PAPIER MACHE THE BEGINNING…
This armor comes from the armory of Daté Yoshimura (1703–1746), daimyo of Sendai. The helmet bowl, signed Saotome Iye, dates from the sixteenth century; the remainder of the armor was constructed in the eighteenth century. The breastplate is inscribed inside with the armorer’s name, Myochin Munesuke (1688–1735). The embossed ornament on the solid iron plates is characteristic of the Myochin school.
PAPIER MACHE HAS AN EXCITING AND ANCIENT HISTORY, ORIGINATING IN CHINA IN THE EARLY YEARS OF THE 2ND CENTURY AD. IT HAS BEEN USED SINCE TO MAKE CHAIRS FOR ROYALTY, PANELS FOR COACHES, JEWELERY, AND EVEN CHINESE SPEARS AND ARMOUR.
Paper was first made by Ts’ ai Lun, an official at the Chinese court of the Emperor Ho Ti at the beginning of the 2nd century A.D., who developed an ingenious way of breaking down plants and rags into single fibres. The fibres were pounded to a pulp and collected on a fabric-covered frame, where they matted and dried as paper. In the 8th century a few Chinese prisoners, captured during the war between China and Persia, were sent to Samarcanda, that was in that time under the Arabian domination, where they taught to the local craftsmen the art of making paper with rags, old fishing-nets and other waste materials. With the great diffusion of paper manufacture techniques in these regions, strong was the need to use the results of this hard work. So was the art of papier-mâché born. From Samarcanda the manufacture techniques spread via Damask in Morocco : at the end of the 10th century AD paper had totally taken the place of papyrus and was known in Spain, France and Germany. In Italy the art of papier-mâché was probably introduced by the Venetian merchants who had frequent business connections with the East; from Italy this art spread in Persia and in India.
The modern-day practice of recycling waste paper into moulded objects became well established in Persia and India, where craftsmen made extravagantly lacquered and embellished papier mache pen holders from around the 15th centurv. Kashmir in Northern India was an important centre of this art; its products were exported to Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries as trade routes developed, and were much admired for the quality of their lacquering and their exquisitely painted decoration.
A flourishing trade in Eastern goods developed, as the demand for chinoiserie objects with Oriental moti£s executed in a Western style – gripped Europe. Demand far exceeded supply, and workshops were set up, notably in France and England, to produce home-grown imitations of items such as porcelain and lacquerware. French craftsmen were intrigued by Oriental papier mache and experimented with the medium, adding materials such as sand, glue and chalk to the pulped paper. They developed their techniques until capable of producing convincing moulded architectural ornaments in imitation of costly stucco and plasterwork. This practice was also adopted in England, where several papier mache workshops were established, primarily in London and the Midlands. The development of a lacquering process that compared favourably with Japanese and Chinese lacquerware also helped to establish papier mache in Europe. Known as japanning, this quicker, less expensive technique was used widely from the 1740s in the decoration of papier mache items such as small tables, snuff boxes and hand mirrors.
French Papier Mache Doll
In the mid-18th century Henry Clay, assistant to John Baskerville, a manufacturer from Birmingham, England, took a step forward in papier mache production, which laid the foundations of a whole industry. Clay’s innovation was to produce laminated panels, made from pasted paper sheets rather than pulped paper. The panels were sealed with linseed oil and dried slowly under a low heat, which made them extremely strong. They were used for everyday articles, such as furniture, and the material was ideally suited to japanning (varnishing) and painting. Clay’s panels were so strong and resilient that they were also used to make the walls of horse-drawn coaches. Clay patented his invention in 1772, and by the time the patents expired in 1802, he was very wealthy. His Birmingham factory was taken over in 1816 by what was to become the most famous partnership in the papier machine industry, Jennens and Betteridge.
Jennens and Bettridge raised papier mache design to new heights, introducing all kinds of decorative and practical refinements. They developed a distinctive range of japanned goods inlaid with slivers of mother-of-pearl; later they included tortoiseshell, ivory and precious stones. They also patented a method of steammoulding and pressing papier mache panels into large-scale architectural features, such as internal walls for steamships. By 1850, Jennens and Bettridge were England’s foremost exponents of papier mache.
They had a huge workforce, with ex-employees leaving to set up their own factories. At London’s Great Exhibition of 1851 in the Crystal Palace, papier mache was hailed as an important material with a bright future, and Jennens and Bettridge exhibited a wide range of artefacts, including a child’s cot, a chair and a piano. This was the heyday of papier mache production in Europe. Manufacturing methods had become extremely sophisticated, and the resulting objects were indistinguishable from the finest lacquered wood. A huge range of items, from buttons to headboards, was produced; George Jackson and Son made stunningly ornate imitation plaster- and stuccowork ceilings and walls, and Charles Bielcfield produced a papier machc “village” of eleven houses for export to Australia.
Papier mache was also popular in North America, and Jennens and Bettridge, and other manufacturers, were exporting their wares there before the middle of the 19th century. In 1850, when the United States’ first papier mache factory was established at Litchfield, Connecticut, English workers were brought over to teach their skills. The Litchfield Manufacturing Company was started by English-born Quaker William Allgood, and was successful from the start. The factory initially produced small ornamental items, such as fans and card cases, but then concentrated on making papier mache versions of the area’s main product, decorative clock cases. These were warmly received, and commended at the World Fair in New York in 1854. Litchfield Manufacturing merged with a clock company in 1855, but a nearby factory, Wadhams Manufacturing Co. continued to produce papier mache such as desks and game boards, until the outbreak of the American Civil War. Although the western papier mache industries had run out of steam by the end of the 19th century, cultures who had been consistently using papier mache continued making boxes, cases, lamp-stands, trays and frames, decorated with extremely intricate traditional designs, such as interlocking flowers, animals and scenes from court life. The tourist economies of Kashmir and Rajasthan benefit to this day.
In Mexico, remarkable papier mache sculptures and artefacts arc made throughout the year to commemorate religious festivals. The best known of these is on All Souls’ Day, known as the Day of the Dead, when Mexicans build ornate shrines and prepare meals for departed relatives whom they believe will come to visit. Brightly coloured skeletons going about everyday activities, devils, skulls, angels and various other characters can be seen, all made from papier mache. Many of the sculptors are anonymous, but a few arc well known. The late Pedro Linares, for example, was the head of a papier mache making family, whose highly original work was collected by admirers including the painters Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.
His family continues in this tradition, making amazing constructions, many hand-modeled without using moulds, of intricate figures of the dead or of symbolic animals, such as dragons or roosters. Spain is another contemporary stronghold of papier mache production, where enormous papier mache characters with huge heads join the religious processions at Corpus Christi, and are later blown up with fireworks. The craft of papier mache has recently undergone a huge revival of interest in Europe and America. This could be because of the current interest in recycling waste paper, the relative low cost and availability of the material, the ease with which the basic skills can be learned, or simply an appreciation of the vitality, versatility and beauty of the medium. Whatever the reason, this simple material – paper – has inspired ancient and contemporary designers to produce exciting and original work and it looks set to continue well into the 21st century.
This is an example of Pedro Linares’ sculpture a skeletal figure commonly associated with ‘Day of the Dead’ or “Dia del los Muertos’.