Archive for the ‘Lacquer’ Category

Keeping up with the Jansens

May 7, 2013
Dutch family taking tea, c. 1680, attributed to Roelof Koets II (c. 1650-1725). ©Sotheby's

Dutch family taking tea, c. 1680, attributed to Roelof Koets II (c. 1650-1725). ©Sotheby’s

The 17th-century Dutch family shown in the painting above are clearly very proud of their tea things. The wife and the child are dressed to the nines and the splendid Javanese lacquer table is filled expensive-looking tea utensils.

Javanese lacquer table in the Duchess's Private Closet at Ham House. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Javanese lacquer table in the Duchess’s Private Closet at Ham House. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

At this time the drinking of tea was still a relatively exotic and glamorous activity in Europe – perhaps reflected in the fact that it is the husband in the painting, the head of the household, who demonstratively holds the teapot. And it was obviously deemed appropriate to have a trendy oriental lacquer table to go with this trendy oriental drink.

Javanese lacquer table in the Balcony Room at Dyrham Park. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Javanese lacquer table in the Balcony Room at Dyrham Park. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Javanese lacquer tables from that period haven’t survived in large numbers, but they can still be found in a few English and German public collections.  I have just published a little article about them in the May 2013 issue of the National Trust’s Arts, Buildings and Collections Bulletin.

Hybrids in time and space

March 12, 2013
The Blue Drawing Room at Powis Castle, Powys. ©National Trust Images/Paul Highnam

The Blue Drawing Room at Powis Castle, Powys. ©National Trust Images/Paul Highnam

The Blue Drawing Room at Powis Castle is an extraordinary alamgam of objects, periods and styles. It was originally constructed in the 1660s within the medieval castle walls as part of a baroque state apartment for William Herbert, 1st Earl and later 1st Marquess of Powis. It would then have been used as a ‘great chamber’ or ‘saloon’.

One of a pair of commodes attributed to Pierre Langlois, probably 1760s. ©National Trust Collections

One of a pair of commodes attributed to Pierre Langlois, probably 1760s. ©National Trust Collections

The colour of the paneling and the name of the room are relatively recent, however, dating from a 1930s redecoration by Sir Edward Guy Dawber for George, 4th Earl of Powis of the 3rd creation. In addition to European pictures and furniture, the room also contains a number of magnificent Asian lacquer objects dating mostly from the 18th century.

Chinese black lacquer screen, late 17th century, with English mounts of c. 1715. ©National Trust Collections

Chinese black lacquer screen, late 17th century, with English mounts of c. 1715. ©National Trust Collections

The pair of commodes attributed to Pierre Langlois, a French cabinetmaker with a shop in London, probably dates from the 1760s. The Chinese lacquer incorporated in them most likely came from a Chinese screen. An actual Chinese six-fold black lacquer screen decorated with similar scenery stands nearby.

One of a pair of Japanese lacquer dressing-cum-writing boxes, c. 1730. ©National Trust Collections

One of a pair of Japanese lacquer dressing-cum-writing boxes, c. 1730. ©National Trust Collections

The Blue Drawing Room also contains a rare pair of Japanese dressing-cum-writing boxes, hybrids items of furniture combining Japanese and European shapes and motifs. The Japanese craftsmen were probably not aware that the frames above were intended for mirrors and so dutifully lacquered the back panels with beautiful mountain landscapes.

One of a pair of Japanese lacquer knife boxes, second quarter of the 18th century. ©National Trust Collections

One of a pair of Japanese lacquer knife boxes, second quarter of the 18th century. ©National Trust Collections

The pair of knife boxes is similarly hybrid, combining European shapes with exquisite Japanese lacquer decoration. It is rather nice that the room as a whole is a similarly evocative mixture of native and exotic, old and (relatively) new.

Globalised lacquer

January 3, 2013
The Balcony Room at Dyrham Park, with the so-called Javanese lacquer table in the foreground. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

The Balcony Room at Dyrham Park, with the so-called Javanese lacquer table in the foreground. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

In mid-December I attended the Global Commodities conference at the University of Warwick, which examined the role of material culture in shaping world-wide connections in the early modern period. It was an extremely stimulating event that brought together social historians, economic historians and art historians.

Close-up of the table at Dyrham (inv. no. NT452980). ©National Trust Collections

Close-up of the table at Dyrham (inv. no. NT452980). ©National Trust Collections

Ulrike Körber, who is connected to the José de Figueiredo Laboratory at the University of Évora, gave a fascinating lecture about the complex manufacturing and trade patterns of east Asian lacquer in the 16th and 17th century. She described how objects could be designed in one place, made in another, lacquered or relacquered in a third and used in a fourth. Globalisation is clearly not just a recent phenomenon.

