Includes interesting stories from the world of leather and updates on the Museum. Issued periodically.
One of the most luxurious of decorated leathers is what has been called Spanish Leather, Cordovan, guadameci or, perhaps most correctly, gilt leather. From its foundation, the Museum of Leather Craft collected examples, ranging from screens and sections of wall hangings to single panels and fragments. This enabled it to arrange an exhibition of a representative sample of the collection, in London, in 1965. The interest aroused encouraged John Waterer to widen his researches into the history of this material, resulting in the publication of his book, Spanish Leather, in 1971. This was described as “The first serious full length study of this almost forgotten but once so important feature of interior decoration.” During his researches Waterer collected books and articles related to the production and use of gilt leather which form the core of the Museum’s Library collection on this material.
Despite its name, the production of gilt leather rarely involved the use of gold. Rather, uniform sized rectangular panels of vegetable tanned leather were completely covered with silver leaf. This was coloured using orange or yellow varnishes to give a golden appearance. The design was then applied using a range of coloured paints and glazes and this was enhanced by the use of a range of hand stamps, especially on the unpainted background gilt areas. Later, the three-dimensional effect was produced by pressing the varnished leather in embossing moulds before the application of the coloured design. In these ways, panels of leather, decorated with three-dimensional motifs, were produced which could be joined together to give sheets large enough to cover whole walls. One can imagine the effect of these with their bright colours and golden stamp marks glittering in flickering candlelight. This material was also employed widely for upholstery and chairs, covering trunks and the production of folding screens.
The Library holdings include a photocopy of Fougeroux de Bondaroy’s Art du Travailler les Cuirs Dorés ou Argentés. Although not published until 1762, it was written at the end of the seventeenth century at the height of the fashion for this material and provides an invaluable insight in to the materials and methods for its production. They also include a later edition of the sections relating to leather in Diderot’s Encyclopédie, first published in 1755. There is also the text, together with a set of plates from Clouzot’s Cuirs Décorés of 1925 which aimed to gather information from a range of somewhat obscure sources to form a coherent picture of the subject. Although in black and white, the photographs give an idea of the wide variety of patterns applied to gilt leather and how these followed other changes in fashion in interior design. This variety is also demonstrated by the illustrations in articles, including ‘Leather Screens’ a reprint from Country Life and ‘Dunster Castle, Somerset and its Painted Leather Hangings’ from The Connoisseur both by Waterer, as well as ‘Gilt Leather Rooms’ by Frances Lenygon from The Art Journal. This range of designs is also illustrated in the publications of museums such as the Deutsche Ledermuseum in Offenbach and the Museu de l’Art de la Pell in Vic. Important Gilt-Leather Wallhangings 1550-1900, the catalogue published by the fine art dealers Kunsthandel Glass, in 1998, with its introductory essays and numerous high quality colour plates, is an invaluable addition to the collection.
The introduction of unusual objects brought back by traders from the Far East in the eighteenth century led to a development of the chinoiserie style of interior decoration. Gilt leather manufacturers exploited this fashion and ‘Chinese’ rooms were decorated with leather wall hangings, screens and furniture in the style. Some of these still survive in grand country houses. Just as Europeans were fascinated with Eastern design, Japanese came to admire some of the exotic Western goods including gilt leather. The story is told in the catalogue of the 1989 exhibition, Goudleer Kinkarakawa.
The literature on gilt leather, particularly its conservation, has expanded rapidly since the publication of Waterer’s Spanish Leather. Those wishing to learn more can be directed to the comprehensive bibliography, prepared by the leading art historian on this subject, Eloy Koldeweij, in 1998. We have a copy in the Library.