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Furniture And Old Lacquer

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

THE collection of old lacquer brings the home connoisseur very near the borders of curios, and those minor objects which while not strictly furniture are closely allied to it. Among the more important objects worthy of the furniture collector's notice are cabinets, cupboards, tables, dressing- or toilet-tables, clock cases, tea-caddies, and work-boxes. Old lacquers were brought over from the East by traders in the seventeenth century, and such wares were imitated in Europe and in this country a century later. In practically all cases the style of these English and European lacquers was oriental, the models taken by all the imitators being curios imported from China, Japan, and India.

Lacquer cabinets from the East found their way into England as early as the days of Henry VII, at a time when Spain and Portugal had almost a monopoly in Asiatic waters. English and Dutch merchants carried on much trade with the East early in the seventeenth century, but English commerce with Eastern countries ceased in 1637. The Dutch, however, continued to ship large consignments, and sold much beautiful oriental lacquer ware to English buyers. At that time the trade route was by the Cape, and it took a long time before goods arrived in this country. Hence it was that few commissions were given ; the objects were brought over and sold by speculative merchants who had taken out goods to Eastern countries and brought back oriental wares, including lacquer cabinets, Chinese porcelain, and Imari vases and tea china from Japan. These beautiful wares eventually became the models from which eighteenth-century potters produced the beautiful china and porcelain which was so appropriate to display on the lacquer cabinets from Japan. Many of the oriental wares which came over from the East were eagerly bought up, for there was nothing in this country like the Chinese blue and white of the Kang-He period, so many rare examples of which may be seen at Hampton Court. The art of lacquering became a popular amusement as early as the reign of William III. It was then known as the art of japanning. At that time, in 1688, John Stalker brought out a book with the following explanatory title : "A Treatise of Japanning and Varnishing, being a compleat discovery of those Arts. With the best way of making all sorts of Varnish for Japan woods, Prints, Plate, or Pictures. The Method of Guilding, Burnishing, and Lackering with the art of Guilding, Separateing and Refining metals, and the most curios ways of painting on Glass or otherwise. Also rules for counterfeiting or Dying Wood, Ivory, etc. Together with above an hundred distinct patterns of Japan Work, for Tables, Stands, Frames, Cabinets, Boxes, etc. Curiously engraven on 24 large Copper Plates. By John Stalker, September the 7th 1688. Licenced R. Midgley, and entered according to order. Oxford Printed for and sold by the Author, living at the Golden Ball, in St James Market, London in the year MDCLXXXVIII."

It is due to the hobby then followed by the amateur that now and then collectors are puzzled to find indifferently decorated pieces although the style indicates a knowledge of how such work should have been executed.


It is generally conceded that the Chinese were the first to use native lacquer. The Japanese, however, early discovered the art, beginning to make it in the third century after their memorable expedition to the Corea. The famous furniture, cabinets, and ornamental wood-work produced in those countries, and introduced into Europe early in the eighteenth century, owe their notoriety to the gum lac which even modern scientists and chemists have been unable to rival. The natural gum, set and hardened, produced a material which in the process of drying and hardening was peculiarly suited to the reception of other decorative ornament. The Chinese used tsi and the Japanese Thus vernicifera, liquid gums, applied fresh, drying hard and glossy. In the production of these oriental lacquers some twenty different colourings were employed, but the remarkable white lacquer of the fifteenth century is a lost art, and cannot be duplicated. The decorations of oriental lacquer were often very English in appearance, owing to the artists of Japan in the days of the East India Company having studied their markets carefully, and specially prepared goods for England.

There are two important sections of decorated lacquer work — painted and carved, and encrusted. In the manufacture of these goods foreign substances such as mother - of - pearl, ivory, lapis lazuli, and jade were employed. The commoner form of ornament is the ordinary black lac, upon which a wealth of gold was expended. Another type coming chiefly from China was of a brilliant vermilion red, finely pencilled with gold. The richest examples of the so-called Pekin lacquers were made in Japan by Chinese workmen. The older examples are almost in every instance the richest and most beautiful. The manufacture of the raised work of the older and more costly pieces was very slow, the raised ornament being applied coat after coat, the lacquer being used with oxide of iron. It cannot be too clearly under-stood that whereas the Chinese and Japanese used the natural gum, the European japan was produced by the mixture of oils, resins, and turpentine or copal. The carved red lac, sometimes called Pekin lac, is almost entirely a Chinese process.

Indian cabinets were the rage in fashionable circles in England and France during the eighteenth century. French collections contain many very beautiful pieces which were once owned and valued by Queen Marie Antoinette, and by Madame de Pompadour. Such pieces represented the quality of work valued and appreciated by Englishmen. Some, however, preferred Chinese cabinets, so many of which came over from the East in the ships bringing tea and other merchandise.

