The Old Barn • Les Dimes

Making Their Marque

27th May 2011

Jill Glenn visits Harrow Marquetry Group, as they prepare for the National Marquetry Exhibition, being held this coming week.

Marquetry – the applying of pieces of veneer to the entire surface of a board or piece of furniture, to form a design or a picture – is slow, skilful work. As a technique it has a long, involved history: a history as chequered, in fact, as the results themselves.

The inlaying or overlaying of wood, metal, ivory or bone is known to have been practised by both the Babylonians and the Egyptians nearly two thousand years ago, although it was not until the Middle Ages that marquetry as we know it today, became widely used in Italy.

Falling out of favour for a time, it was revived in a more artistic form for use on furniture in the 16th and 17th centuries, and was extensively used in Holland and Germany to decorate cabinets and sideboards and for panelling and architectural woodwork.

Marquetry become prized at the French court too. Marie Antoinette and Louis XIV were responsible (not personally…) for beautifully decorated furniture and pianos. English work was more restrained, until 1689, when the arrival of William of Orange and his retinue of skilled artisans, when marquetry became elevated – at least temporarily – to the status of a high art form.

Marquetry’s popularity has waxed and waned as artistic and interior tastes changed, but some 60 years ago interest in the craft was revived again. Despite the scientific precision with which a picture or design is developed, it’s a highly creative process, and the natural grain and faults of the wood veneers can be used to great effect.

The Marquetry Society was formed in 1952, and is now a leading authority on pictorial and applied marquetry. It’s a niche hobby, certainly, but once it has its scalpels into you, you’re hooked, so I’m told.

Harrow Marquetry Group is small (some 15 people), but, like the work it turns out, perfectly formed. It’s very friendly and welcoming, and the enthusiasm is palpable. Marquetry is a skill that anyone, regardless of age or gender, can learn, but although the Harrow group will happily accept members from the age of 12, and has had committed and successful youngsters in the past, most of the current group are long-standing – and, it’s fair to say – older.

Joan Phelan, for example, is 69, and has been a member for 18 years. She travels from Kew to Hatch End every Friday evening – to sit in the back room of a church, cutting out little bits of veneer and making pictures with them. That’s dedication. Alongside her is Chris Mills, 59, a member for 20 years. Both started this as an idle hobby; both have won prizes for their work at national level, although they’re keen to stress that the club atmosphere is not at all competitive. “Very friendly, “ says Joan. “Everyone helps each other.”

I visit on a night when members are preparing to send entries off to this week’s National Exhibition. I am, quite genuinely, awed by some of the works being reverentially unpacked and shown to me. These are intricate, complex pieces. Les Dimes, whose output is prolific, shows me a marquetry ‘photograph’ of his wife, so carefully realised that I would recognise her in the street as a result. His work-in-progress is a detailed study of a derelict Welsh chapel; he shows me the snapshots on which he’s basing it, and explains the changes he’s made. “I’ve moved the tower,” he says, “for a better balance, and I’m putting the grave further along.”

There is immense breadth and complexity to the range of work created by this artistic community. Les’s interests, for example, clearly lie in heavily detailed and realistic large-scale pictorial pieces; his marvellous image of musician Jimi Hendrix, an entry into this year’s National Exhibition, graces our front cover this issue. Other members might specialise in miniatures (a complete picture in just 12 square inches), or in parquetry, a neat variant form in which the patterns are angular and geometric in contrast to marquetry’s more natural, organic curves.

There’s a real skill to letting the veneers speak for themselves. A panel containing a very simple inlay of an Arctic Tern, created by Brian Freestone, takes my breath away with its realism and delicacy, and the clever way in which the natural lines of the wood represent the shape of the waves on the shore; his Musical Kaleidoscope, by contrast, is a riot of abstract colour, which demonstrates ably that marquetry is not all about shades of brown.

Whether it’s to your taste or not, you can’t fail to be impressed with the amount of work and concentration that has gone into them, and the amazing variety in the pieces on show. I’m offered the opportunity to try my hand – and when I’m done I’m even more impressed with what I’ve seen the others create. You need a steady hand, a clear head and just the right amount of pressure. It’s not hard, really, but it is difficult. I have the smallest kit, to create a twig with two leaves – pale out of dark or dark out of pale (the choice is mine and it’s about as creative as I get) – and I’m overwhelmed by how so simple a process, involving carbon paper, masking tape, thin veneer, scalpel and teaspoon, can be so challenging. There’s satisfaction in seeing two of the pieces fit together perfectly… and frustration in taking the tip off a leaf by mistake. Martin Bray, who’s been a member for around 15 years, is a relaxed tutor; his refrain “Just a little pressure, just a little…” is patiently, pleasantly reiterated. It’s not supposed to be a white-knuckle ride.

It’s galling for these practitioners that marquetry isn’t accorded more respect, and that the Royal Academy won’t admit pieces into the Summer Exhibition. The RA’s reasoning is that this is a craft, and not an art. Les’s manipulation of his chapel picture, though, rather belies such a narrow definition. The end piece won’t be a simple interpretation of someone else’s photograph, but his own conception. There’s as much integrity in this, and as much need to interpret nuances of colour and line as there is in a more conventional artistic form. You could just as well criticise a watercolorist for painting from a photograph.

Whether you think it art, or craft, or a fusion of the two, it’s a delight to see an old technique respectfully and lovingly brought into the modern age. Creating contemporary pieces and working with natural materials, it’s definitely a case, as they say, of letting the grain take the strain…

The 2011 National Marquetry Exhibition, hosted by the St Albans and Harrow Groups, takes place at Markyate Village Hall, Cavendish Road, Markyate, St Albans AL3 8PS, from Saturday 28 May to Saturday 4 June.

Opening times 10am to 5pm, except for the final day, 10am to 1pm.

Harrow Marquetry Group meets on Friday evenings in the Church Hall, Hatch End Free Church (corner of Rowlands Avenue & Uxbridge Road), Hatch End, from 7.30 to 10pm. For more details call 020 8845 7180.

See for further information.

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