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Penwork in The English Interior

An amalgamation of different methods of design, penwork was a popular form of decoration from the latter 18th through the mid 19th century. Similar to lacquerwork, such as japanning, penwork requires varnish to be applied as the topmost layer to protect the decorative ink underneath. Though various forms of black ink and watercolor decoration were in practice before 1800, it is likely that penwork as a style became popularized in the first decade of the 19th century. The English Interior sale on September 23rd offers several fine examples of penwork.

In June 1810, bookseller Rudolf Ackermann, owner of the Repository of the Arts in the Strand, published the first known reference to penwork decoration in his periodical Repository of Arts referring to compositions with ‘a black ground, in imitation of Indian ivory inlaid work.’ He supplied all necessary materials and equipment for customers to undertake the art of penwork, which at the time was primarily performed by women of a higher social standing who had time to devote to creative pursuits.

After the death of Queen Charlotte in November 1818, her extensive collection of Indian ivory furniture was auctioned off the following year. This created heavy demand for imitation ivory inlaid furniture, an expensive luxury that the average person could not afford. Penwork was a perfect substitute for ivory inlaid furniture due to the contrasting light and dark tones produced by the reserves of paler woods often used as the base for penwork. Makers of Tunbridge ware, decoratively inlaid souvenir boxes manufactured in Tunbridge Wells, began incorporating more penwork into their oeuvre during this time and would continue producing penwork wares until 1830. It is believed that the popular ‘voiding’ of working in reserves on a black ground was developed by the professional craftsmen at Tunbridge, which can be seen in the Regency Brass and Gilt-Metal-Mounted Penwork Side Cabinet (Lot 441).

During the height of penwork popularity around 1820, the prince regent, George IV had great influence over the decorative schemes present at the time, popularizing Chinoiserie decorations as seen in Brighton Pavilion. Though penwork motifs could be procured from a variety of sources such as pattern books and other publications, many pieces were decorated by women working in their homes and therefore feature more unique decoration that may have been designed to match interiors or even stemmed from their personal interests.

Another lot in our upcoming sale, a Regency Penwork, Painted and Parcel Gilt Tilt-Top Games Table (Lot 450) with its medieval decoration, featuring coats of arms of the Magna Carta surety barons, is an example of a design that veers away from the typical Chinoiserie and scrollwork decoration often seen in this medium. Coats of arms of King John, the twenty-five barons, and dioceses such as London, Worcester, and Canterbury are drawn into squares on the games table, while scenes depicting jousts and the presentation of the Magna Carta are shown on all four sides of the tabletop.

Time & Location

The English Interior
Thursday, September 23 at 11am

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