In honour of our winter exhibition, Looking East: Japanned Furniture of Georgian England, we thought it was the perfect time to look at the history of japanning. We will share this information over three posts in the coming weeks to coincide with the exhibition.
Any history of japanning must start with the lacquer trade.
In July 1596, Queen Elizabeth I invited the emperor of China to establish trade with England. The creation of the East India Company a few short years later in 1599 helped to formally open trade routes with the East and introduced the European courts to Chinese art and design.
One of the most highly prized exports from China was its lacquerware. The lacquer goods, in the form of screens, chests, and cabinets, were coveted for their brilliant lustrous surfaces and exotic decoration. A Dutch traveller of the time, Jan Huygen van Linschoten, wrote about the magnificent lacquer (which he called ‘lac’) coming from China in his publication Navigatio ac itinerarium (Leyden, 1595/96). He noted, ‘Desks, targets, tables, Cubbordes, Boxes, and a thousand such like thinges that are all covered and wrought with lac of all colours and fashions; so that it maketh men to wonder at the beautie and brightness of the colour, which is altogether lac.’
Lacquer began to appear in the finest English country estates in the early 17th century. In the inventory of Hatfield House in 1611, there is mention of ‘One China table of black gilded and painted’ as well as ‘1 high chaire… the frame guilt China worke.’ By the end of the 17th century, records indicate that a total of approximately 3,500 lacquered pieces per year were being brought to England, including cabinets, chairs, mirror frames, tea tables, powder boxes.
The taste for lacquer was not confined to furniture alone. In the Netherlands, a number of lacquer rooms were commissioned by important stadholder families, including King William III (1650-1702) and his English wife Princess Mary (1662-1694). One such room with coromandel lacquer screens was made for Henry Vasimir II of Nassau Dietz (1657-1697) and his wife Henrietta Amalia von Anhalt Dessau (1666-1726) at their Leeuwarden residence at the end of the 17th century. This lacquer room is now installed at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
In our next instalment of the History of Japanning, we will explore the origins of japanning in England from the late 17th century through its peak in the 18th century.