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Lawrence Alma-Tadema? The Drawing Room, Holland Park 1887

Lawrence Alma-Tadema? The Drawing Room, Holland Park 1887, Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum (Bournemouth)

The Alma-Tadema painting from my last post is just one of many late 19th century works that feature an item of inlaid furniture. In that case, an inlaid Syrian chest figures prominently in a British home elaborately decorated in the style of the ‘the East’. Such furniture was also found in 19th century European paintings from a movement called Orientalism, which idealized views and scenes of the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey. Wildly popular at the time of their creation, these paintings fell out of favor, much like the Pre-Raphaelites, only to be re-appreciated at the end of the 20th century. Along the way they have stirred up much controversy about the patronizing nature of Orientalist views, but I am going to leave the politics aside and just share the decorative aspect of the paintings.

John Frederick Lewis’ Intercepted Correspondence from 1869 was a painting I looked at and perhaps should have included in my post on Iznik ceramics and the language of flowers. In it, a young woman is caught before her master with a bouquet from her lover. Much can be said about this work, but it is the elaborate mashrabiya, the dowel latticework covering the window openings and the small inlaid table on the bottom right side that catches my eye today. Over and over again, the key props in the work of the Orientalists are these types of screens, Iznik tiles, elaborate carpets and textiles, pipes, musical instruments and of course, inlaid furniture. In all of the paintings below, each one has the ubiquitous inlaid side table somewhere – be sure to spot them.

John Frederick Lewis - Intercepted Correspondence 1869

John Frederick Lewis, Intercepted Correspondence 1869

The 19th century painters aren’t the only ones to have a fascination with the east, for example 18th century Swiss-French painter Jean-Étienne Liotard visited Istanbul and painted numerous scenes like the one below, a formal precursor to these later works.

monsieur-levett-and-mademoiselle-helene-glavany-in-turkish-costumes-jean-etienne-liotard

Jean Etienne Liotard, Monsieur Levett and Mademoiselle Helene Glavany in Turkish Costumes 1738-41, The Louvre

But the advent of easier travel and discovery created an insatiable desire for the exotic and painters were happy to comply. Lewis spent ten years living in Cairo, which gives his work a very authentic feel.

'Interior of a School, Cairo', by John Frederick Lewis, watercolour. Museum no.68-1890, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

John Frederick Lewis, Interior of a School, Cairo 1890

Arthur Melville, a Scottish painter, also traveled in Persia, Egypt and Turkey from 1880–82.

Arthur Melville, An Arab Interior, 1881, courtesy National Galleries of Scotland.

Arthur Melville, An Arab Interior 1881, National Galleries of Scotland.

Austro-French painter Rudolf Ernst traveled to the Middle East in 1885. I am particularly intrigued by the bench in this painting as it is so reminiscent of the ones I recently purchased here. To see Ernst reusing his inlaid props over and over again, click here.

Rudolf Ernst Reading the Koran

Rudolf Ernst, Reading the Koran

In 1858 English painter Frederick Goodall spent eight months in Egypt, and he returned in 1870. He continued with Orientalist themes throughout his very successful career.

Copt Mother and Child', by Frederick Goodall, 1875, watercolour. Museum no. 517-1882, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Frederick Goodall, Copt Mother and Child 1875, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

One of the most common scenes painted was the interior of the harem and Lewis wasn’t the only one to paint it. These are clearly a fantasy view of the harem as the male painters would never have actually been able to enter the female spaces.

Frederick_Goodall_-_A_New_Light_in_the_Harem 1884

Frederick Goodall A New Light in the Harem 1884

French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme visited Egypt for the first time in 1856. He too became fascinated with orientalist themes.

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Pool in a Harem c. 1876

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Pool in a Harem c. 1876

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the Orientalists and I only included paintings with inlaid furniture in them for the sake of brevity and cohesion. I’m sure I’ll be returning to the subject sometime in the not so distant future.

