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Ebony and ivory:
Black and white and exotic - the combination of these two materials immediately suggests a sense of refinement and luxury, and was much in evidence in furniture of the highest quality made during the 19th century. Creamy-white, fine-grained ivory from elephant tusks, can be carved, turned or engraved with extraordinary delicacy, and has been used consistently as a prestigious decorative addition to important furniture and other objects from pre-historic times. Known for its use in the solid, it can also be used as a veneer, often inset with other precious materials.
From the time ebony was introduced into Europe in the 16th century black became one of the smartest and most fashionable colours for furniture. Ebony (Diospyros ss.) is an exotic hardwood, with a lustrous surface, fine texture and generally straight grain. It does not grow very large, and is brittle and difficult to work making it most suitable for use as a veneer. Depending on the species it is jet black or run through with paler stripes. Initially imported by the Portuguese, who dominated the trade routes to the Indian sub-continent, China and Japan until the beginning of the 17th century, the use of ebony for prestige furniture spread rapidly across Europe. In France, the growing sophistication of furniture making coincided with the introduction of ebony, leading to the adoption of the name ébénistes for makers of the highest quality furniture, which survives to this day. Such was the fashion for ebony that cheaper imitations, usually in the form of stained or ebonized pearwood, began to appear at an early stage; from about 1625, Augsburg makers stamped their pieces with the word 'Eben' in order to guarantee the material. The possibilities of using ebony as a foil for other precious materials, including ivory, were quickly perceived. Ebony and ivory veneers set into in panels are recorded as decorating a room in the Ducal Palace of Mantua in 1566. There is also the suggestion that the combination of ebony and ivory reflected the austere black-and-white of Spanish court dress, which had become fashionable throughout Europe by the early 17th century.
The growing demand by aristocrats and an increasingly rich merchant class for sophisticated furniture of high quality, led to the production of highly decorative pieces intended purely for display. Ebony and ivory were to appear consistently as favoured materials. By the beginning of the 17th century, in Germany, the Lower Countries, Italy and Spain, cabinets and tables were veneered in ebony and decorated with inlaid plaques of ivory. The ivory was engraved with designs taken from contemporary sources, and from the vocabulary of 'grotesque' ornament derived from discoveries in excavations of Classical sites, such as the Golden House of Nero. Such pieces were soon made throughout Europe and remained popular until the beginning of the next century, although ebonised wood and bone sometimes replaced these exotic and expensive materials.
The fashion for black furniture continued into the 18th century but encouraged lacquer rather than ebony. The 19th century, however, saw a dramatic revival in the taste for ebonised furniture, encouraged by improved techniques for staining wild pear-wood, which was hard, had a good, straight grain and was not attractive to worm. The introduction of the bandsaw also allowed decorative materials to be cut with the utmost precision and delicacy stimulating a revival of ebony, or ebonised wood, inlaid with intricately cut ivory, directly referring to the artistic glories of the ages of the Renaissance and Baroque. This retrospection was largely the effect of political uncertainties caused by wars and revolutions, which stimulated a need to reconfirm national stylistic identities and craft skills, as well as a genuine admiration for the work of predecessors. The International Exhibitions held through the 19th century acted as important showcases and allowed thousands of people the opportunity to absorb what was considered to be fashionable and good taste, with ebony and ivory very much to the fore.