Penwork Secrétaire á Abbatant, C1790, Austrian, featuring fine detailed penwork with gilt and ebonized decoration. The Neoclassical Penwork is exceptional in execution and detail with Mythological beings, Roman figures, scrolled designs with flowers and the interior with an optical illusion pattern depicting an amphitheater setting which is reflected in a mirror flanked by ancient Roman guards. Penwork historically was a secondary process after marquetry and polish; it is unusual, as in this extraordinary example, for penwork to be used without marquetry work.
Penwork started to appear on Furniture in the 18th Century. Penwork is sometimes regarded as an offshoot of Japanning, the European imitation of oriental lacquer work, but whereas Japanning is the art of using opaque colors in varnish; Penwork is a watercolor painting technique, with varnish applied as a protection for the finished decoration. The differences between Japanning and Penwork are not always clear; particularly in examples of chinoiserie decoration and the confusion is compounded by the fact that late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century writers on furniture appear to have used the terms interchangeably. The techniques used for Penwork were not consistent, either. Penwork decoration was often done in Indian ink with fine black lines on a light background. Sometimes this was done in reverse, i.e. the background was blacked and the design was light. At other times color inks, paints, or gold leaf were used in addition to the black ink. So the fine lines between the two techniques were often blurred. This piece, however, leaves no doubt as to the technique used.