A pair of 17th century silvered & gilded leather wall panels, ex Marquis of Queensbury, in Spanish gilded framesSeptember 18, 2019 2:03 pm
Decorated with stylised foliage. Conserved and mounted on boards. In gilded, Spanish frames.
Provenance : Private Collection. Bought at a sale of the Marquess of Queensbury, 1984
Each panel 160cm., 5ft., 3in high, 165cm., 5ft., 5in long
Frame Height 176 cm., 5ft., 9 in., Length 177 cm., 5ft., 9 ½
These are fine examples of gilt leather hangings which were the height of fashion between the 16th and the early-18th century, when they became synonymous with splendour in the gi1ded palaces of the wealthy. In the 17th century, as fashions changed, designs became more naturalistic and were embossed in high relief with the introduction of wooden moulds and counter-moulds, instead of metal plates, which suited the new pictorial themes based on flowers, fruit and foliage, with the inclusion of cherubs and birds in some of them.
In England, Royalty and aristocracy have shown a taste for gilt leather hangings since the time of Henry VIII (perhaps introduced into England as part of Catherine of Aragon’s dowry as was done earlier by Eleanor of Castile with her Oriental carpets) during whose reign also the art of gold-tooling for bindings seems to have been introduced in this country. “Most richly appointed houses,” writes John Waterer, “at one time had some gilt leather hangings or furnishings although very few survive today, and although many, perhaps most, were of foreign origin, import on any considerable scale would inevitably have stimulated production here, as happened continually in other fields.” Between 1716 and l785 there was a small community of leather gilders in the vicinity of St Paul’s Cathedral.
For almost l0 centuries, leather mural hangings represented a form of decorative art which is now practically forgotten. Sumptuous panels of ‘Spanish’ or ‘C6rdoban’ leather as they became known to the world-adorned the walls and halls of castles and palaces of the Middle Ages, and the grand houses of the Renaissance and Baroque periods, where they “vied for pride of place with the contemporary silk velvets and rich tapestry hangings.”
The origins of this art, and many of the decorative techniques involved dyeing, gilding, blind stamping, embossing, modelling can be traced to the city of C6rdoba in Moorish Spain, the earliest developments dating from 800 A.D. The Moorish civilization influenced design and introduced many artistic concepts, such as the use of carpets and leather panels for interior decoration, which then spread to the rest of Europe. “Probably the principal stimulus behind all the developments resulting in leather hangings of good repute, in the making of which all kinds of both new and established skills were employed, was the manner in which these increasingly luxurious decorations fitted into the pattern of exotic magnificence that marked the great days of the Khalifs,” is the description given by John W. Waterer in his unique study of this subject, ‘Spanish Leather.’
At first, a uniquely soft leather -alumed hair sheep skin- was produced in C6rdoba. This was a pure white, and was also dyed in a beautiful red obtained from madder. This leather became famous in a very short time: in France it was called cordouan, in England it became cordwain. Its fame eclipsed rapidly the reputation of the alumed goatskin produced in the Libyan town of Ghadames, from which the word guadamecí was later derived to name the ornamented leathers, the work of guadamecileros.
Encouraged by the versatility of leather, the guadamecileros developed an incredible array of methods and techniques, which were later applied not only to wall hangings but also to furnishings -from cushions to screens and altar frontals. There also seems to have existed an inter-relation with the skills involved in the bindings of treasured books, which reached great heights of artistry.
Designs and patterns for guadamecí panels evolved closely linked to Moorish architecture -there were once leather hangings above a dado of tiles in the Alhambra in Granada – and followed a parallel course of development with other forms of decorative art that flourished in that period, textiles in particular. Geometric patterns were coloured or painted on the skins, enhanced by the use of gold leaf, over which hand stamping with small punches (hierros) was applied in order to create a sparkle on the metallic surface. These gilded panels ‘illuminated’ chambers and became, from very early on, the favourite gift of princes.
The early geometric patterns were followed by the mudejar or Hispano-Moresque style up to the l6th century. Gothic forms were sometimes mixed in as the guadamecileros were then working for Christian patrons, and there are many altar frontals left from this period. The Renaissance ‘granada’ (pomegranate) pattern appeared very often in carpets, silks, brocades and leather hangings, in a constantly stylised form, until the l7th century.
From the hand tooling and hand modelling in bas-relief, there developed the embossing of designs with heated metal plates in a screw press. Previous to embossing, the skins were silvered -by the use of silver leaf- and covered with a yellow varnish in order to simulate gold. Oil paints and glazes were used for colouring, the whole producing a vivid effect. Other less well known techniques employed by the guadamecileros included cuero gofrado (goffered leather) and incisado (incised).
The guadamecí art remained Spanish until the end of the 16th century. By then, these leather hangings were so famous all over Europe that they were imitated by communities of guadamecileros in nine centres, so great was the demand. When in 1610 the moriscos (men of Moorish descent) in whose hands this tradition was concentrated, were finally expelled from Spain, the end came for this country’s dominant position in the field. The moriscos emigrated to Flanders, which became the new center for gilt leather hangings, and to France, where the Doreurs sur Cuir competed with the Venetians for the mastery of the art.
In Venice, leather hangings were superbly gilded and painted or incised, but never embossed,with designs inspired by the Orient through the tales of Marco Polo. These leathers were also used for bookbinding and the covering of coffers. In Amsterdam, in the 17th century, Dutch craftsmen exploited further the three dimensional effect of the high relief obtained with wooden moulds, and this became a characteristic of their style. In England there are records of other gilders from as early as 1600 A.D. The fraternity of leather gilders prospered during the 18th century producing hangings and panels for screens and chairs. In the words of John Waterer: “It is certain that in the l8th century gilt leather hangings were made here to a standard as high as to make the French despondent, and that some of this work was exported .”
By the end of the 18th century a change of fashion brought about the decline of these decorative leather wall hangings that for so long had been essential to the magnificence of the European Interiors. From its origins in Moorish Spain, the art of the Guadamecí flourished and evolved continuously for centuries in Europe (and the Americas), until the time of the Industrial Revolution. Since then, this art has been ‘dormant,’ but the many possibilities offered by its vast array of techniques and the unique versatility of leather provide excellent reasons for reviving it.
This post was written by joecollinson