The art of lacquer work has a long and colourful history, with its genesis in China, Japan, and South-East Asia. The term ‘lacquer’ can be applied to many different substances, and cover a variety of techniques. ‘True lacquer’ or ‘oriental lacquer’ is often used to refer to artwork made from, or covered with, resin extracted from the urushi sumac group of trees: Urushi-no-ki or Rhus verniciflua Stokes in Japan, China and Korea; Annan urushi or Rhus succedanea L. in Vietnam and Taiwan; and Melanorrhoea laccifer (black tree) in Burma and Thailand. There are three main types of wood decorated Chinese lacquer: low relief, surface painted and incised. During the great period of Chinese carved lacquer in fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, between one hundred and two hundred layers could be built up to gain the depth of reflection sought.
Rene Dubois, The Dubois Commode, paris, c. 1765. Oak veneered commode with Japanese lacquer, black stained purplewood and mahogany (on the legs); gilt bronze; a brecciated Sarrancolin marble top; silk, paper and gimp (lining drawers).
The European fascination with rare and exotic objects from China and the far East began in the First half of the seventeenth century, a fashion which continued unabated throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In response to this demand, a new style of export lacquer evolved during the 1630s — pieces of superlative craftsmanship and quality, with characteristics more similar to domestic lacquer than the previous export standard. One such piece is the Mazarin Chest, one of the finest pieces of Japanese export lacquer to have survived, decorated with scenes from the Tale of Genji and the Tale of the Soga Brothers. It is assumed that, like other examples of export lacquer, the Mazarin Chest was either shipped directly to Europe or to an official of the Dutch East India Company serving in the Dutch East Indies.
While the development of the shipping industry and the expansion of maritime trade routes meant lacquer work could be imported into Europe in reasonable quantities, it was still both expensive and insufficient for the demand. The high cost and dearth of lacquer imports led European designers and craftsmen to create imitation lacquered pieces using new and different techniques — a trend fuelled by the restrictions which closed Japan to Western trade in the late seventeenth century. French lacquered furniture was generally considered to be superior in design and execution to the Dutch or English equivalents, but it was Italian lacquer work, particularly from Venice, that was most highly regarded.
One European technique was japanning, which involved the application of several coats of varnish onto a resin base, each layer heat dried and polished. A huge array of interiors, furniture and objects were finished using these methods: from lacquered rooms through to clocks, cabinets and commodes; from tables, bureaux and day-beds to small objects such as mirrors, inkstands and snuff boxes. Layer upon layer of pigmented varnish, often in gold on black or red, re-created the striking effect of genuine Asian lacquer.
The Mazarin Chest, Kyoto, Japan, c. 1640. Black lacquered wood with gold and silver hiramaki-e and takamaki-e lacquer, detailing in gold, silver and shibuichi, border inlaid with shell and gilded shakudo fittings. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Museum no. 412:1-1882 h 59 × w 101.5 × d 63.9 (cm)
French polishing is a form of lacquering using the refined, scarlet, resinous secretion of the lac beetle (Laccifer lacca), known as shellac. This was used for thousands of years in Assam, India and China as a pigment or dye before its properties as a coating material were discovered. Arriving in Europe via the Silk Road, it is still one of the main ingredients for Japanning on wooden objects, and today comes from managed forests in India and Asia
Vernis Martin lacquer is a transparent lacquer created in the early eighteenth century by four brothers, Guillaume, Simon-Etienne, Julien and Robert Martin. They perfected recipes and applications of varnishes imitating urushi lacquer and in 1730 were granted a monopoly by Louis XVI, which was renewed, for making ‘toutes sortes d’ouvrages en relief de la Chine et du Japon’. This lacquer work became all the rage in Paris, and is often cited as being having been the best oriental lacquer substitute available in the eighteenth century.
J. Watin, a contemporary of the Martin brothers, gives the recipe of Vernis Martin as an oleoresinous (oil-resin) lacquer made by dissolving either fresh tree resin, such as rosin or colophony, mastic or dammar, or a fossilized resin, such as amber, in an oil using quite complex techniques. however in reality the Martin brothers produced many different colours and finishes, in three different workshops for around fifty years, so we can be certain that not only applications but also recipes varied.
Despite the inventiveness of local craftsmen, oriental lacquer work was so much sought after in Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that it was commonplace to strip lacquer work from its original piece, reveneer it onto contemporary furniture and then further embellish it with gilt-bronze. This is beautifully illustrated by the Dubois Commode in the Wallace Collection, London. In the nineteenth century the expanding commercial lacquer production in Europe resulted in a decline in quality.
In the early twentieth century nitrocellulose lacquer was developed. This had the advantage of being able to provide a relatively durable exterior finish combined with quick drying time. The development of the spray gun made this synthetic polymer hugely popular in furniture manufacture, as well as in the car industry, however major drawbacks include high toxicity and high flammability, even years after application. Since then other lacquers developed include variations of acrylics, which are also synthetic polymers, some of which are water based like many household paints and glues; and others which are two-part reaction materials such as two-part epoxy resins. There are also solvent-free paints and many other specialised coating materials available today. Much research has been carried out into old paint recipes and many modern paints are based on these, such as emulsion paints, i.e. water and oil. Today natural resins, oils or waxes are further processed in new combinations. In Japan, for example, many of the toxic enzymes have been removed from urushi, making the material more user-friendly but also changing the properties of this material.