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Chinoiserie Boxes:
Chinese and Japanese Lacquer

Chinese lacquer boxes, circa 1830

Oriental lacquer was another type of specialty finish that was used to create beautiful boxes. Lacquer work as an art form originated in China where the tree that produces lacquer resin or sap grew wild. Later, Japan began to cultivate the tree and became so associated with the production of lacquerware that the technique has always been referred to as “japanning.”

Producing an oriental lacquer item began with a veneer-thin wooden base to which as many as fifty coats of lacquer were applied. Each step of the process involved hardening, hand rubbing and possibly the addition of color or metal powders or foils. The result was an extremely durable, lightweight product with a smooth, high-gloss finish. The best lacquer boxes were lavishly decorated with original painting or penwork, inside and out.

European craftsmen tried to duplicate this technique but always failed for lack of the necessary ingredients and knowledge of the secrets of the process. But their experimentation led to the development of two other areas of decorative arts, “japanned” finished on metal and papier-maché. The Pontypool Japan Works in Wales produced tinware with a very nice varnish finish that was often decorated in the oriental style. Tea caddies were a popular Pontypool item.

Chinese lacquer
playing card box, circa 1830

Later in the 18th century, another successful varnish was developed for use with papier-maché items. Papier-maché, a mixture of plaster and paper pulp, had been used in England for molding and architectural detailing. At one time it was thought to be the base for oriental lacquerware because of its light weight. Birmingham, Wolverhampton, and London were centers for papier-maché production in England, which was dominated by the Clay Company of London, and later by the firm of Jennens and Bettridge of Birmingham. The finest quality items were hand-painted or decorated with inlays of mother-of-pearl, ivory and precious metals. Among the most beautiful papier-maché pieces are the trays, which, mounted on contemporary bases, make lovely small tables.

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