illustration by julia rothman
So for my first column after my little hiatus to finish up some d*s book projects, I thought it would be fun to take a look at the history of a craft room staple – decoupage! The art of decoupage is thought to have its roots in East Siberian tomb art. It was perfected in China where it was used as early as the 12th century for decorative objects. But our little look into decoupage is going to focus on the craze that overtook Europe in the 18th century!
18th century Italian lacca povera semaniers, 1st dibs $15,900
Decoupage was first used in Europe by resourceful Venetian artisans as a way to capitalize on the craze for lacquerware that was being imported from Asia. Those artisans developed the technique of taking sheets of engravings which were hand-colored, and cutting and pasting them onto the surface of furniture. Several layers of varnish were applied to create the high-gloss sheen reminiscent of traditional lacquer work. The Venetians called this relatively inexpensive technique lacca povera.
Spanish lacca povera box sold at Christies, $17, 436
In 18th century France, the technique was renamed découpage (taken from the verb découper, ‘to cut out’) and was extremely popular amongst a circuit of fashionable ladies (and some men!). Finding suitable prints to cut up was a little more difficult in 18th century Europe (no Kinkos color copiers!) and engravers offered prints for sale that were specifically aimed at the decoupage artists. It was difficult to satiate the decoupage artists appetite for new images, and they would take their scissors to anything. At the court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, the ladies cut up original paintings by Boucher, Watteau and Fragonard in their quest for new decorations for their decoupage fans, boxes or screens.
And if all this talk of decoupage leaves you hankering to try your hand at the centuries old technique, I’ve included a little DIY for a decoupage pencil holder!
CLICK HERE for the rest of the post including “books to read” and “facts to know”!
from the Mary Delany collection at the British Museum
18th century Britain was also enamored with the art of decoupage and every woman had a pair of fine scissors in her possession. The ultimate wiz with scissors was Mary Delany (nee Granville), the English aristocrat, who only began to imitate flowers in paper collages after the death of her second husband at age 72! Mary had been married at the age of 17 against her will to a husband who was nearly 60 and early in life she occupied her time with crafts.
from the Mary Delany collection at the British Museum
Her favorite crafts were shell decoration, silhouette portraits and needlework. Her first husband died in 1724 – when Mary was only 24 – but she remained a widow until she was 44. Her second marriage to Dr. Delany lasted for 25 years and was an extremely happy one. When Dr. Delany died, Mary lived for some time with the Duchess of Portland and when that friend died(Mrs. Delany lived until she was 88, so she outlasted many of her friends) she moved into a small house owned by the King and Queen!
magnolia from the Mary Delany Collection at the British Museum
In order to accurately imitate flowers, Mrs. Delany would set to work with the specimen before her. Then she cut tiny pieces of paper to represent the various parts of the flower using lighter and darker papers to create the effect of shading. She glued her papers on a black background would layer the papers on top of one another. The plants were always represented at life size and a single image might contain hundreds of pieces. She was a quick worker and created thousands of these collages in the last decade of her life. (Browse Mrs. Delany’s flowers at the British Museum here)
(The Yale Center for British Art currently has on exhibition 30 of Mrs. Delany’s floral collages. These works are part of the British Museum’s collection of 1,000 paper collages and are rarely loaned out – so if you have the opportunity – go, go, go!)
clockwise from left: turtle platter $310, barnacle apothecary jar $3, 080, artichoke $75, oval paper weights $30 each, butterfly dome $550, rabbit oval platter $75 -all from john derian
It’s pretty amazing that this craft still has appeal today. I’d be remiss if I left out the modern decoupage master – John Derian! Derian created his first decoupaged glass plate in 1989 and his name is certainly synonymous with high-end decoupage today! Derian uses reproductions of antique images and each of his decoupaged pieces are still created by hand. It’s definitely a big wow! And check out his decoupaged entry below. I love decoupage brought inside! Fun!
john derian’s decoupaged entry hall from 1st dibs style compass
Facts to Know
- One of Mrs. Delany’s closest friends was the Duchess of Portland, who was the richest woman in Britain. The Duchess was a great collector and she purchased the Portland Vase – which was a huge source of inspiration for Josiah Wedgwood – from Sir William Hamilton.
- Marie Antoinette wasn’t the only queen who loved decoupage. Queen Charlotte was a decoupage enthusiast and friend to Mrs. Delany, and the Queen’s grand-daughter, Queen Victoria was also a decoupage collector!
Books to Read
- “Cutting up Berchems, Watteaus, and Audrans”: A “Lacca Povera” Secretary at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Daniëlle O. Kisluk-Grosheide Metropolitan Museum Journal, Vol. 31, (1996), pp. 81-97 – A scholarly article about some of lacca povera items in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum.
- Judith Miller Furniture: World Styles from Classical to Contemporary – Although this book has only a tiny section on lacca povera, it is a great resource for furniture history. It’s a little pricey, but definitely one of the books you’ll refer to frequently.
- Mrs. Delany: her life and her flowers by Ruth Hayden – I love this little book! It’s written by one of the descendants of Mrs. Delany and it’s just a great look into the life of an amazingly talented woman.
- Mrs. Delany and her circle – this is the companion book to the Yale exhibition. If you love this kind of thing, but can’t make it to the show, put this book on your Christmas list.
decoupage a glass to create a pencil holder!
Cavallini Gift Wrap – for cut-outs
Elmer’s Glue – note: Mod Podge isn’t the best adhesive to use under glass – If you apply an even layer of glue between the paper artwork and the glass (without air bubbles), it will dry clear. If you remove too much glue, it will dry with streaks or shiny spots.
tiny, sharp scissors
- Spray your chosen images with the acrylic coating (This step is not absolutely necessary, but it does make the image easier to cut. And if you’re using a digital print it ensures the ink won’t run.)
- Prep your glass by washing it, then wiping it down with vinegar to remove any soap residue. Let the glass air dry.
- Cut out your images
- Soak the image in hot water for a few seconds.
- Brush Elmer’s glue onto the wet image.
- Apply image to the glass.
- Repeat until you’ve finished the design.
- Using a foam brush, wipe any excess glue off the glass.
- Let dry overnight.
- Paint the inside of the glass your chosen color. (Be sure it dab your paint around the images, rather than brush it over) – I chose black in homage to Mrs. Delany!
- Give the glass a second coat.
- Let dry overnight.