Last weekend saw my wife and I entertaining one of our grandchildren and me suddenly remembering papier-mâché at school. Out came the flour and water and in no time we had a couple of bowls covered with sticky strips of paper and a mess everywhere. I started to explain to our little charge about papier-mâché furniture, but interest in the subject soon waned.
Papier-mâché furniture became popular in the Victorian period of the 19th century. The decoration is japanned or varnished onto a mostly black background.
Papier-mâché furniture was produced by a number of makers but they largely remained anonymous. However, Jennens and Bettridge is one company whose name is synonymous with papier-mâché. In 1816 they took over the firm of Clays in Birmingham and from then on began the great age of japanned papier-mâché for which they are now famous.
Their earlier pieces tended to be smaller items such as bottle coasters, writing slopes, trays, glove boxes and fans. Once the market had accepted these smaller items they began to experiment with larger pieces which included furniture like dressing tables and cabinets.
Pieces by Jennens and Bettridge do carry the company mark, usually impressed on the reverse beneath a crown. No other papier-mâché companies are known to have signed their wares.
Decoration is usually hand painted and elaborate, showing flowers, birds or on occasion even full landscapes. Giltwork was commonly incorporated into the design and used on borders and rims of furniture. Mother of pearl inlay was another typical feature and this was introduced by George Souter at Jennens and Bettridge in 1825.
The condition of japanned papier-mâché items is a crucial factor in estimating their value. Papier- mâché needs to breath and is liable to crack and warp if not given sympathetic conditions. The effects of central heating can be truly devastating on a piece. Beware, because restoration is very difficult and often unsuccessful.
Senior Valuer Michael Dowse
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