We are finishing our series on the history of japanning in England today with a focus on the technique and decoration of japanned furniture. If you want to catch up on the history of the lacquer trade and the origin of japanning, please look at our previous posts here and here.
Ultimately, the Europeans were searching in vain for the recipe to make lacquer as the resin required for lacquerware could not be found in Europe. Lacquer requires sap from the tree Rhus vernicifera, a tree found across China but not in Europe. The japanned technique employed the use of varnishes, which created a similar appearance to lacquer when applied in a certain way. One such option was shellac, which was made of spirits of wine used as a thinner and combined with a catalyst.
The technique to create japanned furniture took many steps and a great deal of patience for the craftsman. Japanned furniture often started as a wooden carcass that would then be laid with muslin and a gesso ground. If the craftsman wanted to added three dimensional relief for certain decoration, such as a rocky outcrop or range of mountains, the gesso could be applied for this purpose. At this point, the surface could be painted in the desired tempera colour, usually black, red, or blue, followed by a layer of clear or pigmented lacquer. Shown above is a selection of colours used at the time, from top left: cream, green, red, and black.
The surface would then be dried and polished. Further layers of lacquer could be applied in between polishing the surface, often requiring up to twenty additional layers. Just before the application of a final layer of a clear coat of lacquer, the craftsman could apply gold and silver decoration as highlights.
As far as the decoration itself was concerned, there was a concerted effort to directly copy designs from China and the East. China was highly regarded for its association as a site of eternal wisdom (and the home country of Confucius). Porcelain, textiles, wall hangings, as well as lacquer pieces, were used as sources of inspiration for the decorative schemes. Other sources included illustrations of trips and missions in Asia by travellers.
Soon though, decorative patterns appeared by those who had never been to the East. By the mid-18th century these publications were widely available, including William Halfpenny’s New Designs for Chinese Temples (1750), Lock and Copland’s New Book of Ornaments (1752), and Edward and Darly’s New Book of Chinese Design (1754). Jean Pillement’s name is often associated with chinoiserie decoration of this time as he produced a series of designs between 1757 and 1764.
From the beginning, japanned furniture would be pitted against its Asian lacquer counterpart in terms of desirability. In 1695, a group of cabinetmakers and japanners joined together and established themselves as ‘Patentees for lacquering after the manner of Japan.’ They appeared before Parliament to increase the import duties on foreign lacquerwork to help protect their new market for domestic japanned work.
Although Asian lacquer would always be highly prized, there were instances when the European japanned furniture was deemed better than the original. Voltaire once famously remarked about French japanning, known as vernis martin, ‘Ces cabinets ou Martin, A surpassé l’art de la Chine.’
We have been delighted with the reception of our exhibition, Looking East: Japanned Furniture of Georgian England, and we invite you to have a look at our exhibition catalogue here to learn more.