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Shagreen

Title: “Shagreen in English and European Decorative Arts and Furniture: A Journey from the 18th to the 20th Century”

Shagreen, a type of rawhide, typically made from sharkskin or rayskin, holds a unique place in the history of English and European decorative arts and furniture from the 18th to the 20th century. Known for its distinctive pebbled texture and durability, shagreen has been utilised as a decorative surface in a variety of applications, evolving in popularity and purpose across these centuries.

In the 18th century, shagreen was primarily used to cover small items such as snuff boxes, wig boxes, scientific instrument cases and book covers. Its use in Europe was inspired by Asian cultures, primarily Japanese samurai, who used shagreen to wrap sword handles due to its high-grip qualities. European artisans prized shagreen for its exotic appeal and the tactile quality it imparted to objects. The skin was often dyed green, lending an additional layer of allure to shagreen-covered items.

The transition into the 19th century saw shagreen being used in larger objects and furniture, reflecting the technological advancements of the Industrial Revolution. The Victorian era in England, marked by Queen Victoria’s reign, saw shagreen used in creating lavish room interiors and furniture, including cabinets, desks, and chairs. Shagreen was often paired with woods like ebony and complemented with brass or ivory inlays, creating a stark visual contrast that highlighted its unique texture.

Shagreen’s popularity continued into the 20th century, where it became a hallmark of the Art Deco movement. The aesthetic of the 1920s and 1930s favoured luxury and bold design, and shagreen, with its distinct texture and exotic connotations, was well suited to the era’s taste. Designers like Jean-Michel Frank and Clément Rousseau used shagreen in innovative ways, covering everything from furniture to picture frames and even entire walls.

Despite a lull in its usage post World War II due to shifts in fashion and the introduction of synthetic materials, shagreen has seen a resurgence in recent years. It is now commonly used in high-end furniture and decorative arts, testament to its timeless appeal and unique aesthetic.

In summary, shagreen, with its distinctive texture, durability, and exotic appeal, has had a significant impact on English and European decorative arts and furniture from the 18th to the 20th century. Its use across these centuries highlights its versatility and the evolving tastes and technologies of the periods in which it was used.

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