02 February 2011
The Magic of Marquetry
A journey aboard the British Pullman or Northern Belle is like travelling in a work of art. Each carriage boasts spectacular wooden panels - restored or newly created by the company that made the original vintage pieces.
Of all the decorative flourishes in the carriages of the British Pullman and the Northern Belle, it is the intricate wooden panels that really catch the eye. Inlaid with exquisite patterns of coloured veneer, they showcase the ancient craft of marquetry. This traditional technique has been used to embellish furniture and interiors for centuries - and was an integral part of the Pullmans' decoration when they were built in the 1920s.
Each carriage had its own distinct theme, from the Art Deco geometric curves of Zena to the Grecian dancing girls of Ibis. All, though, display the rich colours of the different woods, some dyed in soft shades. Travelling in these carriages may focus on great destinations, views from the window and fine dining, but what takes each journey to a higher level is the ambience created by these hand-crafted pieces of art.
Amazing AudreyMany guests cite the Pullman carriage Audrey, built in 1932 for the Brighton Belle, as their favourite. Her delightful panels of landscapes (pictured above) survived a bomb attack on Victoria Station in 1940. Restoration involved the removal of shrapnel.
Restoring the British Pullmans
When VSOE first acquired these carriages in the 1970s much of this marquetry was in terrible condition. Some panels, exposed to wind and weather, were scarcely visible, while others, including dancing girls in Ibis, were missing.
The first task was to find an expert in this rare craft who could undertake restoration work. While leafing through papers on the original building of the Pullmans, an invoice was discovered from the small English firm that made the original panels: A. Dunn and Son. Not only did this family-run company still exist, but in its archives, which went back to 1895, were the original designs for panels made for three of the British Pullmans and a restaurant car now on the Continental service of the VSOE.
The firm was still pursuing its painstaking work by hand, and the restoration of these carriages swiftly became their biggest ever project. Plus they made new panels for the appropriately-named Phoenix, which had once been all but destroyed by fire.
By Avril Groom. a writer on luxury and fashion for leading UK newspapers and magazines
What is your favourite decoration on the British Pullman or Northern Belle?