Money: Take some paper, glue, chalk and make a mint

Your great-grandmother's papier-mache tea-caddy could be worth a tidy fortune these days. By Winifred Carr

Regency and Victorian papier-mache that languished in many an attic and junk-shop for decades is popular again, and private collectors are having to compete with interior designers who are seeking it out to add to their clients' decor. Early pieces with dark red or green backgrounds, being rarer and more elegant than the familiar black tend to fetch the highest prices.

Five years ago, a pair of Regency coasters, red with restrained gilding, would have cost about pounds 700. This spring, a similar pair, with silver mounts, was sold for pounds 1,800.

A graduated set of three black lacquered papier-mache trays made around 1860 and decorated with handpainted pink and white roses, bluebells, mother- of-pearl and gilding was bought 20 years ago for pounds 30 for the sake of the largest tray, which on a stand makes a decorative coffee table. The set would now fetch up to pounds 800 at auction.

But more ornate Victorian pieces such as tea-caddies, letter racks, needlework boxes and small tables are more reasonably priced. A cane-seated papier- mache chair made about l860 and decorated with flowers and a butterfly, gilt and mother-of-pearl is expected to fetch between pounds 200 and pounds 300 at Sotheby's sale in Billingshurst, West Sussex, on 16 July.

In the same sale a small table with a painting of a Moroccan mosque on the top is estimated to reach between pounds 600 and pounds 800. Unlike most papier- mache, the table carries the stamp of the makers, Jennens and Betteridge, whose factory in Birmingham made much of the best of the Victorian ware.

The art of making papier-mache was an Eastern technique which used a mixture of paper, glue, chalk and sometimes sand, which was baked and then carved before being painted.

It was introduced to England, France and Italy in the l7th century and used mainly for the decoration of ceilings and interior walls instead of the heavier and more expensive plaster of Paris.

After Henry Clay of Birmingham discovered, in 1772, a way of pressure- moulding, then coating the shapes with a durable, baked-on lacquer, paperware - as it was then called - was used for making almost anything decorative from snuff boxes and inkwells to furniture.

It was only when A Jennens and TH Betteridge bought Clay's factory at the beginning of the 19th century that paper ware became known in this country as papier-mache.

By 1825, the factory was adding mother-of-pearl to the decorations. The Victoria and Albert museum has a fine mid-l9th century Jennens and Betteridge fire-screen inlaid with white and green paste stones. Some of the best painted pieces were of Chinese scenes or pictures of English castles and country houses.

Queen Victoria commissioned a small tilt-top table painted with a group of the royal children, their dogs and ponies and a background of Windsor castle.

The Queen's collection of papier-mache grew from the time that Jennens and Betteridge had presented her and Prince Albert with a set of trays to mark their wedding. Before long there was a great deal of it, including fire-screens, chairs and bedheads, at Balmoral, Windsor and Osborne.

By the middle of the l9th century there were a number of other well-known manufacturers of papier-mache, such as the firm of Ryton and Walton of Wolverhampton, and their goods were being exported to Portugal, Spain and America.

Lacquered papier-mache was also being made in France, Germany and Russia, the Russians adopting the English method of manufacture in the l830s. Most of the Imperial Russian pieces are easily identified by their meticulous paintings of traditional scenes, a troika hurrying through the snow, a family taking tea from a samovar, views of the Kremlin and St Petersburg and images of saints. Some of the finest paintings are on presentation Easter eggs.

Flowers were an English speciality but by the middle of the century many of the roses, tulips and daisies were beginning to look overblown. The delicacy of earlier work was lost as papier-mache was used for anything that could be decorated, from blotter covers to wall panels for a ship's saloon. The craze peaked about l870 and by l890 manufacture had all but stopped.

The vast bulk of l9th century papier-mache is unnamed, but a stamped piece is not necessarily one that will cost a fortune. Small Victorian pieces are often sold in lots rather than individually. A collection of five pieces, a tea-caddy, two boxes, an inkwell and blotter cover recently went for pounds 600, considerably less then they would have cost bought separately in an antique shop.

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