The Duchess's Private Closet at Ham House, with the so-called Javanese table raised on a European base. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

The Duchess’s Private Closet at Ham House, with the so-called Javanese table raised on a European base. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

This reminded me of the unusual lacquer tables at Dyrham Park, Gloucestershire, and  Ham House, Surrey, which have traditionally been called ‘Javanese’. They both date from the late 17th century and somehow reached England through the East India trade. The one at Ham was adapted to the needs of chair-sitting Europeans by being mounted on a barley-twist base, a telling example of the appropriation – at once practical and symbolic – of an Asian object into a European setting.

Close-up of the table at Ham (inv. no. NT1140034). ©National Trust Collections

Close-up of the table at Ham (inv. no. NT1140034). ©National Trust Collections

But we are not even sure whether these tables did indeed come from Java. There are some related tables in a few German collections, dating from around the same time and with similar distinctive pie-crust rims, but drum-shaped instead of rectangular.

Drum-shaped, reputedly Javanese lacquer tea table (Teetrommel), formerly in the state apartments of the Residenz, Rastatt, Baden. ©Badisches Landesmuseum Karlsruhe

Drum-shaped, reputedly Javanese lacquer tea table (Teetrommel), formerly in the state apartments of the Residenz, Rastatt, Baden. ©Badisches Landesmuseum Karlsruhe

I am hoping to correspond further with Ulrike and with some of the other conference participants to try to find out more about this rare category of lacquer objects – and of course I would very much welcome any suggestions here too.

Petworth’s oriental vibe

November 27, 2012

Two Chinese lidded vases, Kangxi period (1662-1722), acquired by Elizabeth Duchess of Somerset in the late 17th century. They stand in front of a Chinese lacquer screen that dates from the same period but was acquired for Petworth in 1882 in the Hamilton Palace sale. ©National Trust Images/Christopher Hurst

In his new book about Petworth, Christopher Rowell highlights the sumptuous taste of Eizabeth Percy, Duchess of Somerset, the late 17th-century chatelaine of the house.

Portrait of Elizabeth Percy, Duchess of Somerset with her son Algernon, by John Closterman, c. 1692. ©National Trust Images/Matthew Hollow

Like her friend Queen Mary, Duchess Elizabeth was a keen collector of blue and white porcelain.

Some of Duchess Elizabeth’s Chinese vases on display in the Carved Room. They originally stood on the baroque carved stands which now hold some of the busts. ©National Trust Images/Bill Batten

Several dealers are known to have supplied porcelain to the Duchess, including a ‘Mrs Vanderhoven’, a ‘Mr Van Collema’, and a ‘Mrs Bull for Delf [i.e. Delft] ware.’

Some of the lacquer cabinets and coffers collected by Duchess Elizabeth in what is now called Mrs Wyndham’s Bedroom. ©National Trust Images/Bill Batten

‘Mrs Harrison’, who also supplied the Queen, was paid £52 for ‘a Jappan Cabinet and frame’ in 1695.

The front of one of the 17th-century Japanese lacquer cabinets at Petworth. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

In characteristic baroque style, reflective materials were combined wherever possible. Two ‘India Cabinets’ (‘India’ being a generic terms for East Asian products) in the King of Spain’s Drawing Room were each surmounted by no fewer than 22 pieces of China. In Duchess Elizabeth’s China Closet, the walls were covered with mirrors ‘ornamented wth carved work & 45 pieces of China.’

Detail of the interior of the 17th-century Japanese lacquer cabinet below the Grand Staircase at Petworth. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Christopher’s book can be purchased through the National Trust Bookshop and via Amazon.

Cutting up the Coromandel

May 14, 2012

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.

Fact and fiction

September 13, 2010

Detail of a mid-nineteenth-century Japanese lacquer table. ©Rose Uniacke

In response to an earlier discussion about East Asian lacquer Guy Tobin of Rose Uniacke very kindly sent me these images of a Japanese lacquer table. It shows the amazing verisimilitude achieved by the lacquer craftsmen in reproducing various plants.

The entire tabletop (181 x 91 cm). ©Rose Uniacke

One element of fiction – I suspect – is that these plants don’t all look like this at exactly the same time. I don’t know enough about Japanese plants to be able to confirm that, but perhaps one of you can enlighten us?

Still-life by Jan Frans van Dael (1764-1840), at Blickling Hall, Norfolk. ©NTPL/John Hammond

However, even the hyper-realist Dutch still-life painters used that conceipt of collapsing all the seasons into one perfect moment.

©Rose Uniacke

Another rather theatrical touch is the scattering of the plants pell-mell against a black background. This has its origins in the Japanese Rimpa style, where realistically depicted trees and plants are often set against semi-abstract gold or silver grounds.

Detail of Chinese wallpaper in the Dressing Room at Nostell Priory, West Yorkshire. ©NTPL/J. Whitaker

This Japanese realistic tradition is mirrored by the detailed and lifelike quality of Chinese wallpaper.

