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In the refined interiors of the 18th and 19th centuries, colour was highly important. While textiles and porcelain obviously played their part, the contribution of furniture to the richness of effect is sometimes overlooked. In 18th century France the Martin Brothers played a significant role in developing a technique that offered new ways of using colour for the decoration of furniture. 'Vernis Martin' is the generic term for all types of imitation lacquer work produced in France in the 18th century and by extension, although not strictly accurate, in succeeding centuries. Guillaume Martin (d1749) and Etienne-Simon Martin (d1770) perfected this copal varnish, prepared by melting together Cyprus turpentine, amber, copal, oil of turpentine, colophony and a vegetable oil, such as linseed or poppy. Letters patent, granted on 27 November 1730 and renewed on 18 February 1744, gave them an exclusive monopoly lasting 20 years to make 'all sorts of works in relief in the manner of Japan and China'. At the time of the renewal of the monopoly in April 1753, the brothers were deemed to have 'brought the technique to the highest possible level of perfection'. The 'varnish' was applied in a manner similar to true lacquer, being built up in layers, and was produced in many different colours, particularly black, red and Prussian blue. Initially used for the imitation of actual Asian examples, the technique soon became fashionable for designs in the European Rococo style, often using clearer shades of green, lilac and yellow.
The Martin Brothers were not alone in practising the art of imitating lacquer, commonly known as japanning, and both true lacquer and japanned wares continued popular throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. The strong 19th century revivals of 18th century styles stimulated a revival in the use of an imitation Vernis Martin carried out by specialists. The techniques used were less laborious than those employed in the 18th century, using layers of shellac varnish, the decoration being added with powder pigment. This was sealed with three coats of clear varnish and carefully polished. The most popular designs, especially favoured for the decoration of vitrines, were copied or derived from the work of 18th century painters such as Watteau, Boucher and Fragonard, made hugely fashionable in the last quarter of the century through the passionate writings of the Goncourt brothers.