For Victorian charm, try marbleizing

These days even modernists are recognizing the aesthetic value of ornamentation, and many have been looking with renewed interest at a favorite decorating device of bygone eras: faux marbre, or a painted imitation of marble.

As an illusionary device, this fake marble ornamentation has been used for centuries for everything from pillars to mirrors.

During America's colonization, the Puritans enlivened their plain surroundings by marbling chests and other pieces of cherished cabinetry.

In the 18th century sea merchants and other affluent Americans brought opulent architectural detailing to newly built mansions by marbling fireplaces, paneling, and even entire rooms. Or they ordered marbleized chairs and other pieces that emulated expensive European rosewood and white marble furniture.

In the next century, country craftsmen and furnituremakers produced inexpensive marbleized furniture (often of Sheraton styling) that delighted a growing American populace. As the Victorian era progressed, the Victorian taste for rich ornamentation was satiated, in part, with various decorative items that were marbled - mirrors, picture frames, writing boxes.

It requires considerable skill to marbleize walls and artifacts realistically with paints that generally shade from cream to umber, or gray and black, and to apply the paint with brushes, sponges, or goose feathers. It is much more practical, if you wish to procure a marbleized piece, to acquire one that has been professionally hand-decorated or manufactured.

At an antique show or shop you can find a rich, deep marbleized frame that once graced a Victorian parlor as it held a photograph of a family member. Some people enjoy retaining the photograph in an old frame and calling the subject an ''instant ancestor.'' But the photograph and its mount can be easily removed and replaced with a mirror cut to size to create an elegant Victorian wall hanging.

The large, deep Victorian frames often have faces with layered inserts of wood or plaster painted gold or black. Black-painted plaster inserts are sometimes enriched with incised decorations that effectively reveal the white of the plaster beneath and are bordered with another plaster panel that has been marbled.

The marbling on frames varies, usually from grayish tones to black, or from cream to brown or black. Sometimes it is a honey-toned combination of tans and browns.

These frames vary in size and shape. A group of small rectangular or square ones with mirrors becomes a striking focal point in a room cozy with early spatterware, painted furniture, and textured fabrics.

Silhouettes, needlework, sporting prints, royal commemorative ephemera, and family photographs can be enclosed in most of these frames. The deep ones make excellent shadow boxes or can bring old-world charm to a copy of an old master. And artists who create reverse paintings find that marbled frames enhance their work.

Small frames (about 6 by 8 inches) are obtainable at antique shows and shops for about $30; large ones (about 18 by 20 inches) are not as plentiful but can be found priced about $75 and up.

During the Victorian period, marbled clock cases, boxes, and other decorative items were frequently displayed in a parlor. Currently such accessories blend harmoniously in a room with the popular country look or even with rather pristine contemporary decors. They are also arresting additions to a room with a blend of furniture of various periods.

The Victorian liking for marbled surfaces extended to the use of colorful marbled paper for book end papers. Today marbled paper lends a distinctive background to shelves that display redware (pottery made from clay with an iron-oxide content) or treen (small woodenware). Or it can be used to ornament the top of a box to place on a table, or to cover an address book for a desktop. With some hunting, marbled paper can be found in stationery or gift shops that offer rolls of gift wrapping. And it is an inexpensive way to achieve the look of faux marbre.

The splendor of marbling for architectural delineation is superbly displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Arts Lehman Wing, with its marbled casements, columns, and stairway, which serve as background for early Italian Renaissance and Flemish paintings. And since marbling is also highly compatible with stenciled walls in a colonial room, or introduces desirable texture in a modern home, it affirms that ornamentation rightly belongs in every age to delight the eye.

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