Inlay is a decorative technique where small pieces of material are inserted into accurately cut spaces on the surface of an object to form a pattern or picture. It is very often executed with wood veneers, but shaped pieces of any suitable substance can be used in theory. Materials such as ivory, horn, tortoiseshell, enamel, porcelain; and metals, such as gold, silver, copper or brass have all been inlaid on to furniture to great effect; and even pliant materials such as leather, vellum or parchment can be used.
Colourful semi-precious stones such as agate, cornelian, lapis lazuli and marble are also used for inlays, using sophisticated techniques such as mosaic, micro-mosaic, scagliola and pietra dure.
André-Charles Boulle (attr.), Cabinet on a stand, France, c.1665$70, (gilt bronzes by Jacques Caffiéri). In carving these patterns out, Boulle created a ‘negative’ of the original, where the tortoise shell now formed the background and the brass the pattern – this gave rise to the two processes which bear his name – Boulle and Counterboulle. Boulle placed gold leaf and other materials under the tortoise shell, chased the brasswork with a graver (engraving tool), and used brass mounts, such as claw feet or figures, both high and low relief, in order to achieve the desired effect.
There are examples of inlay from the earliest times: ivory and bone were inlaid into Egyptian furniture, while pictorial representations in inlay have been found in Greek and Roman pieces. The earliest examples of decoration and inlays on the furniture from Mesopotamia and Egypt probably had a symbolic or magical function. The ornamentation seems to have increased as the level of functionality of the piece decreased.
Ivory, small plaques of figured marble, semi-precious stones and tortoise shell were used as costly inlays on silvered grounds in Renaissance and Baroque pieces — initially sparingly but increasingly lavishly with time. By the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, furniture from all over Europe was extremely richly decorated with inlays of shell, ivory or metal onto wood veneers in a huge variety of patterns and pictorial images including floral motifs.
Florence, 1695-1732. An ebony, inlaid hardwood and ormolu cabinet, with ten cedar-lined drawers inlaid with birds, foliage and flowers. It has panels of amethyst quartz, bold strips of lapis lazuli and red jasper, ormolu swags of flowers and chalcedony lion masks.
During the Rococo period, the marquetry and inlay work in France reached unprecedented levels of quality, and often formed a background for richly decorative mounts of gilded bronze and ormolu. André-Charles Boulle perfected this technique, taking it a step further by inlaying brass carvings (sometimes in combination with enameled metal) of flowers, scenes and scrolls into the wood or tortoise shell.
Inlays, particularly in metal, continued to be popular in Britain and the United States during the Neo-classical revival at the beginning of nineteenth century. Pieces by George Bullock and Charles-Honoré Lannuier are particularly identified with metal inlays. Other techniques involved the use of semi-precious stones, coloured glass and tinted marbles to create pictorially inlaid table-tops and patterned panels, giving a highly decorative finish to furniture and architecture, for example the columns in the anteroom for Robert Adam at Syon House near London. Scagliola (Ital. scaglia, ‘chips’).
Scagliola (Ital. scaglia, ‘chips’) is a tinted, plaster-like substance created from selenite, glue and natural pigments to imitate marble and other hardstones. It can either be applied straight to an object, or used to fill the indentations of a carved-out pattern on a prepared smooth base. The dried scagliola is then polished with oil for brightness, and waxed for protection, to give rich colours and a durable surface.
Scagliola has a complex texture and depth of colour not achievable in natural veined marble. It became fashionable in the seventeenth century as a cheaper substitute for costly marble inlays, although the earliest examples originate from Roman architecture. It was imitated throughout Europe until the nineteenth century, when Italian craftsmen were brought to England to create scagliola finishes in some of the finest homes and buildings of the period. One of the earliest known examples of scagliola in England is the fireplace surround and Bacchus niche at Castle Howard, decorated by Giovanni Bagutti in 1711–12.
Craftsmen inlaying nickel stringing into a lacquered tabletop which will be supported by white gold fluted bases for a Gosling private client.
Scagliola’s popularity continued in the United States in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with examples evident in many public buildings. Although once considered an inexpensive alternative to natural stone, it is now prized for its historic value and has recently taken on something of a new lease of life, partly due to the efforts of a small number of artisan workshops who continue to perfect this craft. It is still used in modern construction as it is a plastic material which can be moulded into ornate shapes, and thus it mitigates the rising costs of quarrying and the difficulty of obtaining some colours and types of marble.
Pietra dure (Ital. ‘hard stone’) is the art of making intricately inlaid patterns, and often very realistic pictures, using small, carefully cut and shaped pieces of coloured hardstone. These are highly polished and fitted together to create a form of stone marquetry, often referred to as ‘painting in stone’. It differs from mosaic in that the stones used tend to be smaller and not cemented together with grout, and the works themselves are generally portable. The stones are usually silicates and include coloured marbles, agates, alabaster, malachite, onyx, amethyst, jade, jasper, lapis lazuli and topaz; even precious stones can be used.
The art flourished in Florence in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and is said to have originated in Italy, although it may be Indian in origin, or at least had an independent development in that country. The first pietra dure workshop in Europe seems to have been established by the Medici family in Florence in 1588, but the art was widely practiced at the courts of Naples, Madrid, Prague, Paris and elsewhere. From the late sixteenth century pietra dure was used for small objects such as cameos and bowls, and in furniture for tabletops, drawer fronts and small inlaid panels. Some of the most striking and well known examples of pietra dure can be found at the Taj Mahal, where the Mughal emperor who commissioned it, Shah Jahan, asked for precious stones to be inlaid in white marble.
The technique is skilled and labourintensive, and involves assembling the stones in the pattern and then gluing them, stone by stone, to a support or base. The stones must be sliced into different forms, and then built up so that the contact between each section is almost invisible. The pattern is often crafted on green, white and black marble base stones and bound together by an encircling frame.
Pietra dure’s popularity continued into the nineteenth century but then declined; although recently there has been something of a revival particularly in luxury decors.
Plura, Scagliola at Castle Howard, 1711-12. The fireplace surround and Bacchus niche at Castle Howard, one of the earliest examples of scagliola in England.