Friday, March 01, 2013

Something Old Looks New Again


Do you know what I miss seeing on tables? Hardboard place mats. Remember those? As the name suggests, these mats are literally hard boards that have a decal design on top and a felt underside.  Perhaps they are still used often in the UK where the hardboard mat was once commonplace, but these mats have become a little tough to find over here. I can't figure out why, especially considering that they require no ironing.

The most prominent and popular brand of hardboard mats is Lady Clare.  According to the Lady Clare website, Lady Clare Pigott invented these mats while living in Paris in 1932.  Required to entertain often with her British diplomat husband, Pigott sought to alleviate the high cost of laundering all of her white linen tablecloths.  The solution was a piece of hardboard upon which Lady Clare pasted antique prints and then lacquered the surface; the mat could then be placed directly on top of the table with no cloth underneath.  These mats became a huge hit amongst her friends, and thus Lady Clare the company was born.

My mother used to buy her Lady Clare mats from Tiffany, including a set bearing fox hunting scenes that I now own. And Lady Clare hardboard coasters, a later addition to the line, became my go-to hostess gift during college. (Unfortunately, Tiffany & Co. stopped carrying Lady Clare mats close to twenty years ago.) If scenes of fox hunting, horses, and birds- all typically found on these mats- sound way too traditional, well, that's the whole point. Although Lady Clare and other lines have attempted to updated these mats with more contemporary designs, I say stick to the classics. After all, what's wrong with dining with a throwback?

I say that if hardboard mats are good enough for Marcus the Spaniel, above, then they are certainly good enough for us!

"Hunting" by Lady Clare




"Shepherd's London" by Lady Clare





"Sporting Dogs" by Lady Clare




"Ming Polo" by Lady Clare




If you prefer something less decorative, you can buy solid colored mats and coasters.  These are made in England and are available through Scully & Scully.




A dining table set with hardboard mats at Eastnor Castle, Herefordshire





And this dining table at Birr Castle, Ireland, was also set with hardboard mats, which appear to have some type of fruit design on them.



Photo of Marcus from The English Dog at Home by Felicity Wigan; Eastnor Castle photo from The Regency Country House: From the Archives of Country Life by John Martin Robinson; Birr Castle photo from In an Irish House by Sybil Connolly.

17 comments:

  1. Love these mats. I saw a set of twelve, probably c. 1980's, hardboard mats in a malachite pattern go at auction for $1000 last month. Something to ponder. Thanks for the update.
    Mary

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  2. Mixed feelings about the mats with hunting scenes or stately houses.
    Never saw the point of them no matter what the setting.
    The plain mats however are a different matter, and decidedly chic!

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    1. I agree TW. I have the black with gold edging. Dinner's at 8.30 pm.

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  3. Thanks for the reminder. I'll haul out my hardboard coasters by Pimpernel. Then I can invite Marcus over.

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  4. My mother use to have a whole set of the birds, wonder where they have gone + I remember the green felt backs + Hers had a very definite smell, a lovely musty smell. xxpeggybraswelldesign.com

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  5. Love the drawing of "Hunting". I always thought it a shame that magnificent dining tables, often crafted of luxurious hardwoods and exotic veneers were covered over when entertaining, even if the cloths themselves were magnificent. They might as well have made the table of pressboard, for all the enjoyment the guests derived from it.

    Hardboard mats seem old-fashioned, perhaps because manufacturers often cheapened them by using poor images, plastic coatings and cheap magic marker gilt paint trim, but they can certainly be updated (I do like the plain ones) with Greek key borders, architectural fragment motifs, etc. I wonder if they would catch on again if made with antique prints (or copies of same) decoupaged onto the boards. Maybe this should be a (slightly more advanced) DIY project, so people can personalize them. I think using copies of amusing Daumier prints would be a hoot and a home color printer would make it so easy. A friend had some made with burl wood veneer in a rectangular octagon and they looked smashing. Just plain gilded ones, with the lines where the individual gold leaf sheets meet showing, would also be glamourous. What about an Italian 3-D tumbling blocks pattern? I could go on...

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  6. BTW, I do like the "Marquetry" pattern.
    http://www.lady-clare.com/superbasket/product/386/Today+Placemats+Marquetry

    A final note: We may see them as old-fashioned, but didn't we love them as kids at our grandparent's and friends parents tables?

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  7. I think that these mats are a terrific DIY project. Really, they can be decorated with any desired print, pattern, engraving etc. Depending on the pattern you choose, the mats could look really sophisticated.

    I always loved the mats as a child because their designs were a nice and pleasant departure from plain linen mats.

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  8. Anonymous12:08 PM

    Pimpernel placemats are readily available on something called 'ebay'.

    Yours ever,

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  9. Anonymous7:31 AM

    The mats at Birr Castle look (to me) like the mats made and sold
    by the Irish Georgian Society in the 80s or 90s. I they used the work of an 18th cent. woman artist.

    I wonder if they've got any old stock left...

    Best
    Herts

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    1. Herts, As always, you hit the nail on the head! A reader emailed me yesterday to tell me that those mats were indeed sold by the Irish Georgian Society. I visited their website and they currently sell mats with work by Samuel Dixon, and I believe they are the same as those in the photo above.

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  10. Oh this is a marvelous post! Many years ago, in the 1970s, I was an exchange student at a boys public school in England. While there I spent any number of weekends visiting friends' families where I came across the Lady Claire table mats you are showing here. When in London one time I bought a set of them (9 1/2 inches wide by 7 1/2 inches tall) at the Army and Navy Store on Sloane Square. Featuring old prints of the monuments of London (t. Paul's Cathedral, etc.) I bought them as a gift for my mother. After she died ten years ago they came (back) to me, and I use them regularly at our dining able at Darlington House. So chic, I thnk, and so practical -- one protects one's table without requiring the laundering and ironing that cloth mats and tablecloths require. I also have a set of Lady Claire coasters that I use, but find them less satisfactory, since one's glass often sticks to them on a hot summer's day. It is somewhat startling to me that the table mats I purchased (almost) 40 years ago as a school boy are now sufficiently old as to be a curiosity! That, and "vintage" too! Oh dear, I think I may need to add a bit of vodka to my morning coffee to calm my nerves... Reggie

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    1. Reggie, I have seen the mats with document prints on them and love them! My sets are over twenty years old and they look terrific.

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  11. Oh my - I was getting ready to do a post on these! I am still a fan of a gorgeous wooden table and hard mats are perfect both in terms of form and function. I push them on clients to varying degrees of success all the time - now I can just send them all your post. I particularly like solid color ones with a bit of animal print texture and maybe a border. So chic!

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  12. I love these mats. I was on the hunt for them recently and found that the company Pimpernel(?) makes them. Many of the designs seemed to try (and fail) at an updated look. They had a few classics and now I am wondering why I never ordered any.

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  13. hello john derian ! imagine the pretty things he could do with these mats and then they wouldn't be called
    'old fashioned' I see a peak of chic place mat revival coming on.

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  14. Anonymous5:50 AM

    Dare I correct Mr Reggie Darling? It's Peter Jones-known to all good Sloanes-as PJs, which is on Sloane Square. The Army & Navy stores-don't think that they're still in business?-were in Victoria Street, not far from the Station.
    PJs (part of the John Lewis Partnership) would still be my first point of call for place mats-now that the General Trading Company has died the death. Whew, glad that over...

    Best
    Herts

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