Today I have a rare treat for you- a close look at a nearly forgotten ladies accomplishment: paper filigree work.

Poor Elinor Dashwood: in order to learn more of Lucy Steele’s entanglement with Edward Ferrars, she has to volunteer to join her in making  a filigree basket for Annamaria Middleton, whom Jane Austen describes as a spoilt child:

“Perhaps,” continued Elinor, “if I should happen to cut out, I may be of some use to Miss Lucy Steele, in rolling her papers for her; and there is so much still to be done to the basket, that it must be impossible, I think, for her labour singly, to finish it this evening. I should like the work exceedingly, if she would allow me a share in it.”

Sense and Sensibility, Chapter 23

Playing cards with the cold Lady Middleton or having heartrending talks with spiteful, scheming Lucy? Not much of a choice is it?

Rolledpaper work, filigree work, or as it is now known, quilling, was a popular pastime for accomplished young ladies in the late 18th/early 19th centuries. The first known forms of this type of decoration, which is made by decorating items with many, many rolled and pinched or crimped  pieces of paper, set in pleasing patterns, date from the 15th and 16th centuries.Predominantly using gold and silver covered paper, filigree work was then used to decorate items with religious significance- pictures of saints etc.- however, shortly after the Reformation in England,when “idolatrous” objects were discouraged, the practice died out. In the mid 17th century the art was revised in England ,and was often used in conjunction with stump work embroidery  to decorate mirrors and caskets. In the 18th century it became a popular pastime for young ladies. Most were content to work on small pieces, as in Annamaria’s basket, and pieces like this tea caddy dating from about 1800, below:

You can see that the patterns formed by the rolled pieces of paper  give a similar effect to filigree work made from strings or threads of precious metals such as gold or sliver, hence its name.

Some ladies were more accomplished than others, and were more ambitious too. Princess Elizabeth, the daughter of George III,was known to have ordered and received a cabinet especially constructed so that she could cover it with filigree work. It was described as a box made for filigree work with ebony mouldings, lock and key and also a tea caddy to correspond…

A cabinet of this type of work still exists and that is what I would like to show to you now. It appeared on the BBC’s Bargain Hunt Programme on Wednesday 2nd November, and was chosen by the programme’s presenter,Tim Wonnacott formerly of Sothebys ,as the object he most coveted in the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight, Cheshire.

Here is Tim, standing next to the cabinet, which dates from the last years of the 18th century:

It has a stand, and is 4 feet 10 inches tall, 2 feet wide and 1 foot 5 inches deep.

The exterior is decorated with prints, filigree work and freshwater pearls:

The prints have been coloured, then applied to the cabinet and then finally  varnished to give the appearance of oil paintings. In the image above you can see that the side panels are decorated as well as the doors.

If you take a close look at the decoration on the doors, you can see the tightly rolled pieces of paper…

which have been affixed to the surface of the cabinet. Note  that the pattern comes not only from the way the pieces have been rolled but also from the use of papers of different colours.

The doors are also decorated with strings of freshwater pearls…

which are set in the form of swags. They help “display” the varnished prints in a decorative manner… that the pictures  hang pendant from the swags:

The sides are decorated in a stunning pink pattern: butterflies dance among the whirls of paper

The programme showed us something that is not normally seen- the interior of the cabinet:

The interior is stunning. The colours are almost as they were when it was made 200 years ago, because, of course, they have been protected from  attacks of the sun and dirt. The reverses of the doors were not shown to us in detail but I can tell you that they are lined with painted satin bordered with glass jewels.

The centre panel of the cabinet  again contains a varnished print, but this time it is set around with cut steel pieces-a very fashionable material at the time for buckles and jewellery, for despite its dull sounding name , it actually sparkles like cut stones.

This would have glittered and shone in the candlelight of a late 18th century sitting room, such a wonderful effect.

The interior of the cabinet is furnished with many small drawers, all decorated with filigree work:

You can see them in these two illustrations:

Here are some close-ups of the filigree work patterns on the drawers:

…here you can see a pattern of pink  leafage set amongst a ground of aqua coloured paper rolls

Another leafage pattern this time in pale green, plus a star pattern..or is it a flower?

Another complex star/flower pattern with green leafage

These patterns were not necessarily the brainchild of the woman working them. Patterns could be purchased and some were printed in women’s magazine of the time. This one, below, shows very similar leafage and flower designs to the ones used on the cabinet:

This was first published in The New Ladies’ Magazine for 1786. In the same magazine there was an advertisement for the finest filigree work which could be seen at the first shop in Mount Street by Berkeley Square.

A statement in the same magazine promoted the craft, noting that paper filigree work was thought eminently suitable for the “female mind”:

The art affords an amusement to the female mind, capable of the most pleasing and extensive variety ; it may be readily acquired and pursued at a very trifling expense.

Perfect for Lucy Steele then, a woman with a certain amount of native cunning but no great intellectual gifts. I wonder if Jane Austen’s ire had been raised by reading such pronouncements, and that is why she gave  such an occupation to Lucy…it is entirely possible, don’t you think?

However that may be,  I think the cabinet on show here displays staggering  levels of expertise. I can agree with Tim Wonnacott that I’d love it in my own home.