Great Example of Chinoiserie Penwork

July 1 2009, 5:20pm

In her recent book, Penwork: A Decorative Phenomenon, Noël Riley explores the techniques, influences, and social contexts from which the art developed. An invention of the 17th century, penwork, was a technique of painting initially meant to imitate the lacquer of the Far East but  which grew to include painted simulation of ivory inlay, scagliola and papier-mâché.1 We were excited to see a photo of one of our cabinets in the Chinoiserie chapter of the book on page 129!

The highly unusual painted decoration of the cabinet, which has been remarkably well preserved, draws its inspiration from the rich decorative vocabulary of 18th century chinoiserie, combining these elements in a unique and imaginative way. The graceful figures to the front panels, in balanced but differing poses, offer a more artistic technique than the often formulaic approach of Regency designers and are closer to the work of the celebrated early eighteenth-century cabinet maker and lacquer-worker Giles Grendey (1693 – 1780). The pagodas which decorate the sides of the cabinet were a fashionable element in the exotic royal and aristocratic interiors of the Regency period, yet  have their roots in 18th century Chinoiserie.

The decoration of the cabinet further departs from the convention of the Regency in the subtle coloration of the painted scheme. In being limited to two colors, it follows the theory of grisaille decoration, again in diametric opposition to the vividly colored schemes of the Regency. Finally, the script on the top of the cabinet is a highly unusual and inventive conceit and was intended to be seen as Chinese, however the individual characters are an invention and cannot be read. These decorative themes, accompanied by the subtle 18th century form of the cabinet, make it a very fine George III example of chinoiserie furniture in penwork.

Footnote: 1. Riley, Noël. Penwork: A Decorative Phenomenon. West Yorkshire: Oblong Creative Ltd., 2008. ix.