From 18 December 2019, the exhibition «Leather. Artworks from old Europe» will be running in the Blue Bedroom of the Winter Palace. For the first time, the Hermitage is focusing on leather and introducing its visitors to the art of leather treatment in Western Europe.
The collections of leather objects have for a long time been overshadowed by more showy jewellery, ceramics, glass and even fabrics, but they do deserve close attention. They were mostly formed out of items moved to the Hermitage in 1886 from the Tsarskoe Selo Arsenal, and later, in the 1920s – 1930s, from the Museum of the Stieglitz Central School of Technical Drawing, Mikhail P. Botkin’s private collection, etc. The eighty pieces at this temporary display are virtually unknown to the public and will return to storage after its completion.
The two main sections of the exhibitions contain medieval and Renaissance incised, embossed and punched leather and gilded leather hangings from the sixteenth – nineteenth centuries.
Both of these crafts arose in Cordoba, the capital of medieval Spain, which gave its name first to the vegetable-tanned goatskins known as cordobán, and then to gilded leather. These techniques changed as they evolved, and the term in time came to refer to any kind of tooled leather; ‘Cordoban leather’ was more and more often thought to be a product of Spain.
However, already in the Middle Ages this material was used in crafts all over Europe. In France, Germany and Italy caskets and cases for holding all manner of objects and lavish ceremonial weapons were decorated with exceptionally intricate patterns, emblems and coats of arms of their owners employing techniques very close to those applied to decorative metalworking: embossing, chasing and engraving.
The material was used in a different way to produce so-called gilded leather (guadameсí). The leather was covered in silver leaf and then coated in yellow and orange varnish, which resulted in a gold effect; it was then impressed all over with small stamps and painted with coloured varnish or oil paints. Spanish gilded leather was famous all over Europe and prized alongside the expensive Damask silks which their shimmering embossed surfaces were reminiscent of. But after the expulsion of the Arabs (1492) and the Moriscos (1610), who held the key to these crafts, the production of gilded leather in Spain all but stopped. The exiled masters moved to Italy and the Southern Netherlands, where they founded new workshops and continued to use the same technique.
The look of gilded leather was radically transformed after 1628 thanks to an invention made by the Dutchman Jacob Dircsx de Swart. Leather wall hangings were now manufactured using the printing press and deep relief moulds, which made mass production possible. This novelty brought about an unprecedented flourishing of this craft, which was now inspired by the works of goldsmiths and adopted their decorative motifs. This was a true ‘golden age’ for gilded leather. The scale of production was stupendous, and the fashion for leather wall hangings spread to Japan and pre-Petrine Russia; it is all the more remarkable that the mere memory of this age has now disappeared. Tastes have changed, the old interior designs have been destroyed by time; and now we are mostly learning about them from archival records and surviving fragments.
The age of Historicism in the second half of the nineteenth century brought back the fashion for leather wall hangings, causing the brilliant pages of the history of leather to be leafed through again. Imitations, stylisations, paraphrases and free fantasies on historical themes appeared and are now valuable in their own right.
The relatively small scale of this exhibition has made it possible to only scratch the surface of the immense subject of leather – the Hermitage collections are much richer and include furniture, carriages, book-covers and archaeological material.
The exhibition and well-illustrated scholarly catalogue (The State Hermitage Publishers, 2019) reinforced by a highly informative introduction hopefully will attract the visitors to this area of art. It describes the amazing qualities of leather, linking it with its organic origin, and providing a historical review of the development of its artistic techniques and styles.
During the preliminary stage of this exhibition, a scientific research and restoration project was launched to lay down the foundation for the conservation of gilded leather, which we hope will be continued.
The author of the concept and curator of the exhibition is Ekaterina Nikolaevna Nekrasova, researcher in the Hermitage’s Department of the Western European Decorative Art, Curator of Medieval Art.