An Unusual Material: Chinese Cinnabar Lacquer


Detail of a nineteenth century Chinese cinnabar lacquer vase 
Mackinnon Fine Furniture Collection

We have covered lacquer in previous blog posts (here, here, and here), but today we are going to focus on a very specific form of lacquer that has been highly prized since its first appearance many centuries ago.

Met Museum Garden Box

A fifteenth century Chinese cinnabar lacquer box with garden scene 
Metropolitan Museum of Art

The art of carving lacquer is unique to China, although lacquer itself has been made all across Asian countries for many centuries.  The lacquer can be coloured with different mineral pigments, including carbon for black, orpiment for yellow, and cinnabar for red.   Carved lacquer is almost always executed in the red, or cinnabar, hue, which gives it the colloquial name of cinnabar lacquer.

Rice Measure Met Museum

A sixteenth century Chinese cinnabar lacquer rice measure 
Metropolitan Museum of Art

To create a lacquer surface that can be carved, artisans would add anywhere between thirty to two hundred layers of the lacquer onto a basic form, often boxes, vases, and other vessels.  Once dried, this could be carved with exquisite detail and precision.  The Chinese craftsmen who worked in cinnabar lacquer employed a number of different motifs in the elaborately carved surfaces, including full figural scenes, landscapes, floral decoration, and geometric patterns.


A pair of nineteenth century Chinese cinnabar lacquer vases 
Mackinnon Fine Furniture Collection

We are delighted with our recent acquisition of a pair of large scale cinnabar lacquer vases now mounted as lamps.  Given the intricacy of these pieces, it is unusual to have the vases in the impressive large scale.  They are decorated throughout with incised floral decoration on a lattice-work background.


Detail of a nineteenth century Chinese cinnabar lacquer vase 
Mackinnon Fine Furniture Collection

To learn more about these wonderful vases, have a look at our website.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York held a fantastic exhibition entitled Cinnabar: The Chinese Art of Carved Lacquer in 2009-2010, which you can read about here.

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