Cutting up the Coromandel

Six-fold incised lacquer screen decorated with scenes of Europeans hunting, one half of what was originally a twelve-fold screen, at Ham House. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

A few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to be at Ham House, Surrey, looking at the lacquer objects there in the company of house manager Victoria Bradley and Kate Hay, a curator at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Kate is doing research into the use of East Asian lacquer in Britain in the seventeenth century. Her work will inform some of the displays in the new Furniture Materials and Techniques gallery at the V&A, which is due to open in December 2012.

The other half of the twelve-fold incised lacquer screen, in a different room at Ham. ©National Trust/Christopher Warleigh-Lack

Ham is a treasure trove of late seventeenth-century decoration, including a number of pieces of East Asian incised lacquer (sometimes called Coromandel lacquer), which was fashionable in Europe at that time.

Sometimes East Asian pieces of lacquer were used in a fairly straightforward way, as in the case of the screen shown above, which was simply divided in half to be used as two separate screens. In another way this is a rather puzzling piece, however, since it is decorated with the unusual subject of exotic-looking Europeans out hunting – a kind of chinoiserie in reverse.

Cabinet made up with sections of incised lacquer, in the Queen’s Antechamber at Ham. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Sometimes incised lacquer panels were cut up in order to be wrapped around European-made cabinets, as was done with a cabinet in the Queen’s Antechamber at Ham. When Kate, Victoria and I looked at this cabinet more closely, we found that there were five separate sections of lacquer.

The two end sections, including the corners of the decorative border, had been used to make a reasonably balanced composition on the front, and the other pieces were fitted to the sides. The break between the sections on the front is not in the middle, where the two doors meet, but further to the right, presumably because the European cabinetmaker felt that made better visual sense.

Mirror veneered with small sections of incised lacquer, c. 1680, in the Withdrawing Room at Ham. ©National Trust/Christopher Warleigh-Lack

Even more liberties were taken with the incised lacquer on the mirror hanging in the Withdrawing Room. The various surfaces of the frame were veneered with a large number of small pieces of lacquer, which all seemed to have come from one original panel or object. Any pretense at continuous decoration had been abandoned, as some pieces were inserted sideways, and others even upside down.

Kate Hay’s reconstruction of how the fragments of lacquer on the Ham mirror relate to one another. ©Victoria & Albert Museum/Kate Hay

Kate took a number of photographs and used those images subsequently to try to get a better idea of the origial lacquer object. She thinks that it could have supplied the lacquer for two mirrors – a commercially sensible use of such an expensive ‘raw material’. A similar English mirror veneered with incised lacquer will be on display in the V&A’s Furniture Materials and Techniques gallery.

Side table of about 1675 decorated with – or in the style of – incised lacquer, in the Withdrawing Room at Ham. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

A lacquered table in the same room presented us with yet another puzzle: it appears to be made of Chinese incised lacquer, but its silhouette is very much in the European baroque style. Was it made to order in China and then sent back, possibly as a kind of ‘flat-pack’? Was the top made in China and the legs in Europe? Was the whole thing made in Europe as a high-grade imitation of Chinese incised lacquer?

So Ham is still confounding us, but we hope to keep finding out more with the help of Kate’s ongoing research.

5 Responses to “Cutting up the Coromandel”

  1. Guy Tobin Says:

    If you can get your hands on a copy of the Ronald Phillips ‘Mirrors – 1660 to 1820′ there is a fascinating mirror using early 17th century Japanese lacquer pieces to make-up a cushion frame mirror.

    I should have checked sooner; it can be seen online:

    http://www.ronaldphillipsantiques.com/catalogues/Mirrors_2010.htm

  2. Parnassus Says:

    A most interesting post. I wonder if the English cabinetmakers broke up intact objects as a type of raw decorative material, or if the original lacquer pieces were damaged first.

    A similar process is seen with large pieces of furniture such as Chinese beds, which contain many panels of carving or lacquer. These beds are broken up because of damage or sometimes because they are too large to be desirable, and the individual panels are often built into something else. The new object might adhere to the original design, or the fragments might be confused in a ‘promiscuous’ fashion.
    –Road to Parnassus

  3. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Guy, thank you very much indeed for that link. Although the way the lacquer has been cut up is different in that mirror frame, you can see exactly the same rationale at work, i.e. of maximising the (re)use of what was a very expensive material. I will alert Kate to this link, as it includes that interesting ‘reconstruction’ of the original lacquer piece, which is exactly what she is trying to do for the V&A and Ham examples.

    Parnassus, those are very interesting questions, and the sources for answering them are very scarce :)

    Damage may have been a factor in how lacquer was re-used (presumably a percentage of lacquer cargoes would get damaged during the long and arduous sea voyages).

    Another factor may have been practicality and logistics, as it would have been more commercially viable to import sturdy, simple and easily stackable lacquer objects, and then to adapt or resue those on arrival in Europe.

    Another factor seems to have been fashion and ‘the market’. Intially Coromandel was sometimes used to panel small rooms, for instance (Burton Agnes Hall is one of the very few places where that can still be seen in situ: http://bit.ly/Kj3fbY), but when that went out of fashion the lacquer was reused to veneer cabinets, coffers and commodes. At Chatesworth one can still see such items made from what had previously been used as panelling (http://bit.ly/JEfHUW)

  4. style court Says:

    The V & A’s soon-to-open FM and T gallery sounds like it will be such a wonderful new addition. I’m always fascinated by the ‘movable feast’ aspect of Asian lacquer and certain types of Chinese furniture. Over at the Peabody Essex there is an interesting video about Sir John Eccleston’s 12-panel screen and the art handlers who recently moved it for an important photography session.

  5. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thanks very much for that (http://bit.ly/JNKApY), Courtney – fascinating to see all the preparation and care that go into obtaining really good images of such an object.

    A similar mirror in the V&A collection can be seen here, with lots of interesting facts and context listed under ‘more information’: http://bit.ly/J0CwQj

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