If these richly adorned spaces have caught your eye, you must take a look at Bill Willis’s work in the 1960s and 70s for Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Berge amongst others in Marrakech. There is a great piece in the The Wall Street Journal really worth perusing and exploring for anyone interested in design related to the Middle East and North Africa. The late Alberto Pinto has some amazing rooms (including this lavender one I am always going on about) in his portfolio and his hard to find book Orientalism. More recent fantasies include Veronica Webb’s Key West home in Architectural Digest and Howard Slatkin’s extraordinary Orientalist library in New York City.

And as for the actual painter of the Alma-Tadema painting at the very top of the post? I was utterly sure I was on to something and that his daughter Anna had painted it, so I dug deep and came up with this great post. It always feels good to be right! I also think I need to get the book she mentions, Artistic Circles: Design and Decoration in the Aesthetic Movement.

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In addition to checking out housing and schooling, I was busy checking out the antiquing here in Doha on my ‘look-see’ (expat speak for a pre-move approval visit) last spring. I trolled the alleys of Souq Waqif, the central marketplace selling everything from delicious Iranian bread to stacks of cushions to tie-dyed baby chicks but not much in the way of antiques (or so it seemed at this first perusal). I turned a corner and under a colonnaded walkway stood this inlaid chest on triangular legs. These Syrian wedding trunks or sunduqs are highly decorated with mother-of-pearl inset between fine tin wires and sometimes additionally ornamented with brass or bone. They are one of the more common shapes found among antique inlaid furniture and you can see, while their ‘official’ use is as part of a bridal trousseau, they can obviously be useful to store just about anything.

Credited to Dutch born, but lifelong English resident painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema, this 1887 watercolor of his Drawing Room at Holland Park is a painting I have long had in my inspiration files. Alma-Tadema was famous for his hyper realistic oil paintings of Ancient Rome, Egypt and other Orientalist subjects – he was called the ‘marbelous’ painter for the perfection of his technique in depicting said stone. His own home in Regent’s Park was decorated in the high Aesthetic taste, an amalgam of styles and objects referencing Ancient Greek, Pompei, Byzantine and Ottoman Empires as well as Asian countries such as Japan. This still life of the drawing room is a quintessential example of the artistic taste of the period, with its exotic objets, portiere and Pre-Raphaelite portrait, and its main highlight – the inlaid Syrian dowry chest. [As an aside, I think this was actually painted by his daughter Anna, as she painted the other watercolor interiors of their home and this is not at all in the style of his oils. Take a look here and here at works credited to her and here for a large catalog of Alma-Tadema's classical paintings. Let me know if you agree with me.]

Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Drawing Room, Holland Park 1887.

Lawrence Alma-Tadema, The Drawing Room at Holland Park 1887, Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum (Bournemouth)

What I love about the next image is how it shows on one hand, how much has changed in interior design, while on the other, how little actually has. While the overall look and palette may have simplified, the main players are the same in this bedroom designed by Windsor Smith for Veranda‘s Greystone Estate showhouse. The portrait above the sunduq is now an antiqued mirror – still in a luscious gilded frame. Exotic Asian objects line the top of the chest, in this case Buddhas, and the luxurious bed hangings stand in for the portiere.

Windsor Smith inlaid trunk Veranda

In an even more paired down interior by Gerri Wiley in Traditional Home, the mother of pearl inlay sets a luminescent theme that is echoed in the chandelier, painting and soft silvery grays. I’m sure my Japanese glass fishing float junkies will notice the one bit of accent color.

inlaid trunk via veranda house

Los Angeles based designer Anna Hackathorn uses one to add texture to a grouping in a very California bohemian great room. I think the raised legs of these pieces are what make them so useful and easy to work with.

Anna Hackathorn inlaid dowry chest

Back on my home front, an artist friend here in Doha has created a modern still life with a Syrian dowry chest and her own work hung on a vintage wine bottle drying rack.

Inlaid syrian dowry chest

If you like the Alma-Tadema painting, be sure to watch for my next post featuring the 19th century Orientalist painters. They used inlay pieces as props all the time.