It is interesting to note that there have been instances in which the comparative values of old and modern lacquers have been tested, showing the superiority of the former. As an instance the S.S. Nile foundered in 1874 near Yokohama. She had on board a large quantity of old as well as modern lacquers. When the vessel was re-covered a year or so afterwards the old lacquered wares and antiques were intact, whereas the more modern pieces were irretrievably spoiled.


It is not always easy to distinguish English from foreign lacquers. The figures introduced show the chief point of difference in the ornament, for they are unlike those of oriental artists. Black was the ground colour used for most of the work carried out by English lacquerers, although a light buff ground was occasionally used with the object of imitating the polished light woods of contemporary marqueterie. In nearly all cases the ornament is thrown up in yellow or gold. Such lacquers appear to have been made between 1670-1710.

As an instance of the way in which these old wares were marketed in this country, the following extract from the London Gazette, of 16th January 1689, should be of special interest : "At Tho. Hulbeart at The Ship and Anchor over against GunYard in Hounditch London, several sorts of screwtores, Table Stands and Looking Glasses of Japan and other work."

Much of the English work has lost its brightness, although a little "polish restorer " works wonders upon genuine antiques. The foundation of lacquer work as made in England was mostly pear, box, lime, yew, walnut, and olive, as these close-grained woods were more suitable for coating with lacquer. At a later date lacquered furniture was again made, it being fashionable in the days of Hepplewhite, who makes some reference to English systems of lacquering or japanning on wood, saying in his book : " A very elegant fashion which has arisen of late years of finishing (chairbacks) with painted or japanned work which gives a very splendid appearance to the minuter parts of the ornaments which are generally thrown in by the painter."

The " vernis Martin " varnish or lacquer which became so popular in France in the eighteenth century was made at the royal manufactory where the Martins carried on important works.


The art of lacquering on wood and metal in this country never reached an equality with that of the oriental artist, although many determined efforts were made to produce satisfactory work. As it has been stated, amateurs became fairly expert lacquerers, the art being a fashion-able accomplishment. In addition to the books published dealing with this subject, there was an interesting treatise by J. Perle, entitled : " A New and Curious Method of Japanning upon Glass, Wood, or Metal." This book ran through five editions.

The oriental lacquer was effected by a slow process. The native gum having been applied, the object treated was placed in a moist, warm, and air-tight cupboard for several hours. Then another coat was applied, some-times as many as thirty being required to produce the beautiful gloss. The colourings of the native gums were produced by colouring matter ; gambouge was used for the fine yellow transparent lac upon which gold was applied ; cinnabar and colcothar produced red, whereas orpiment made greenish - yellow ; black being secured by the addition of iron and charcoal to the purified lac. The surface was afterwards rubbed with rice paper and a powder of Imari clay and calcined horn.

English lacquer work is frequently denoted as japanned, taking its name, of course, from Japan, where so much of the earlier work came from. The process adopted both in the early days and in later revivals of japanned work was based upon an imitation of the product of the natural gum. Similar processes of applying an artificially-made lacquer, and then allowing it to dry hard, were gone through. Sometimes plain black or red was the groundwork, at others greens and other colours ; heated and allowed to set hard, then rubbed with finely powdered rotten stone, another coat was applied, and so on, until the last, when the final surface was produced by rubbing with oil alone. Then came painting and ornamenting with gold, until about 1760 all the lacquer made in this country was Eastern in character, the ornament consisting of birds, trees, flowers, and oriental figures. In later days more English designs were introduced.

Japanning was applied to ladies' work-boxes and work-tables, toilet-tables and cabinets, tea-caddies and fire-screens, and when the industry was continued on a metallic groundwork instead of wood, many small household articles, like candlesticks, trays, and useful boxes, were made. Pontypool became one of the early seats of the japanning industry, which was afterwards removed to Birmingham. In Victorian days there was much japanned ware placed upon the market. Early in the nineteenth century papier-mache was introduced as the groundwork of lacquer and japanned goods, the process of japanning being much the same. Among these various household commodities there are many antiques which furniture collectors add to their more utilitarian cabinet work.


The old Chinese and Japanese lacquers are very different to the modern oriental. The difference is obvious to those who carefully examine old pieces and compare the differences of the workmanship with those modern works of art, such as householders are accustomed to see in the numerous shops that have been opened up of late years in most of the large towns in this country. The oriental lacquers chiefly applied to wood and similar materials imported from the East in olden time are again different from the English - made lacquers referred to in previous paragraphs. Undoubtedly the best way to become familiar with the characteristics of these various productions, the line of demarcation between which is sometimes very fine, is to examine carefully representative collections in our national museums. In several of the courts of the Victoria and Albert Museum extremely interesting collections of oriental furniture and household curios are arranged, among them many articles of furniture, mostly made in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries, which, of course, represent the antiques, but shown in the same galleries are comparatively modern art treasures, among them lacquers produced during recent years, some replicas of the antique, so that this collection, although by no means exhaustive, offers collectors an excellent opportunity of judging of the lacquers from China, Japan, and India.

