made from lamp black and sandarac, or printed using a wooden block or metal plate. When this was dry, yellow varnish was applied to simulate gold, but where portions of the design were required to remain silver the varnish was scraped away with a knife. Where colours were used they were painted over the varnish. Hand-stamping with small ‘irons’ followed and finally the skin was trimmed to the exact size required.
Showing a room hung with gilded leather – With thanks to Margaret Pritchard
On April 30th 1669, Samuel Pepys described a visit to the coachmaker to see the progress on his first vehicle. He watched the application of successive coats of yellow varnish to the silvered covering until it gleamed like real gold. He tells us that he -
“…stood by it till eight at night, and saw the painter varnish it, which is pretty to see how every doing it over do make it more and more yellow: and it dries as fast in the sun as it can be laid on almost…”
This shows: (top) soaking skins, beating to soften, stretching, cutting to required size and hanging up to dry; and (below) left, applying and spreading the yellow varnish; right, after the imprinting in black of the design, removing yellow varnish where a silver effect is required.
This plate shows: (top. left to right) the press with moving bed operated by a windlass; applying size as adhesive for silver leaf; painting the (otherwise finished) panel; paring a narrow band or frieze; and burnishing the silvered surface; and (below) the various tools and appliances with (bottom right) a wooden mould used for embossing the design.
This might be compared with the second of the Diderot plates. Although first engraved in 1708 it was only published fifty-four years later. It is interesting to see the Chinoiserie embossing mould in the bottom right hand corner.
There were various centres of production throughout Europe, but during the eighteenth century a small group of workshops could be found around St Paul’s, in London. The trade was obviously of some importance, because it appears that by the latter half of the seventeenth century, the Painter-Stainers Company regarded themselves as consisting of four main groups: the Arms Painters, House Painters, Picture Makers and Leather Gilders.
A number of these leather gilders were quite successful men and several became Master of the Painter-Stainers Company, but whether they might have agreed with this comment on their art is not known:
“Leather gilding is an art of great profit and knowledge by means of which one makes friends with great personages: for the greater part of those who use it are illustrious and great because the art is very beautiful and delectable to behold. It is not without good cause that the art is called gilding, because the design is drawn in gold and silver, and it makes rich those who practise it in skilful manner”.2
An example of English gilt leather, which was produced by John Hutton “at the Golden-Lyon over against the South East Iron Gate in St Pauls Church Yard”, and dated ca.1756, is hanging in the Marble Dining Room at Ham House, near Richmond in Surrey. (Leather was frequently used in dining rooms because it was thought not to retain the smell of food – a notion that later led to the preference for paint rather than wallpaper in the dining room).
The ‘really’ smart combined gilt leather hangings with that other eighteenth century desideratum – a “Chinese Room”. Chinoiserie gilt leather hangings are now very rare. Only six different sets are known to survive, of which two are in England: at Honington Hall and in the Victoria and Albert Museum (from an unknown house in Norfolk, and later at Walhampton Manor. The other four are dispersed between Holland, in the Maastricht Town Hall; Sweden, in the Royal Castle, Ulriksdal; Germany, in Schloss Löwenburg (in the grounds of Schloss Wilhelmshöhe, Kassel; and Italy, in a private collection in Rome. Chinoiserie screens, on the other hand, have survived in much larger numbers.3
Here one can see the yellow varnish applied over silver leaf, which gives the appearance of gold.
The examples that survive are similar in character to the more common Chinoiserie wallpapers, some of which were renowned for the fidelity of the representation of plants and birds as the distinguished botanist, Sir Joseph Banks, observed in his “Journal” in 1770:
“A man need go no further to study the Chinese, than the China paper, the better sorts of which represent their persons and such of their customs, dresses, etc., as I have seen, most strikingly like, though a little in the caricature style. Indeed, some of the plants which are common to China and Java, as bamboo, are better figured there than in the best botanical authors that I have seen.”
Besides these floral designs there is an interesting type representing scenes from Chinese life. Robert Fortune, the introducer of so many Chinese plants and shrubs into England, found time in his travels in China to observe at the house of a mandarin of Tsee-kee:
“a nicely furnished room according to Chinese ideas, that is, its walls were hung with pictures of flowers, birds, and scenes of Chinese life…I observed a series of pictures which told a long tale as distinctly as if it had been written in Roman characters. The actors were all on the boards, and one followed them readily from the commencement of the piece until the fall of the curtain.”4
1 (Waterer 1946, 212).
2 Leonardo Fioraventi, Miroir Universel des Arts et Sciences. 1586.
3 (Koldeweij 2000, 67).
4 Quoted in (Lenygon 1927, 221).
For further information see:
August Denis Fougeroux de Bondaroy. L’Art de travailler des Cuirs Dorés ou Argentés. Paris, 1762.
E.A. Entwisle. The Book of Wallpaper, a history and an appreciation. Arthur Barker. 1954.
Hans Huth. “English Chinoiserie Gilt Leather”. The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs. Vol. 71 No 412 (Jul.1937) pp.25-27+30-33+35
Eloy Koldeweij. “Gilt Leather Hangings in Chinoiserie and other styles: An English Speciality”. Furniture History vol. XXXVI (2000) pp.61-101
Francis Lenygon. Decoration in England from 1640-1760. B.T. Batsford, 1927.
John W. Waterer. Leather in Life, Art and Industry. Faber and Faber, 1946
John W.Waterer. Spanish Leather. Faber and Faber, 1971
View Larger Map