The ultimate king of papier mache firms

graham paddison

graham paddison

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A 19th Century English firm achieved an international reputation in the field of papier mache furnishings and its name on a piece will send the bidding soaring.

When we look at a papier mache piece one of the first things that we do is take a good look to see if there is a maker’s mark.

The name we are hoping to see is Jennens and Bettridge….their name stamped into the material will instantly double or treble the value of the piece.

The papier mache process originated in the East, possibly ancient Persia. Paper pulp, glue, chalk and sometimes fine sand are combined and by pressing, moulding and baking a very hard, workable material is produced.

The process came to England from France towards the end of the seventeenth century, at which time it was used for making imitation stucco and plaster decoration for ceilings, walls and picture frames. Anyone who has such a frame hanging on the wall is in the money in a big way – there are no known surviving examples.

From this basic beginning papier mache went on to be used to make a variety of small decorative items such as snuff boxes, tea caddies, jewellery boxes, etc. The trade was centred in the West Midlands in the Birmingham and Wolverhampton area.

Jennens and Bettridge were established in Birmingham in 1816 and within a decade or so had become the most important makers, establishing an international reputation for the quality of their work.

The practice of decorating pieces with inlaid mother of pearl was introduced by the firm in 1825, a development which enjoyed considerable success. More than that, they really pushed the potential of the material to its limits.

Production was on a large scale and they used papier mache to make almost everything: fire-screens, chairs, settees, cabinets, secretaires and tables – even beds.

The firm also developed a considerable export trade, indeed for a time much of the factory’s output went directly to America and a New York office was opened to handle the American business.

The period 1825 through to the 1840’s is generally reckoned to be the best and there was – in the modern view at least – deterioration in the 1850’s. Experts in the field say that the decline was apparent as early as the Great Exhibition of 1851.

Unusually for a manufacturer of papier mache items, Jennens and Bettridge marked most of their pieces which makes life considerably simpler for collectors – and for auctioneers.

In terms of the Jennens and Bettridge pieces that we see in the saleroom locally, whilst we have had the occasional larger piece, including several tripod tables with fold over tops, smaller items such as boxes, tea caddies and ink stands are far more common.

We have also seen a number of superb trays painted with landscape scenes and inlaid with mother of pearl; fabulous quality items worth multiple hundreds of pounds. The tray illustrated is not by Jennens and Bettridge but is a good indication of the poorer quality of pieces available with a basic floral spray to the centre surrounded by worn gilded panels, with the inevitable damage to the edges.

Nevertheless it gives us a chance to look at the impact of the name. Unmarked and in only average condition this tray is expected to realised £60-£90 in our Antique and Fine Art Auction on the 12th September. If it had been impressed Jennens and Bettridge and in better condition it would have been worth £100 - £150.

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