Early eighteenth-century English Japanned bureau and chairs set against Chinese wallpaper, in the State Bedroom at Erddig, Wrexham. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

To eighteenth-century Europeans, any East Asian artefact looked ‘fictional’, however realistically it was made. To them it was entirely logical to combine Chinese and Japanese products with European chinoiserie objects.

The trick for us now is to unlearn our more advanced awareness of East Asian cultures, and to see these mixed ensembles in all their hybrid wonder.

Desperately seeking symmetry

August 18, 2010

Seventeenth-century Japanese lacquer cabinet on a William Kent-style stand, at Penrhyn Castle, Gwynedd. ©NTPL/John Hammond

When I was preparing a talk on chinoiserie recently I was reminded of the clash of styles evident in the decoration of lacquer cabinets in British country houses. This example at Penrhyn Castle shows the typical East Asian love of asymmetry in the design of the doors.

Seventeenth-century Japanese lacquer cabinet on a Dutch gilt stand, at Ham House, Surrey. ©NTPL/John Hammond

When these cabinets were being imported into Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, however, Europeans were still very much in thrall to symmetry. This Japanese cabinet at Ham House shows how branches were added to the tree on the right, and extra birds were added to the sky, to balance out the composition.

Seventeenth-century Japanese lacquer cabinet, at Petworth House, West Sussex. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

The importers seem to have gone further still, and swapped doors from different cabinets, to make up symmetrical sets. This seems to be the case with this cabinet at Petworth, where a distant landscape (on the right) now shares the same space as a pair of monster chickens (on the left).

Seventeenth-century pier-glass, pier-table and candle-stands inset with Chinese Coromandel lacquer, at Ham House, Surrey. ©NTPL/John Hammond

East Asia seems to have been such a distant place in the imagination of Europeans that even the most fantastical scenarios became plausible there. English craftsmen (and, presumably, patrons) were happy to see fragments of lacquer landscapes fitted sideways and upside down around European mirrors, as in this one at Ham.

English japanned cabinet of about 1690, at Saltram, Devon. ©NTPL/John Hammond

When English craftsmen began to produce imitation lacquer cabinets, they perpetuated these mythical compositions – and indeed they were at liberty to make them even more ‘European’ and symmetrical.

English japanned cabinet at Mount Stewart, Co. Down. ©NTPL/John Hammond

Giant fowl combined with liliput pavilions became something of a motif in its own right, as seen once again in this example at Mount Stewart.

Japanned wardrobe by Thomas Chippendale at Nostell Priory, West Yorkshire. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

Fantasy overtook reality so such an extent that when Thomas Chippendale created his chinoiserie furniture in the 1750s-1770s it was based more on European imitations than on authentic East Asian lacquer.

Lacquer lost and found

May 15, 2010

Secretaire attributed to Thomas Chippendale, c. 1773, with Chinese lacquer panels and English japanning. ©National Trust/Christopher Warleigh-Lack

In a previous post on the East Asian textiles at Osterley Park, I also mentioned the lacquer furniture there. The above secretaire, attributed to Thomas Chippendale, incorporates panels of Chinese lacquer as well as English japanning. It seems to have left Osterley at some point between 1922 and 1949.

The Etruscan Dressing Room at Osterley, designed by Robert Adam, where the secretaire may have stood originally. ©NTPL/Bill Batten

After turning up at auction in Gateshead in 1993 its Osterley provenance was re-identified. An export licence application for it was deferred, which allowed the National Trust to purchase it in 1996 with the help of a private benefactor, the Art Fund and the National Heritage Memorial Fund.

Commode with Chinese lacquer panels and English japanning, attributed to Chippendale, in the State Bed Chamber at Osterley. ©National Trust/Christopher Warleigh-Lack

As Simon Jervis writes in his article on the secretaire in the June 2006 issue of Apollo, the secretaire relates to two commodes attributed to Chippendale which had remained at Osterley.

The commodes also incorporate lacquer panels, the decoration of which is so similar to those on the secretaire that they may all have been taken from the same Chinese lacquer screen by the Chippendale workshop.

The straight lacquer panels were gently heated and painstakingly bent by Chippendale’s craftsmen to fit the curves of the commodes. English imitation lacquer, called ‘japan’ at he time, would then have been produced to fit the other surfaces.

Commode attributed to Chippendale in the Etruscan Dressing Room at Osterley. ©National Trust/Christopher Warleigh-Lack

The style of the commodes and the secretaire is French, which was considered to be advanced taste in Britain at that time. As simon Jervis notes, it was also French practice to combine a commode with a secretaire en suite, i.e. with the same decoration.

Moreover, the paterae and guilloche motifs on the secretaire are echoed by similar painted decoration in the Etruscan Dressing Room at Osterley.

©NTPL/Ian Shaw

Robert Child, who inherited a banking fortune on the unexpected death of his elder brother, employed Robert Adam to substantially rebuild and refurbish Osterley in the 1760s and 1770s. Adam often used Chippendale as a supplier of furniture and furnishings.

With thanks to Carl Deacon who located some of the images.


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