Louise Devenish is a Certified Decorative Arts Appraiser. She has been a prominent member of the arts community for over thirty years. Along with her auction house and antiques gallery experience, she has taught extensively.
I was first introduced to japanning when my husband bought a red japanned bureau for our gallery on Madison Avenue many years ago.
The first thing we did (as we always did with a new antique) was take the piece apart and turn it upside down and inside out, as it were – a great way to learn about each piece. We even took off the estucheons, which had never before been removed, to check the color of the ground beneath! This was my first experience with lacquer, so we took the research books on English furniture from that period off the shelves and began searching for similar pieces. One of those books was R. W. Symonds’ “Old English Walnut and Lacquer Furniture,” which made a lasting impression on me – and had me hooked on anything to do with japanning and chinoiserie from that day on.
Asian lacquer became popular in England after it was introduced to the court of Charles II by his wife Catherine of Braganza, who brought oriental lacquer cabinets as part of her dowry. John Evelyn noted in his diary on June 9, 1662, “The queen brought over with her from Portugal such India cabinets as had never been seen before.” (Goods imported from China were referred to as “Indian” because they were first shipped to ports along the Indian coast before they were sent to England.) Europeans began imitating these pieces, calling their furniture “Japan work.”
Asians made their lacquer from the sap of the Rhus Vernicifera tree, which produced a hard, high-polished surface. However, the journey by sea from Asia could take up to two years, which made it nearly impossible to import the sap, as it would dry up on the way over. An alternative therefore had to be found – so the Chinese trade merchants came up with a brilliant solution. They collected the “deposits” left on tree branches by the coccus laca insect (from which the words lacquer and shellac are derived) and sold the brittle flakes to artists and cabinetmakers in Europe. The flakes could be heated and melted into a thin varnish. Such humble ingredients for million-dollar pieces of furniture!
Gesso, a composition of chalk, parchment size and rabbit-skin glue, was used for the surface of the wood to prepare a smooth ground upon which to apply the decoration. It was blackened or colored, then varnished and polished until it shined. The majority of the backgrounds were black in imitation of oriental lacquer, but the more valuable pieces had a red background. Other valuable colors included cream, pale yellow, blue and green. Today these original colored pieces are very rare.
Gold or vermilion designs were traced with quills onto the surface. The raised parts, such as faces and hands, were made with a paste of gum Arabic and sawdust.
In his book, Symonds states, “More than two thirds of the Japanned furniture sold as antiques today are fraudulent.” That was in 1923! You can image how many more pieces have joined the ranks since then!
So how can you tell if yours is the real thing?
Symonds recommends you check the lacquer for a network of fine hair cracks, which are found on genuine pieces. The cracks, if examined carefully, seem to extend not only through the varnish but also the coating of lacquer. On fakes the varnish on the top of the lacquer is the only part affected. Also, on genuine pieces the interior will be brighter and fresher in color than the exterior.
It is quite easy to distinguish pieces from the East; the artwork is notably superior, and the faces look Asian – whereas the japanned versions invariably have large Dutch-looking men clad in pseudo-Chinese robes. They are often whimsical and naïve depictions of the Asian figures in exotic landscapes, sitting high up in the trees with over-sized birds and flowers, or Chinese fisherman all fishing with their rods in mid air! These motifs are what give japanning its charm.
I think there will always be those who gravitate to these wonderful pieces, especially as so many of the finer pieces have found their way into museums and private collections by now, making them more and more difficult to find.
That little red William and Mary slant-front desk that first sparked my love and passion for lacquer holds a very special place in my heart. It was that thrilling moment of authenticating and researching that piece that led me into my chosen career as an educator in the decorative arts and dealer in fine and unusual things.
My husband and I used a photograph of the red Japanned desk as one of our first Christmas cards to friends and clients . Within a few weeks we had sold it. I often wonder where that desk is today! Maybe someone reading this story has it – who knows?
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For more information on Louise and her work, or to join her International Arts and Design community, visit devenishgroup.com.