I was first introduced to the ancient art of French polishing while I was a teenager attending Art school in London, England. I knew if I were going to be an ‘Artist,’ it wasn’t going to happen over night, school and technique development were to take years. I needed an income and I desired an income generated by my paint brushes more than anything.
French polishing, the very name intrigues me with a great deal of curiosity. Curiosity for this long lost art that has been forgotten by many. Curiosity for what the French had to do with it. Curiosity for the patience involved. It was the same the same curiosity that lead me to take a temporary job as a French polisher at one of London’s finest hotels. I quickly became fond of the artistic aspects of the trade; touching out missing pieces of wood with natural pigments on the end of a squirrel haired paint brush. Experimenting with colours and tints and stains to match a wide spectrum of colours. Temporary soon became permanent and the skills I gained are a major influence on the work I have completed to date.
French polish (shellac) is formed from the excretion of the Lac Beetle (Laccifer Lacca) which is the core ingredient of shellac.’ From the beetle to the tree, shellac embarks on a remarkable natural process before it is purified for commercial use. Shellac was confined to the Far East until traders introduced it to Europe in the 1700’s, it wasn’t until the 18th century that the technique was refined by the French.
Survival of an art
“French polishing” was the industry standard in Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries, pushed aside by the efficient advantage of modern methods in the industrial revolution. Lacquers and spray systems replaced the original French polish finish, it is unpractical for mass furniture production due to the labor intensive process of application. As the desire for antiques was not idle, neither is the need for them to be appropriately restored. Which in many sense has kept the trade alive by a thread.
The first reference of shellac in Europe appears as early as 1590 in the writing of an English writer who was sent to India where he was introduced to shellac. Commenting on a procedure for applying lac to wood, he writes:
“They take a piece of Lac of what colour they will, and as they turn it when it commeth to his fashion they spread the Lac upon the whole piece of wood, about the thickness of a man’s nail. Then they burnish it over with a broad straw or dry Rushes so cunningly that all the wood is covered, and it shineth like glass, most pleasant to behold. In this sort they cover all kinde of household wood in India.”