In the furniture galleries at the Victoria and Albert Museum are some early oriental lacquer cabinets, mounted on stands of the Restoration period. During the reigns of Charles II., James II., and William and Mary, some magnificent cabinets were brought over to this country direct, or were imported by Dutch merchants. Those cabinets were not always mounted on stands in keeping with the lacquer, but both cabinets and stands have now become valuable antiques in their several ways. In some instances the stands are of richly-carved Italian designs ; in others Carolian carvings, which were silvered or gilt, and in a few instances painted in colours. One exceptionally fine cabinet of oriental workmanship in the Victoria and Albert Museum has English brass mounts ; the stand, which is Carolian, is silvered. It is not much unlike a fine cabinet which came from Chirk, near Ruabon, and was recently in the possession of Mr Phillips, of Hitchin, who kindly lends the photograph.

Additional interest centres round historical pieces, such as an exceptionally handsome black and gold lacquered coffer, beautifully inlaid with gold and mother-of-pearl, which is on view in the Museum. This piece, which is stated to have belonged to Napoleon I., is ornamented on the front with views of the' Imperial Palace of Pekin ; on one end is an autumn scene, with the Shinto shrine and carriages; on the other end there is a hunting scene; and on the back a tiger hunt is depicted. The mounts of this remarkable piece, which was made in the seventeenth century, are of brass, gilt and chased ; the lock, too, is ornamented, and is fitted with a key with a finely chiselled bow, in the design of which are incorporated the arms of a Duke of Mazarin.

There are many beautiful lacquer cabinets of early nineteenth century workmanship ; especially handsome is one from the Corea lacquered in red and inlaid with mother - of pearl, producing fine designs in which are birds and flowers, the handle plates and corners being made of a white metal alloy.

Domestic shrines received special attention from Japanese artists of the old school. Some of those on view in the Victoria and Albert Museum are full of little compartments and fittings inlaid with rare materials in beautiful designs. There is an old corner cabinet or cupboard of inlaid lacquers, in the decoration of which various inlays of pearl, ivory, and silvered glass are introduced. There is also a wonderful work-table of black and gold lacquered wood, the fittings and reels being of ivory. There are also some cabinets, screens, and other pieces of furniture from early Japanese homes. There are but few examples of chairs ; one, however, calls for special attention ; it is a piece made for the Anglo-Japan Exhibition in 1910, an exact replica of a folding chair of the period of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598), the original being now in the Imperial Museum at Kyoto.

The remarkable six- and twelve-fold screens, lacquered and deeply incised, giving such pleasing effects, are much prized by collectors. The splendid screen shown in Fig. 71 is suggestive of the kind of screen collectors should look out for. Its six folds, although quite complete in their scheme of decoration, at one time probably formed a part of a larger twelve-fold screen. Such examples as the one illustrated through the courtesy of Mr Albert Amor, of St James's Street, W., have all the characteristics of good workmanship so fully exhibited in a magnificent twelve-fold screen now in the Victoria and Albert Museum. A description of this latter piece should be of interest to all students of oriental lacquer. The black lac is relieved by incised and painted designs in gold and colours—green predominating. On the front of the screen is a scene representating Taoist genii (hsien) worshipping Shou Lao, the god of longevity ; on the back are landscapes and the apparatus of the four liberal arts—writing, painting, music, and chess—and emblems of the Taoist and Buddhist religions. On the lower border of the front are the flowers of the twelve months, another series of flowers occupies a similar position on the other side. The border of phoenixes and longevity characters suggests that the screen was made for an empress of the period.

The screen shown in Fig. 72 is another very remark-able one — four-fold — which is now in' the Hatfield Gallery of Antiques. The different symbols used in the ornamentation are very suggestive and deserving of close study.

Cabinets of oriental type, in lacquer, such as those already referred to, are of extreme interest and value ; but far more so are those of English lacquer, such as the magnificent cabinet decorated in Chinese taste shown in Fig. 78. The doors are exceptionally well executed and enriched with beautifully chased hinges, lock plates, and mounts. The interior is well fitted with drawers, the fronts of which are decorative too. This delightful piece, the date of which is about 1680, is mounted on a finely carved wood and gilded stand. The total height of this piece is 5 ft. 1 in., the length 8 ft. 8 in., and the depth 1 ft. 5 in. It is in the possession of Messrs Mallett and Son, of Bath and London.

Another cabinet of quite different type, now in the Hatfield Gallery of Antiques, is illustrated in Fig. 74. It is of exceptional length, giving the artist ample opportunity of scenic display in the decoration of black and gold ; it stands on a plain stand of walnut wood. The specialistic collector finds ample variety in decoration among Chinese and Japanese lacquers, and in their study becomes acquainted with many of the myths of oriental religions and legends. In the English lacquers the pictures are not so reliable, as they are for the most part copies of the oriental without accurate knowledge of the essentials of the mystic scenes or legends they are intended to depict.

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