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I was thinking about writing a post to show the variety, similarities and differences of inlay work from around the world when I realized that my own collection was pretty diverse and readily available for photographing. Now that I have rounded it all up here it seems as if I have a lot of inlaid pieces, but because they each seem so different to me I just hadn’t noticed. Every piece has its own story, which is what I love about them all.

When we lived in Hong Kong in 1997 and 1998 I was cautious and slow to make purchases. There was a lot of bad “antique” Chinese furniture at the time, although much less so than today. Besides my 18th century bamboo altar table, my blanc de chine and some Japanese porcelain, I didn’t buy much. The only other item to catch my eye was this late Ming Dynasty lacquer, sharkskin and ivory inlaid box. Yes, real Ming Dynasty, as in the one from 1368–1644. It was, of course, way out of my price range and my sweet husband, while very kind and generous, was like “you want to spend what on a box?!?” So I bided my time and worked a lot and saved and negotiated hard with the dealer, while simultaneously bringing him lots of customers (As one of the best dealers around he did have very good merchandise, so no real ulterior motive there). By the time we were ready to move home, he knew the box had to leave with me. As a side note, it’s not uncommon for very fine antique inlaid boxes, lap desks and the like to be more expensive than much larger pieces of furniture as the finest detail and workmanship went into them as well as the highest quality materials.

Ming Chinese lacquer box inlay ivory shark skin

I’ve never seen a piece to compare with this one. The lacquer is so incredibly soft and silky and the ivory inlay is so fine. I can really see and feel the difference from my bone inlaid pieces. And before some of you get all bent out of shape about the ivory, do remember how old this box is! There are a few small inlay pieces that are green and while I don’t think they are jade as some have suggested, I’m not sure what they are. The edges of the box are wrapped in sharkskin or shagreen, a pebbled leather. There seems to be a four seasons theme, with flowers from each represented as well as the eight auspicious symbols of Buddhism.

ivory inlay detail

My favorite view is the side with bamboo, cherry blossom and chrysanthemum.

Chinese ivory inlaid box bamboo detail

At the absolute other end of the price and quality spectrum, this small round-topped table, with its collapsible octagon base is typically Indian by the style of its foliate carving, although such a common form could be from elsewhere in the region. It is not particularly old nor valuable. I found it at Yaskuni shrine, not long before I left Japan and it seemed like a cosmic signal that the move to Doha was a good next step, being somehow regionally appropriate – a rather broad reading of “local”. It has turned out to be the ideal size and height for between my two antique slipper chairs and thus extremely useful and quite decorative.

small side table slipper chairs

The bone inlay on this piece is almost irrelevant – literally besides the point – and clearly not secure as much of it has fallen out. It is the screen-like carving on the sides that catches the eye. Pieces like this are sometimes inlaid with brass in lieu of the bone or a combination of the two.

inlay detail

Indonesia is not the first place that comes to mind when thinking about inlay, but it does exist as a local handicraft both historically and currently, in particular on the island of Lombok, situated just east of Bali. The term used to refer to the mother of pearl inlaid furniture and accessories produced there is cukli. Without having any documentation, there is no doubt in my mind that the art of inlay arrived in Lombok either via the Dutch, who first visited in 1674, before colonizing the region or hand in hand with the introduction of Islam in either the 16th or 17th century. The Lombok pieces are referential to although simplified versions of the North African and Arabic patterns. You’ll see similar pieces in museums made in Burma or the Philippines too, which also had their origins through trade and colonization.

moth of pearl Lombok trunk

My trunk is gently vintage, no more than about 30 years old and in my possession for 15 of those. It is a fairly crude piece, the pattern typical of the work and clearly hand carved and individually glued with small pieces of mother of pearl. It does have a lovely patina which the newer Lombok pieces lack, having often been shellacked to within an inch of their lives.

