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  • Place of origin:

    Birmingham (manufactured)

  • Date:

    ca. 1850 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Jennens & Bettridge (manufacturer)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Japanned and painted wood, with papier mâché and mother-of-pearl; painted and mother-of-pearl cartouche depicting an unidentified Gothic ruin; replacement upholstery

  • Credit Line:

    Given by Mr Marmaduke Langdale Horn

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    Furniture, Room 135, The Dr Susan Weber Gallery, case BY10, shelf EXP []

Papier mâché objects were very popular in the period from 1840 to 1860. During this period French eighteenth-century styles were very fashionable in Britain, and the cabriole legs and shaped back of this chair reflect this influence.

Often skilled artists were employed to decorate pieces such as this with a wide range of subjects, including landscapes, medieval buildings or naturalistic floral sprays. This is one of a set of chairs, each with a different building shown on its back. Papier mâché manufacturers used illustrations of historic buildings and ruins - based on the images found on souvenirs that were produced by enterprising publishers of guidebooks, prints, photographs and albums - to decorate products, such as the back of this chair. However this scene on this chair has not been identified.

Place of Origin

Birmingham (manufactured)


ca. 1850 (made)


Jennens & Bettridge (manufacturer)

Materials and Techniques

Japanned and painted wood, with papier mâché and mother-of-pearl; painted and mother-of-pearl cartouche depicting an unidentified Gothic ruin; replacement upholstery


Height: 82.5 cm, Width: 50.5 cm, Depth: 63.5 cm

Object history note

Probably manufactured by Jennens & Bettridge, Birmingham

Descriptive line

Papier mâché chair with painted and pierced back

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

About 1850

Probably made by Jennens & Bettridge, Birmingham
Wood, japanned and painted, with papier mâché and mother-of-pearl
Seat: under upholstery with horsehair stuffing (original), wood and silk top cover (replaced)

Given by Mr Marmaduke Langdale Horn
Museum no. W.3B-1929

The convex chair back was moulded papier mâché. To carve such a deep form would have been laborious and expensive. Theodore Jennens patented his process for steaming and pressing laminated papier mâché sheets in 1847. The technique was used for chair backs, trays and smaller decorative goods. [01/12/2012]

Production Note

The legs and seat rails of the chair are constructed of wood. The back is comprised of two papier mâché sections. The larger section is a sheet of papier mâché that forms the whole back, and the smaller section is behind, to add strength to the back.

Small areas of damage to the edge of the back of the chair reveal that it was made of layers of paper sheets. The paper, made of rags, was supplied in sheets which were cut to shape and laid on a greased mould to be smoothed over with a hand tool to remove bubbles and impurities. Further sheets were added, pasted together and stove dried before a further process of oiling and stove drying to make the paper strong, hard and water resistant, a process that also changed the colour of the paper from grey to brown. The back and the smaller strengthening panel, which was probably made by a similar process, were then attached to the wooden legs and stretcher. X-rays reveal that the smaller section is attached to the back with tacks, and magnets indicate that the tacks were applied from the back, however it they do not reveal how the back panels were attached to the wooden frame. The front of the back panel also has raised areas, that have been pinned onto it: the scrolling elements that form the frame of the cartouche, and the two small bosses that form the centre of the scrolls that flank the base of the back.

Once the chair had been assembled the surface treatment could begin. The mother-of-pearl was filed down to thin flakes. A coat of size was applied to the blank article, and before it was dry the shell shapes were positioned. The article was then taken to the blacking room where it received several coats of black japan, each coat being thoroughly stove-dried before the next was added. Finally the surface of the article was rubbed with pumice until the black was removed from the mother of pearl and the surface was level. After more polishing, the painted decoration was added by hand, and the surface of the mother-of-pearl was coloured with transparent paints. A transparent varnish was then applied and a final polish given.

The construction of the seat upholstery is unusual. Although it looks as though there are layers of stuffing materials tacked to the frame of the chair under the modern cover, the original upholstered seat was in fact made separately and dropped inside the frame. The top cover was then tacked lightly onto the frame. This method prevented the vulnerable surface of the papier mâché being damaged by the upholsterer hammering in tacks to hold the various layers of stuffing materials.



Production Type

Mass produced


Furniture and Woodwork Collection

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