The Art of the Fold: A History of Decorative Screens in the Interior

Screen C

Jan Josef Horemans, The New Song, 1740-1760 
Rijksmueum Collection

Several months ago we looked at Chinese lacquer screens and their history.  Today we will focus on the broader history of screens and how they became a popular and fashionable item in Georgian England and Continental Europe.  The painting entitled The New Song by Jan Josef Horemans depicts an interior scene with a group of men and women playing music, drinking tea, and engaging in conversation.  On the righthand side of the painting there is a screen by the mantlepiece.

An Early 18th Century Dutch Leather Polychrome and Gilt Screen

An Early 18th Century Dutch Leather Polychrome and Gilt Screen
Mackinnon Fine Furniture Collection

Leather screens are some of the earliest screens to appear in the West.  The art of decorating leather for interiors first appeared in England in the mid to late 17th century.  A craftsman named Hugh Robinson registered for a permit to settle in London in 1666 as a leatherworker who had honed his craft in Amsterdam with an ability to create leather ‘brighter than gold.’  Both English screens and Dutch screens became a popular addition to the interior.  Shown above is a wonderful example of an early 18th century Dutch screen that we recently acquired.


The decoration of these leather panels often imitated Asian lacquer designs.  The gilder Joseph Fletcher advertised his services in the London Gazette in 1716 offering to provide ‘leather hangings in the latest fashion of the Chinese style to cover walls, settees and screene.’  The presence of the brightly coloured birds and floral arrangements on our screen recalls the popular motifs seen on lacquer versions.


Joseph Highmore, Study for a Group Portrait
Yale Center for British Art

The popularity of leather screens in this style reached its peak in the first half of the 18th century.  Colonel George Lucy acquired a leather screen for Charlecote Park, Warwickshire that was japanned with vignettes of Chinese gardens inhabited by exotic birds.  John Rowland, a gilt leather maker in London, is traditionally associated with leather screens made at this time in England.


Interior print published by Jean Vincent Marie Dopter 
Rijksmuseum Collection

Screens continued to appear in European homes through the 19th and 20th century and can often be spotted in the background of paintings depicting domestic interiors.  Shown above is a print published by Jean Vincent Marie Dopter from the mid 19th century showing a family in an interior with a folding screen in the background depicting Asian figures.

Have a look for yourself to see if you can spot these decorative screens in paintings and historic houses–whether they are leather, lacquer, or painted paper, they are a wonderful example of traditonal design (and a practical one, too!).


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