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Decoupage has been a popular crafting technique since the 12th century, when Chinese communities would decorate their boxes, windows and lanterns with bright paper cut outs. However, the practice of cutting and gluing in this style actually came from East Siberia; native Siberians would create felt cut outs to decorate nomadic tombs.
Decoupage is ever-evolving, steadily shaping its style to accommodate the needs of its time. Besides 12th century Chinese folk, decoupage has also transfixed the Polish and the Germans for a number of centuries, who also practiced the art of freehand paper cutting to create incredibly intricate artisan designs. But it wasn’t until the late 17th century that a more modern form the craft came to light.
The decoupage that we recognise today can be first compared to the lacquer work deriving from the Far East in the 1600s. The word ‘lacquer’ refers to the shiny finish created on the surface of – primarily wooden – objects. The furniture was coated several times over using sap from the native ‘Chinese lacquer tree’ to produce a smooth, durable and shiny surface that was a dream to look at. On top of this, lacquered objects usually featured paintings and inlaid stones or shells, too.
These specialist pieces of lacquered furniture grew to be hugely popular throughout Europe. In fact, they were so frequently demanded that it proved impossible to produce as much as required. This left Venetian craftsmen no choice but to recreate these works to keep European consumers happy; eventually becoming known as ‘counterfeit lacquer’. Artistic apprentices were taken on by master lacquerers to colour in prints designed by eminent artists by hand. Afterwards, they’d cut out the prints, glue them onto an object, and layer on multiple coats of lacquer to simulate the true work.
Although decoupage was popular amongst the masses, it wasn’t always entirely affordable. ‘Poor man’s arts’ soon came into practice, whereby people would cut out artists’ drawings, glue them down, and layer them with lacquer – thought to mirror the original artwork. This form of decoupage quickly took the continent by storm in the 18th century and continued to thrive throughout the 19th century – even featuring in the residence of King Louis XV of France. Ladies at this time would often spend their time cutting out pictures to glue onto screens, stands, hatboxes and other objects.
Perhaps the most prominent decoupager was Mary Delaney, an 18th century English artist and friend of King George III, but amazingly, Mary only discovered her true passion for decoupage at the age of 71! This exceptional artist would cut fine pieces of hand coloured tissue paper to create her self-proclaimed “paper mosaics”, portraying remarkably realistic flowers, plants and botanical designs.
Following in the footsteps of the great Mary Delaney, many other English women found themselves captivated by decoupage (although it was yet to be appointed its name). At that time, lacquering was actually referred to as ‘Japanning’. Similar to ‘poor man’s arts’, women would cut out pictures from paper, glue them onto objects, and then coat them with lacquer to create a gloriously shiny finished effect. When the Victorian times rolled around, the British got all sentimental with their decoupaging, refining their hand colouring and intricate cutting to produce artistic collages.
In the 19th century when handwritten Valentine’s Day cards began to circulate, embossed papers were also first manufactured. Decoupage accompanied these crazes with perfect timing. Victorian nannies would routinely teach children to decorate household objects, such as boxes and screens, by cutting around decorative papers with scissors and gluing them down to uniquely embellish them.
During the 20th century, the technique of decoupage was finally christened its name, deriving from the French term ‘découpeur’ which literally translates as ‘to cut out’. Today, this traditional technique is still used to beautify household objects, cards, gift boxes, or whatever else we can get our hands on. To decoupage now, crafters cut out designs from decoupage paper, assemble the cut outs in a particular layout, glue them down with decoupage glue, and then apply up to forty layers of varnish with intermittent sanding. The 21st century doesn’t only feature classic decoupaging – we’ve evolved the technique significantly since the 12th century. Today, ‘reverse decoupage’ and ‘3D foam decoupage’ are popular forms of crafting, adding expressive depth and dimension to projects.