What did 18th and 19th century nuns and prisoners have in common? Straw marquetry, of course! The past-time of the sacred and the profane and an intriguing French collectable easily found in auctions and flea markets today.
I found this box in my mother-in-law’s attic. She got it at the Foire de Chatou (annual flea market in Paris) in the 80s? Is it worth anything before I toss it?
“Cleaning up in Louveciennes”
What you have is an example of a 19th century sewing box in straw marquetry. Toss it? Please have some respect for human patience and labor! Examining all these tiny pieces of dyed straw, one can only imagine the number of hours and the infinite patience spent in creation. And what intrinsic value can you put on that?
Straw marquetry is a great collectable today. You can find affordable pieces like yours, with a historical cachet, in the range of 100 euros at French flea markets and auctions… AND there is a major auction of straw marketry pieces coming up in Paris this fall.
In late 18th and 19th century France, straw marquetry, using cheap materials from wheat, rye or oats, was a popular activity in convents and jails where the populace had plenty of hours to kill. Although the first examples of straw marquetry date to 17th century England, France and Italy, this art in the form of pieces of furniture and small items, flourished in France from the 1750s on.
The Sacred: In France, after the Bankcruptcy Law of 1720, many nuns were forced to live in dire poverty. Monastic production of straw work was especially developed in central and Eastern France where the religious sold their wares to pilgrims at fairs at religious feasts. Items included religious objects as well as trays, boxes, cases, hour glasses, bags and flasks. Today, at the Crozatier Museum and at the convent of the Saint Clare in Le Puy-en-Velay, one can see the amazing work of these nuns executed in rye straw, often using an embossing technique specific to 18th century work.
The Profane: During the 19th century, prisons like the Abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel held nearly 15,000 prisoners with time on their hands. Convicts eager to supplement their rations sold various items in straw marquetry using the wardens as middlemen. Especially productive inmates could earn a significant amount of money which was turned over to them upon their release. In the south of France, the Toulon prison was especially reknowned for the quality and sophistication of straw work as for some reason inmates there were mostly former wood workers and craftsmen convicted of robbery. The harsh length of their sentences explains the breathtaking quality of their work.
The Straw “Art-Deco” Renaissance: Straw marketry seemed to reach its pinnacle in France in the 1930s. Fashion creator Paul Poiret (1879-1944) used straw to decorate walls for the Exhibition of Decorative Arts in 1925, as well as in a project he completed for the dining room of the ocean liner “Chantilly”.
Poiret’s brother-in-law, André Groult (1884-1996), took straw art further realizing the potential of this cheap material with a hard surface protected by silica. Groult worked with white straw which he dyed himself. In 1927, he applied for a patent for straw wallpaper produced by machines he had designed to flatten and cut the straw. He exhibited a four panel screen at the 1928 Salon des Artistes Décorateurs, followed in 1930 by an entire lounge of straw wallpaper with bar, coffee table and armchairs inlaid in pale straw suns. His straw marquetry for the liner “The Normandie” is considered by some to be the epitome of straw art. Groult was also interested in exploring the use of straw in bookbindings, finding the material’s suppleness especially well suited.
In the following decade, Jean-Michel Frank (1895-1941), one of Paris’ most famous decorators, combined straw-stained mahogany with sycamore, covering walls with sunbursts and parallel lines. He produced various pieces of small furniture, as well as cigarette and cigar boxes with geometric themes. Frank worked for various personalities of the era such as Elsa Schiaparelli, Jean-Pierre Guerlain and the Viscount and Viscountess de Noailles for whom he designed a lounge in mahogany coloured straw. Frank’s pieces in straw marketry are now highly coveted.
From the 1940s to the 1960s, Jean Royère was the last great French decorator to use straw. Today, at the Musée du Mobilier at the Pompidou Center, one can see the brown straw bedroom he created for the singer Henri Salvador. Royère’s work is typical of the 1950s with natural, green, brown or black straw inlaid in parallel lines and little crosses, stars and herringbone themes.
In the 60s and 70s, although the popularity of metal, formica and mass production seemed to make laborious straw craft a thing of the past, several artist/decorators kept straw marquetry alive. Daniel Langlois-Berthelot (born 1927) set up shop La paille de seigle in Paris from 1960 to 1968 producing pale rye straw furniture and objects like hour glasses, boxes, trays and cigarette cases. Many of these objects, although unsigned, can still be found on the market today.
Today, the Association la Marqueterie de Paille, set up in France in 1999, brings together professionals and collectors in seminars and exhibitions. In the States, a high quality of contemporary straw work is produced in the Brooklyn studio Atelier Viollet www.atelierviollet.com
One of the biggest contemporary names in straw marquetry is Lison de Caunes, the grand-daughter of Groult who maintains a workshop in Paris where she creates and restores straw marquetry with the assistance of two skilled artisans she trained herself. Mme. de Caunes designed and executed the prestigious commission of the Spring 2002 Hermes shop windows in straw and continues to cater to commissions from international clientele. One can visit her fascinating Paris atelier on the rue Mayet or watch her at work: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=euhk-XRvD4k
Most importantly for would-be collectors, on October 12, 2016 at Drouot in Paris, the auction house Beaussant Lefevre will be dispersing some 200 objects in straw marquetry from the personal collection of Lison de Caunes. Estimations for these objects dating from the 17th to the 20th centuries are between 100 to 3,000 euros, well within the budget for a budding collector. http://www.beaussant-lefevre.com/html/index.jsp?id=77328&lng=fr&npp=10000
But back to the box in Louveciennes, while I would estimate a 120-140 euro value to your sewing box, I suggest you display it proudly and ruminate zen-like on the dolting nun (or convict) who spent hours laboring over those tiny pieces of inlaid straw. Buy a more functional plastic sewing box at IKEA and display your find as a work of art.
La Marqueterie de Paille, Lison de Caunes, Catherine Baumgartner, Éditions Vial, 2004
La marqueterie de paille, Jacqueline Copper-Royer, Librairie Gründ, Paris, 1954
La pratique des arts dans les couvents de femmes au 17 siècle, Philippe Bonnet, Bibliothèque de l’école des Cahrtes, 1989
Horn, medals and straw, Adèle Schaverien, The Medal, no. 32, 1998
Entre ciel et mer, le Mont-Saint-Michel, Jean-Paul Brighelli, Découvertes Gallimard, 1987