CHINESE LACQUER FURNITURE
A valued material in China for more than 1,000 years, lacquer was introduced to the West in the 17th century and inspired a fashion for oriental styles that flourished in the Georgian period.
Lacquered furniture first came to Europe via the newly-formed British and Dutch East India companies at the beginning of the 17th century. The exotic style slowly but surely caught on, and the Chinese lacquer industry, largely based in the port of Canton, expanded to meet the demand, producing furniture to order in European as well as Chinese shapes. Sometimes they decorated ready-made furniture panels sent from Europe.
Traditional Chinese lacquer was prepared from the sap of a tree, which when strained and heated took on many of the qualities of plastic; hard-wearing and water-resistant, it was used on functional domestic articles as well as on furniture.
Lacquer is clear in its natural state, and was always mixed with various pigments before use. Black was the most common, but lacquer was also produced in shades of red, green, white and yellow. Applying it was a lengthy process, involving 20 or 30 coats. Each had to be dried, rubbed down and polished before the application of the next coat.
There were five types of decoration. The most basic had a design painted in coloured lacquers. An extension of this was to paint over a relief pattern modelled from a putty composition and shaped with a chisel. Richer work was encrusted with precious materials such as
mother-of-pearl, ivory or jade.
A fourth style, which is known today as Coromandel, had coloured lacquer applied over several layers of composition; a pattern
was cut into this and the exposed surfaces were gilded, inlaid or painted a contrasting colour. The lacquer furniture seen in the best Chinese homes was deeply carved and covered with a monochrome lacquer, usually red.
Whatever the decorative style, the subjects depicted on lacquer furniture tended to be much the same - landscapes of mountains, bridges and buildings, with birds, animals and human figures as part of the scene.
British craftsmen used various methods to imitate
lacquer, a process known as japanning (though the art of getting and applying lacquer had originated in China as early as the second century BC, early imported lacquer was often Japanese). They had some success, but Chinese furniture continued to be imported in quantity until the craze for it started to wane around 1775. The Prince Regent inspired a revival in the early 19th century, but lacquer has been a minority taste in the West ever since.
The use of different pigments with clear lacquer allowed decorators to build up sumptuously detailed decorative designs in a very functional, hardwearing
Although oriental warehouses still existed in the second half of the 19th century, most contained more Japanese than Chinese goods, the majority of which were small decorative items. Most of the Chinese lacquer furniture in Europe dates from the Regency period and earlier, and is rarely offered for sale except at fine art auctions, specialist antiques shops and the occasional house sale.
It took a great many forms; the most typically Chinese were large cabinets with numerous small drawers enclosed by a pair of doors, small tables and enormous wooden folding screens. These could have up to 12 leaves and be as much as
3.65m / 12ft tall; they were often dismantled and cut up by European cabinetmakers so they could be incorporated in pieces of their own.
European furniture shapes were also made by Chinese craftsmen; in the early part of the
18th century, folding card tables, ladies' dressing mirrors and small
writing desks were being imported in numbers. Chairs, settees, daybeds and bookcases followed in the middle of the century, while the Regency saw the
introduction of kneehole writing desks, chests of drawers and side cabinets.
Even an expert can sometimes find it difficult to distinguish between pieces made entirely in China, those only lacquered there, and japanned European furniture. Japanning tends to have a duller, matt surface, though lacquer can look like this if it's dirty or has aged badly.
On japanned pieces the composition of the decorative detail tends to be rather poorly balanced, while the figures have recognizably European faces or clothing. European figures copied from English patterns by Chinese lacquerers often have distinctively oriental faces.
There are more clues in the way the furniture was made. Chinese pieces were often poorly fitted together, and any bare wood visible was only crudely finished. Drawers were pinned together rather than dovetailed and interior drawers were generally marked on the back in ink to indicate their intended position.
Dull lacquerwork, hidden beneath layers of grease and grime, can be freshened up by gentle rubbing with a slightly damp cloth. Don't be tempted to use polish or proprietary cleaning sprays; they can make things worse.