mother of pearl Lombok trunk inlay detail

Since I arrived in Doha, two new pieces of inlaid furniture have made their way home with me. Just after moving in, I spotted this inlaid Syrian table at one of the few antique stores in town. It caught my eye immediately as I was hoping that there would still be finds to be made here as I was already missing my shrine sales.

inlaid syrian table mother of pearl Doha

I absolutely loved the checkerboard-like detail and the fanciful carvings – it was a much more unusual piece than I’d seen in person before. Since then I’ve seen other even more elaborate museum quality pieces similar to this, but they have had a shiny formality and a stiffness to their design that this piece, with its lovely patina and cheeky pattern, does not.

inlay table detail

I have been moving it around the house as you can tell from the photos, but there isn’t anywhere truly ideal for it here so I am planning on boxing it up and taking it back to our beach house in the US this summer. It would be added into the textile mix of this…

pillow mix Robshaw Ralph Lauren  Nathan Turner bamboo daybed

…and this. Pretty perfect, no?

Brigitte Singh Hibiscus Branch TV room curtains

My newest addition was unexpected although very needed. As I mentioned in a recent post, the overhead lights here are glaring and I just don’t have enough lamps. I stumbled across this bone inlaid Syrian beauty lying in pieces at a junk shop – it was so inexpensive that it was well worth the risk of buying. One of the charms of Doha is all the very low-priced services – the antithesis of Japan – and for about $12 the electrician rewired it (he came to my house to get it and drop it off) and then for another $12 the furniture repair guys put it back together (they came to my house to get it and drop it off). Add an IKEA lamp shade, which still needs a bit of jury rigging, and it is spectacular (if only I could stop by Robert Kime for a lampshade – then we’d be talking off the charts spectacular!) Clearly 20th century – it is electric after all – but nicely vintage based on the brass lamp fittings.

Syrian inlaid lamp

The lamp has a typically Syrian detail, the fine wire running through the pattern that in a truly valuable antique piece would actually be silver, brass or another metal. In this case it is also bone.

Syrian lamp inlay detail

My pieces of inlaid furniture aren’t limited to the house here in Doha. The beach house has its own share, both with the table headed there from above and this set of stacking tables. These lovelies are Anglo-Indian – they have a traditional European shape with bone inlay. They were an incredible find in a very run down mixed dealer antiques mall on the Jersey shore in the very first summer after we had just moved in. I spotted them in the corner and knew their petite size and lines would be perfect for the house. After I dug them out, I could feel the radar of every person and other dealer in the place turn and fix on us intently (a comparison I would make to Sauron’s eye in ‘The Lord of the Rings’). I wanted to finish browsing so I turned to my sweet husband and said “do not let go of these for even an instant!” He thought I was being a bit crazy but as the sharks started circling he realized it was no joke. He is nowhere near as experienced as I am in shopping object envy and the way it can make others behave.

anglo indian bone inlay table beach house

You can see how fine the detail is in comparison to my newer rougher pieces like the Lombok trunk and the small Indian side table. At the same time, these tables have plenty of nicks and wear, which adds to their charm. They are so flexible and useful, although most of the time they sit just like this, housing the library books in a lovely custom-made market basket by PaperGlueBamboo.

anglo indian inlaid table detail

And I do actually have another inlaid piece at the shore – a pair of contemporary bone inlay and resin pieces, although I haven’t actually seen them in situ. I ordered the Aleppo side tables from Serena & Lily as my master bedroom night stands at the beach house just as I was leaving at the end of the summer. For some reason they seem to have been renamed the Leila table in the interim and are so popular that they are back-ordered 3-4 months on the website. I’ll have to let you know what I think of it once I get back to the USA for the summer.

Aleppo Inlay Serena and Lily

They are going right in here.

master bedroom

Funnily enough, I just realized that don’t have any Japanese antiques or objects that I consider true inlay. My lacquer pieces are surface based and not inlaid. Odd don’t you think?

If you have any inlaid pieces you’d like to share, please drop me a note and photo!

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