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Writing box

Writing box

  • Place of origin:

    Birmingham (probably, made)

  • Date:

    1840-1860 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Jennens & Bettridge (makers)

  • Materials and Techniques:


  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    In Storage

Physical description

Papier-mâché writing box with decorations of fruit and flowers on the lid, painted and inlaid with mother of pearl. The borders of the lid and the box are decorated with gilt arabesques, picked out in red and blue. The interior is fitted out with compartments covered in white and pink silk. The inside of the lid is lined with pink velvet. There are two ink pots and a glass tray for pens.

Place of Origin

Birmingham (probably, made)


1840-1860 (made)


Jennens & Bettridge (makers)

Materials and Techniques



Height: 2.5 in, Length: 1 ft, Width: 10.75 in

Descriptive line

Papier-mâché writing box by Jennens & Bettridge, with decorations of fruit and flowers on the lid, painted and inlaid with mother of pearl. English, ca. 1850.

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

The following excerpt is taken from Jones, Yvonne, Japanned Papier-Mâché and Tinware c. 1740-1940. Woodbridge, Antique Collectors' Club, 2012 (ISBN 978 1 85149 686 0), p.23-27:

‘Paper is believed to have been invented in China in the second century AD, and the Chinese art of making papier mâché objects is almost as ancient, but knowledge of paper-making spread only very slowly and it not reach Europe until the 12th century. Paper-mills were established in France in the late 15th century and soon after, French craftsmen began using paper pulp to make architectural ornaments, snuff boxes and other small articles. There were few paper mills in England until the late 17th century, so there was little pulp from which to make comparable articles, the paper imported from France being far too expensive to be pulped for the purpose.
By the 18th century, however, there were two quite distinct branches of paper mâché manufacture in England. One was allied to the making of paper hangings, and the other, to the japanning industry. Both branches took their lead from France and this, together with the name, has not only perpetuated the myth that papier mâché was French in origin, but also overshadowed its ancient eastern history.
Not only was the term papier mâché not recognised in 18th century French dictionaries, but the Journal de l’Agriculture du Commerce (1778) sourced it to England and to the first edition of Dossie’s book, The Handmaid to the Arts (1758). Its occurrence, much later in the French edition of the Paris Exhibition catalogue of 1855, may simply have been the result of the translation of texts supplied by English manufacturers. The term is, however, currently used in France today.
It has been suggested that the term derives from problems of communication between English employers and French émigré workers in the 17th century when papier mâché was probably taken to mean ‘mashed paper’ (or chewed paper)…. The crux was the cachet of a French sounding name and the penchant in some quarters if fashionable society in the late 18th century to look upon anything French as highly sophisticated.

Some of the advantages of papier mâché, gleaned from contemporary records, partly explain its attractions and may have been sufficient, at least until the mid-19th century, to outweigh what will be seen as its long and labour intensive production processes. Foremost was its suitability for japanning, which was much in vogue in the 18th century.
Furthermore, because it could be moulded into various forms, it required no joinery and was thus incredibly strong. As solid as wood, though less hard than most, it was said to blunt tools sooner, and although heavier in mass, its strength allowed it to be used in thin sections, rendering it perfect for small light objects….By the mid-19th century, it was found that it could be steam-moulded into any curve without fear of splitting. In short, it was considered superior to both wood and metal for being lighter, sounder, and admitting of a more beautiful finish’.

The following excerpt is taken from Jones, Yvonne, Japanned Papier-Mâché and Tinware c. 1740-1940. Woodbridge, Antique Collectors' Club, 2012 (ISBN 978 1 85149 686 0), p. 144.

"The partnership between Aaron Jennens (1788-1868) and John Bettridge (b.1790) is one of the best known in the history of the English papier mâché industry. It first appeared in the Birmingham Rate Book for the years 1810-13 when they occupied premises in Lionel Street, where one of their varnish suppliers, Messrs Thornley and Knight, was also situated.
Between 1851 and 1852, when they were described as the largest manufacturers of papier mâché in England, they had an office in New York, possibly in anticipation of the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations, held there in 1853.
Though there is now a popular tendency for any unmarked yet good examples of Victorian papier mâché to be attributed to Jennens and Bettridge, there is no doubt that their reputation is justly deserved and of long standing; in their day, they were judged to have 'no rivals, or anything approximating to an equality' (Court, W.B., Rise of the Midland Industries 1600-1838, Oxford University Press, 1965, p.235)."


Papier-mâché; Mother; Glass

Subjects depicted

Floral; Fruit


Containers; Writing


Furniture and Woodwork Collection

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