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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.