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Culture Deep Laid In Oriental Lacquers
A strange story is told that the ship returning Japan's lacquers from the Vienna Exposition was wrecked. Nearly a year and a half passed before those priceless lacquers were rescued from the sea, their gleam undimmed, their surface unharmed. But then China and Japan both have ancient temples with lacquer floors which, after centuries, have the gleam of porcelain and touch pleasantly the shoeless feet of worshipers. What better proof that lacquer is enduring as well as beautiful.
The lac tree is native to China. Its sap hardens into a natural varnish which, in its nebulous beginnings, was used for pots and pans much as American Indians used pine tree gum to surface their basketry for liquids. Moisture preserved and toughened China's lac, and it would endure great heat. But before it hardened it could be brushed onto wood, leather or metal for domestic use, or onto bamboo or ivory as the "written word."
But the lac tree, once tapped, died. So China began requiring its cultivation. Lac plantations grew up. Taxes were paid in lac. And the export of lac was forbidden. But the art of lacquer spread.
Japanese Lacquer from China's Lac Trees
The Japanese grew China's lac trees and made beautiful lacquer four hundred years before the Christian Era. Korea too produced and used it. Burma, Java, India and Persia made lacquers, but not from the lac tree which had served China for untold centuries.
In the 7th century B.C. China was lacquering musical instruments. And a rich red coffin lid from about that era, finely carved, was dug recently from the watery earth beneath Ch'ang-sha. It is now in Chicago's Natural History Museum, the painted design on the lacquer almost gone, but the elaborately intertwining lines are still clean-cut in a depth of cinnabar lacquer which must have required a hundred coats. And every coat had to be set to harden and polished down before the next coat could be brushed on. Small wonder the artist, ShenT'u-Pan, spent ten years on one lacquer piece.
Not hot air, but cellars or moistened cupboards were used for hardening lacquer. Once hardened, many coats of it would turn an arrow. It gave a fine finish to the arms and armor of warriors. It made regal the carriages and harness for the equipages of emperors. And the bowls and cups of lacquer served a century of hot soups, teas, and alcoholic drinks, yet showed no dimming of their bright beauty.
Rarely were objects carved of pure lacquer. Occasionally porcelain, ivory, bamboo, paper, or leather was used as a base. Metals had 'their first three coats of lacquer "burned on" with a low fire before the "damp closet" technique was used to harden the other coats.
Wood Was a Favorite Base for LacquerSoft wood with a close grain, seasoned against warping and cracking, was the favorite base.
The first coat of strong lacquer to strengthen the wood and fill the pores was hardened in a damp cupboard - sometimes a pan of water was set in to hurry the "drying." Then the object was rubbed down to remove all brush marks and the edges grooved out and filled with lacquer to strengthen them. (Japanese used instead an extra coat of strong lacquer on these parts later in the process).
Now a secunct coat of lacquer mixed with cotton or linen fiber was brushed on. Next a cloth of open mesh linen or silk was lacquered over front and back to add strength. Several "filling the cloth" coats of lacquer mixed with powdered pumice were brushed on, dried and polished with pumice and water.
Next, four "thickening" coats of lacquer mixed with extra fine pumice went on, and each was dried and polished. The "blackening" coat came next, and the "coloring" coats began, with charcoal polishing after each drying. With the twentieth coat a final polishing with ashes of deer's horn and oil on the end of the finger made the lacquer gleam like fine satin.
The lacquer was ready for its decoration - in Chinese, generally flat; in Japanese, frequently raised. A favorite was gold or silver foil, sometimes engraved, laid on the lacquer, covered with many coats of transparent lacquer, and rubbed down each time until finally the foil appeared glowing beneath the surface.
Then the artist touched in details by brush, using colors mixed with powdered gold or silver. The Japanese called this work Taka-makiye and made it in raised work on plain wood, or on black, colored, or gold dust (pear skin) lacquer.
"Pear Skin Lacquer from Powdered Gold
Pear skin lacquer, called Nashiji by the Japanese, Aventurine by the French, took great skill to distribute the powdered gold evenly over the lacquer.
In inlaid lacquer, mother-of-pearl has been the favorite for centuries. The iridescent bluish green bits of shell from the haliotis or sea ear were cut with a chisel, sometimes touched with brighter color, and often applied in silver foil, or used with engraved gold or silver leaf. The adoring French called it "La.c Burgautee." Chicago's Natural History Museum shows, among others, two little silver-lined cups and several small trays with minute blue, purplish, and green flower sprays and borders, gleaming from the black lacquer.
Tortoise shell, sandalwood, tinted and carved ivory, and precious stones also decorated lacquer objects. Designs were in fruits and flowers, humans, animals, or landscapes related to Buddhist, Taoist, or Confucian legends.
Carved lacquer took sharp knives and extreme precision to create clean-cut edges and fine detail in the tough lacquer. Sometimes the lacquer was in layers of different colors, but red lacquer from cinnabar, and black lacquer from pine tree soot, were favorites.
Lacquer flourished in the 17th century under Japan's Diamos and China's first Manchu Emperor. And the English and French of the East India company, headquartering on India's Coromandel Coast, collected wondrous Chinese screens, while the Dutch in Batam, Java, amassed fan frames, objects d'art, and cabinets. These went to Europe in the great tea ships, starting the chinoiserie craze.
Lacquer Screens Cut to Make Cabinet Panels
"Coromandel" screens, sometimes with twelve leaves of incised and inlaid lacquer portraying colorful court scenes of warriors and nobles, lovely ladies and flowery pageants, were intricate as champleve enamel. Many of them were cut up to make lacquered panels for fancy European cabinets.
Europe tried to make lacquers. Guilliame Martin, varnisher to Louis XV, developed one which delighted Europe with its gold on black, and its transparent varnish over fruits and flowers on gold-brushed or colored ground, or over paintings of the day. But the Dutch and English continued sending designs and cabinets to the Orient, waiting five to ten years for the lacquered pieces. Then England developed a substitute, and the lacquer craze spiraled till "Japanning" was taught young ladies in the best English and American finishing schools.
Excessive demand caused the Orient to add clay, glue, water and rice paste to lac for fast body building. These new pieces will dent under thumbnail pressure. The fine old lacquers will not.
Fine antique lacquers have no odor, are firm on a firm base, usually light in weight, have clear design, and a mellow glowing surface.