Finding screens on the cheap

In the West, the screen had a relatively short period of popularity. Gorgeous lacquer screens were imported from China during the 18th century, and were much sought-after in Europe. But comparatively few survived. They were bought not for their ability to provide shelter from drafts, but for the purpose of remaking them into cabinets. The lacquer work was of high quality and, as the screens consisted of perhaps as many as 12 panels, they could be shipped easily and used economically. In the 19th century, Japanese screens became fashionable, but probably more for their artistic and decorative qualities. These days, screens have lost all but their decorative value. Many have been consigned to the attic. Antique oriental screens are, of course, very valuable. European screens, constructed of carved and gilded wood frames and filled with panels of silk - and later in the 19th century, often topped with beveled glass panels - are rather less costly. They are becoming more popular now as decorative features in a room.

But many more modest screens can still be had for a very small cost, and as their fabric, leather, or paper panels are often beyond repair, they can be renovated quite cheaply.

A very popular form of screen during the 19th century was filled with panels of collage within simple wood frames, often called a ``scrap screen.'' One of the most effective - and probably one of the earliest - scrap screens I have seen is at Firle Place, a country house near Lewis in Sussex. The screen was made about 1820, probably by one of the ladies of the house, and is set with engraved cartoons and cariacatures, which were pasted onto board and varnished. (On second thought, in view of the very direct nature of some of the material, it may have been assembled by a man!)

Later, the Victorian vogue for scraps or colored printed cutouts took over and became immensely popular.

Nothing could be cheaper or easier than to form one's own collage screen, using an old frame of stained, polished, or ebonized wood and filling the panels with illustrations covered with varnish. If one were to choose old engravings or other valuable material, such as old stock certificates, it might be wise to mount them as with stamps and use glass rather than varnish.

The material can be arranged in a variety of ways: as pictures on a wall with a contrasting background, and even framed with braid or wallpaper borders. More difficult, but also very rewarding decoratively, would be to cut around the chosen images and arrange them in a random or pictorial display with none of the background showing. The use of contemporary material might make the piece an interesting collector's item in the future.

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