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  • Place of origin:

    England (made)

  • Date:

    1860-1870 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown (makers)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Papier mâché, japanned, and painted with appliqué of mother-of-pearl

  • Credit Line:

    Bequeathed by Mr Eugene Guye

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    British Galleries, Room 122, case 6

Object Type
The shape and decoration of this tray show the influence of 18th-century French styles on 19th-century designers and makers. The tray is shaped so as make it easy for a maid to carry.

Ownership & Use
Trays were supplied in sets of three or more in different shapes and sizes for serving tea in drawing rooms. As rooms used mainly by women, these were most likely to be decorated in styles, patterns and colours based on 18th-century French designs, similar to those of this tray. Such designs were fashionable for these rooms as they were light and decorative and so considered feminine. Papier mâché ‚ was preferred to metal for trays because it dulled the sound of clinking glass and china when used for serving food or drinks.

Materials & Making
Papier mâché was made by pasting layers of paper over moulds of the required shape, a job mainly done by women and girls. The object was then oiled and baked at very high temperatures. The shape of this tray would have been finished by a cabinet-maker before it was varnished and dried in a stove. The mother-of-pearl was applied before the painted decoration, which was followed by a final coat of varnish, further stove drying, and polishing.

Physical description

Papier mâché, japanned, parlour-maid's tray, shaped for carrying close to the front of the body. There is shell inlay on a black ground, with the outer rim convex and scalloped, and the inner rim slightly concave and plain. The surface is decorated with a painted design of floral brackets and festoons, incorporating in the centre an arch of floral trellis containing a vase of flowers.

Place of Origin

England (made)


1860-1870 (made)


Unknown (makers)

Materials and Techniques

Papier mâché, japanned, and painted with appliqué of mother-of-pearl


Height: 49.5 cm, Width: 62 cm, Depth: 2.6 cm

Object history note

Made in England

Descriptive line

Papier mâché tray with garlands and shell inlay, decorated with floral brackets and festoons. British, ca. 1865.

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’.

Labels and date

British Galleries:
Papier mâché‚ was used to make many small, decorative objects in the French style. This design of arches with light swags of flowers was loosely based on engraved designs by the French designer Jean Berain I (1640-1711). Reprints of these engravings were published from 1849 onwards. [27/03/2003]






Furniture; British Galleries


Furniture and Woodwork Collection

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