The eye of the collector by Jean-luc Ferrand

The Martin varnish

Friday 18 December 2015, by Barbara Cogollos

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

With the opening of the Far East to the West in the eighteenth century, the decorative patterns draw their inspiration from Asian crafts. The shapes, patterns, subjects are imitated and copied but lacquers, whose formulas are jealously guarded by Asian craftsmen, escape copying. To adorn their creations, the French cabinetmakers and craftsmen must make their furniture and then to export them at great cost in China and especially in Japan to do the laquer. These expensive constraints of time (it can take over 2 years to return the laquer furniture!) And money do not encourage the expansion of new styles, or full financial health of the craftsmen. It is in this particular context appears the Martin varnish.

This is not the first time that the cabinetmakers tried to copy the Asian laquers, from Louis XIV, several formulas have been developed but none was able to win. Blame it on too much ignorance of original compounds and natural essences do not found necessary in Europe.

Originally from the Faubourg Saint Antoine, the Martin brothers were all varnishers masters, specialized in the imitation of the laquers of China and Japan. He discovered a new formula (never totally rediscovered): a fatty varnish, consisting of resins dissolved in oil and rendered siccative by addiction litharge and other elements. They first applied it to the carriages and sedan chairs and furniture. Two judgments of the council (November 27, 1730 and February 18, 1744) offered the Martin brothers exclusivity for 20 years to realize the objects inspired by China and Japan.

This varnish, much cheaper than the laquer, met wildly successful. Its texture, different colors obtained made it possible to realize true "picture of lacquer" in a much more European style. The Martin brothers executed in numerous works, of uneven quality, which offered them considerable success. They get some of the best commands of the great families, foreign courts etc. The beauty of their achievements is relayed by exhibitions and fairs (including the famous Salon of Madame Geoffrin). The brothers Martin appeal to masters (artists, craftsmen etc) to obtain the right to copy their models. They develop very many subjects from Western iconography (pastoral scenes of Italian comedy, about mythological etc).

After the Revolution and aesthetic renewal that comes with the Martin varnish is neglected except by a few followers. It will slowly rediscovered in the nineteenth century, first by the historicist mouvement then by the avant-garde decorative art, including Majorelle.

The creations in Martin varnish, of the eighteenth, of the nineteenth or of the twentieth are traditionally very popular with collectors. Their refined patterns, their charming compositions provide a growing interest in these pieces of furniture. For example the Louis XV style paravent in varnish Martin, by Majorelle, estimated 4000 - 6000 and € sold € 13,750 at Sotheby’s Amsterdam on 14/03/2011 or cabinet between two period signed Rollin (Fig.2) 1880 estimated $ 25,000 - $ 35,000 and adjudged $ 84,000 at Sotheby’s NYC on 26/10/06.

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