A George I Simulated Tortoiseshell Girandole – Part Three

As has been mentioned here before, imitating tortoiseshell on furniture has been achieved with varying degrees of realism down the centuries. The tortoiseshell backgrounds of japanned work often consisted of nothing more complex than random daubs of opaque black paint on an opaque coloured (predominantly red) ground, while original standalone testudinal painted finishes usually exhibit more artistic accomplishment. As with grained wood finishes, a proportion of absolute painted tortoiseshell finishes developed into an art form in its own right.

All the same, great strides were made by a number of artists to more accurately recreate natural tortoiseshell, which process involved laying metal foil (brass, gold or silver) on a substrate over which were laid numerous coats of coloured translucent varnish.

Sometime after 1681, Venetian born Joachim Becher developed a method of extracting tar from coal which he used (in conjunction with asphaltum and pitch) to tint varnishes for simulating tortoiseshell.

The ‘projecting genius’, Thomas Algood, (d. 1716), a Northamptonshire Quaker, applied brown lacquer [presumably asphaltum- or tar-based] over irregularly shaped pieces of foil to imitate tortoiseshell.[1]

John Baskerville of Birmingham took out a patent for his simulated tortoiseshell in 1742, describing it as “An imitation … which greatly excells Nature itself both in Colour and hardness.”[2]

The finish on my William and Mary chest of drawers adhered to the practice of building up layers of contrasting paint and translucent varnish to simulate tortoiseshell; however, this girandole attempts to replicate the work of these latter craftsmen using asphaltum and other naturally tinted varnishes over metal foil.

Due to the complexity (and presumable cost) of foil-and-varnish tortoiseshell, it was normally reserved for smaller, more intimate objects for the bed chamber and parlour.

While my chest’s distinctive painted finish displays considerable depth and a charm all of its own, it cannot compete with the naturalistic chatoyance of the girandole’s finish. It’s quite mesmerising and virtually impossible to describe in words or portray in pictures. In the early morning sunlight, the deep scarlet flickers to searing yellow with the merest shift of the body.

ggtg_090513_01a“It’s just a jump to the left…”

ggtg_090513_02a“… and then a step to the right.”

The frame and looking glass have been sympathetically aged.

I’m just awaiting the arrival of the candle arm castings to complete the girandole.

Jack Plane

[1] HUTH, Hans, Lacquer of the West – The History of a Craft and an Industry 1550-1950, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1971, pp. 111-112.

[2] JONES, Yvonne, Japanned Papier Mâché and Tinware c.1740-1940, Antique Collectors’ Club, 2012, p. 43.

About Jack Plane

Formerly from the UK, Jack is a retired antiques dealer and self-taught woodworker, now living in Australia.
This entry was posted in Mirrors & Girandoles and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to A George I Simulated Tortoiseshell Girandole – Part Three

  1. Robert R. Lindh says:

    How did you age the mirror??


  2. Andrew Metaxas says:

    Amazing finish, have you done this before?!


  3. Burbidge says:

    Any tortoise would be most jealous! Spectacular.



  4. Absolutely stunning! Inspirational!


  5. LD says:

    Looking forward to full-length photos of the girandole.

    BTW, things seem to be very quiet regarding shoes…


  6. D.B. Laney says:

    Is that “Scarlet Hawksbill” a standard color? And, was it available in a spray can? Seriously…all of the usual kudos – wonderful stuff. I do hope that you won’t forget to show us the finished product, remembering that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.


    • Jack Plane says:

      Yes, you can purchase Scarlet Hawksbill at your local hardware store, but be sure to ask for it in person as they keep it under the counter to try and prevent taggers and graffiti vandals from getting their hands on it.



  7. hiltonsister says:

    Great post! Many years ago, in one of my first restoration attempts I repaired the edge of a hawk’s bill turtle shell with a piece of plastic from a take-away container, coloured and shellacked. I’m not sure, and please don’t shudder, but I think I may have used Vegemite for the splashes of brown. It’s still as good as new.


I welcome your comments

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s