Wednesday, 17 April 2013

A fabulous gift

MoDiP is delighted to have acquired its first example of Bois durci as a gift from Gaston Vermosen, who has written the most comprehensive book on the material available, Bois durci un plastique naturel 1855-1927 and whose magnificent collection can be seen at He contacted us because our website claimed that the commercial manufacture of Bois durci ceased in 1875 when in fact it continued until 1926 stopping only as a result of the factory being destroyed by fire. It is not often that errors are so handsomely rewarded. We are most grateful to Gaston Vermosen both for pointing out our mistake and for his outstanding generosity.

Bois durci is a plastics material made from a composition of fine sawdust (known as wood flour) from hard woods such as rosewood and ebony mixed with either blood from the slaughterhouses of Paris or albumen (egg-white). Products were formed by pressing the mixture into a heated steel mould, a process much quicker and therefore much cheaper than crafting the products by hand. The finished products were either black or brown and capable of a high polish typical of dark hard woods, imparted from the shininess of the steel mould.

The first patents for Bois durci were taken out in France, Belgium and England by Charles Le Page in 1855. The products were retailed by Alfred Latry who took over the patents in 1859 and set up the Société du Bois Durci and began  himself manufacturing in the material in 1859.  In 1870 the patents ran out and several manufacturers went into business. Especially significant was Ambroise Chevalier who moved his business to Sézanne in the north east of France in 1883, where manufacturing continued until 1926.
The original patent described Bois durci as ‘a new composition of materials which may be employed as a substitute for wood, leather, bone, metal and other hard or plastic substances’, words foretelling those of Henry Parkes, who described Parkesine, a pioneering form of celluose nitrate, some six years later as capable of  'the most perfect imitation of tortoiseshell, woods, and an endless variety of effects'.  Both Bois durci and Parkesine were featured in London's  1862  Great Exhibition.

MoDiP’s piece is an inkstand in the Japonisme style that became popular after Japan opened its doors to the rest of the world in the 1860s. It is a piece that demonstrates the power of Bois durci mouldings to imitate other materials – in this case bamboo and woven cane- It is a wonderful example of the fine dtail the material can provide.  We are delighted to have it in the collection.
Susan Lambert
Head of MoDiP

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