All about East Asian lacquer and japanned furniture

Lacquer has always had an ‘exotic’ aura in Western eyes, but in fact it has been a global product for centuries

A George I japanned cabinet from Anthony Outred in a London house by Lucy Hammond Giles

Michael Sinclair

Japanese lacquer must have seemed a miraculous material to sixteenth-century Europeans. Impervious to liquids, resistant to heat, reflecting light and decorated in vibrant colours – there was nothing quite like it in the West. But that sense of wonder was not enough: the Portuguese merchants who first arrived in Japan at this time asked the Japanese artisans to produce things that they knew would be marketable back home. They commissioned coffers and chests, cabinets, book stands and folding tables, all based on European shapes, but covered in black Japanese lacquer decorated with gold and mother-of-pearl. The dense style of decoration on these pieces was called namban by the Japanese, meaning ‘southern barbarian’, in reference to the direction from which the European ‘barbarian’ ships came.

Lacquered chair, from c.1735 by Giles Grendey

Heritage Images/Getty Images

Dining-room in sang-de-boeuf lacquer

Print Collector/Getty Images

By this time lacquer had been used as a material in Japan for many centuries. East-Asian lacquer is made using the sap of the Chinese lacquer tree (Toxicodendron vernicifluum), which is obtained by cutting grooves in the bark and collecting the resin that emerges. This is heated to remove as much water as possible, while dyes can be added to colour it. The liquid lacquer is then applied to a surface in very thin layers and encouraged to harden by being kept under warm, humid conditions. This is not drying but a process of polymerisation, creating the unique properties of East-Asian lacquer.

Lacquer dish with flowers, probably 1403-1435

Heritage Images/Getty Images

From about 1600 Dutch and English merchants also became involved in the trade with East Asia. They initially bought namban lacquer, and substantial numbers of objects in that style can still be found in northern European collections. But in the course of the seventeenth century the decoration of Japanese export lacquer became less dense and more pictorial, showing birds and flowers or landscapes. In the Dutch Republic, Amalia von Solms, Princess of Orange, used Japanese lacquer in a rather brutal but creative way in the 1650s, taking lacquer screens and coffers apart to panel a room at Huis ten Bosch, on the outskirts of The Hague.

View of the facade of Huis ten Bosch Palace in The Hague, 1700-1799

Heritage Images/Getty Images

Lacquered tables in Rita Konig's farmhouse in County Durham

Paul Massey

In the later seventeenth century, a particular type of Chinese lacquer also became popular in Europe. Nowadays often called ‘Coromandel’ lacquer, after the Indian coastal region via which it was shipped to Europe, this was black lacquer into which images were engraved that were filled with various pigments, to create a luminously colourful effect. Many historic European houses still feature large Coromandel lacquer screens. But by now European artisans were copying East-Asian lacquer, sometimes loosely, sometimes very meticulously. In England John Stalker and George Parker published a ‘how to’ manual in 1688, entitled A Treatise of Japanning and Varnishing – ‘japanning’ being their evocative term for lacquering. The detailed ‘recipes’ in the book show how British artisans were recreating the effects of East-Asian lacquer using quite different materials. And English and Dutch leather workers were creating hangings and folding screens in painted and gilded leather reproducing the appearance of Coromandel lacquer.

From 1693 the Dutch East India trading company stopped buying Japanese lacquer, because its high cost made it unprofitable. Chinese artisans took this opportunity to begin to produce slightly more affordable lacquer, in a pseudo-Japanese gold-on-black style. During the eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth century Chinese lacquer screens, bureaux, cabinets and tables remained popular with Westerners. But lacquer – or rather ‘japanning’ – also became an important component of British furniture-making. A tradition evolved of English pseudo-Asian or ‘chinoiserie’ furniture, borrowing certain Asian shapes and motifs such as cabriole legs and geometric fretwork, and also involving brightly coloured lacquer decoration with fantastical ‘oriental’ imagery. The cabinet maker Giles Grendey made a large group of red-japanned pieces of furniture for the Spanish Duke of Infantado, while Thomas Chippendale is also known to have produced lacquered furniture in various colours.

Cabinet with flowers and landscapes, 1640-1690

Heritage Images/Getty Images

Desk decorated with Chinese lacquer, detail of door, Louis XV style

Culture Club/Getty Images
Incised Lacquered Cabinet', c1680, (1910). Lacquer is a clear or coloured wood finish that dries by solvent evaporation or a curing process that produces a hard, durable finish. This finish can be of any sheen level from ultra matte to high gloss, and it can be further polished as required. From The Connoisseur Vol XXVIII. [Otto Limited, London, 1910]. Artist Unknown(Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)Print Collector/Getty Images

When Japan gave up its relative seclusion in the mid-nineteenth century, the greater availability of Japanese fine and decorative art ignited an enthusiastic response in the West. Japanese lacquer was shown at the great international exhibitions that punctuated the later nineteenth century, and it was widely available in late-Victorian British shops, both at the fine and the cheap-and-cheerful end of the spectrum. On the one hand, Japan was still being idealised as a mysterious realm of exquisite beauty. On the other hand, the idea of authenticity was now considered much more important, and serious attempts were made to understand the cultural significance of Japanese art and craft.

In the early twentieth century, the greater openness to East-Asian aesthetics led designers and artisans such as Eileen Grey and Jean Dunand to train with Japanese lacquer artists, going on to make ‘authentic’ lacquer furniture which was at the same time exquisitely modern. At the same time fashion designer Gabrielle Chanel was using Chinese Coromandel lacquer screens both to decorate her apartment in Rue Cambon in Paris, and to inspire her style more generally. East-Asian lacquer had truly become part of the DNA of Western design.