Lacquer has been used in Japanese art for thousands of years. Anastasia von Seibold, Head of Japanese Art at Christie’s, explains how it has been applied to everything from exquisite inro to ornate bureaux, with advice on starting a collection
Lacquer is made from the sap of the Chinese lacquer tree (aka Japanese lacquer tree), and is poisonous until it dries. Handled only by master craftsmen, it has been used in Japanese art since around 7,000 BC, with techniques being perfected over centuries in order to produce exquisitely detailed designs for boxes and furniture intended for domestic use.
Portuguese traders in the 16th century, followed by the Dutch in the 17th and 18th centuries, brought lacquer objects to the West, where they caught the eye of European collectors — including Marie Antoinette. This led to pieces being made specifically for export.
The origins of Japanese lacquer
Although now highly stylised, lacquer is first recorded as having been used in a very rudimentary way as far back as the Jomon Period (circa 14,000-300 BC): the oldest existing lacquerware today was excavated from ruins dated to about 9,000 years ago. Further developments in the craft occurred in the the Nara Period (710–784 AD), which saw Japanese craftsmen adopting influences and new techniques from China.
‘Once these techniques came into Japan they really took on a life of their own,’ explains Anastasia von Seibold, Head of Japanese Art at Christie’s in London. ‘From that point on Japanese lacquer developed on its own tangent. Techniques became ever more complex in the surface decoration of objects, which ranged from sword scabbards to tableware and temple decoration.’
Further advances in lacquerware were made in the following centuries, and by the Edo period (1603-1868) the art of lacquer was fully developed. ‘Japanese society changed quite dramatically during the Edo period,’ the specialist explains. ‘Civil wars and warring factions had caused significant upheaval until the first shogun of the Edo government, Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616), instigated a period of peace that lasted 250 years. This stability brought about a flourishing of the arts, including lacquer.’
Suzuribako, inro and other objects
In the early period, the range of objects that could be made using lacquer was fairly limited. During the Edo period, however, boxes of all shapes and sizes were produced. Some were used for storing poem papers or cosmetics, others were writing boxes (suzuribako) that contained an ink slate, brushes and a small water-dropper.
The Edo period also witnessed the start of the inro tradition of lacquer. Inro were small, compartmentalised containers that hung from the obi worn around the waist. They held medicines and other small items, and in true Edo-period style would be decorated with lacquer and displayed as fashion statements.
Decoration and taste, nature and literature
The intricate decoration on boxes reflected the increasing complexity of techniques used in lacquer production. ‘These beautiful decorations would draw on subjects from nature, classical literature and allusions to scholarly pursuits,’ says the specialist. ‘Ownership and display of such objects would indicate a level of sophistication and taste.’
Techniques in the decoration of lacquerware
There are many techniques, all of which are incredibly painstaking. ‘Layer upon layer of liquid lacquer would be applied,’ von Seibold explains, ‘and each would need to dry before the next layer was added. The build-up of these layers forms the base, to which the decoration is then applied.’
One of the main types of Japanese lacquer decoration is maki-e, which involves sprinkling the lacquer surface with gold or silver powder to build up a pictorial design.
Another technique is to draw a picture in the lacquer while it is still wet. Another layer of lacquer is then applied and allowed to dry before being filed down or rubbed repeatedly with charcoal to reveal the underlying pictorial design, which comes through flush to the surface.
Official lacquerers and master craftsmen
The technical difficulties involved in working with lacquer — not to mention the toxicity of the sap — meant it could only be handled by specialist craftsmen. ‘During the Edo there were official lacquerers who would produce extremely high-quality and expensive works for the aristocracy,’ says the specialist. ‘There were also town lacquerers who would produce more functional objects for the general population.’
Many items of lacquerware were never signed by their maker, but significant pieces by known artists do exist, such as the Hatsune no Chodo wedding set commissioned by the third shogun, Tokugawa Iemitsu (1604-1651), for his daughter Princess Chiyo’s marriage. The wedding set was made by Koami Nagashige (1599-1651), is designated as a national treasure, and housed at the Tokugawa Art Museum in Nagoya.
The export market for Japanese lacquer
Portuguese traders were among the first Europeans to arrive in Japan in 1543. They brought with them firearms, Christianity and a taste for Eastern wares. As a result, a new type of lacquerware emerged to cater to Western tastes.
The Portuguese, and later the Dutch, began commissioning pieces that would incorporate this exotic new material into caskets, coffers and cabinets based on European forms that would be purchased by many of the grand houses of Europe.
The style differed markedly from the domestic market. ‘Substantial pieces of furniture for the European market were often decorated with lacquer in a Japanese manner using inlaid pieces of cut shell, with lacquer motifs derived from European sources, or with bucolic landscape scenes with birds,’ explains von Seibold.
‘This is quite different to the decoration on domestic Japanese lacquer, which would frequently include allusions to Japanese history and literature.’
Starting a collection
‘Lacquer can come in all shapes and sizes,’ the specialist says, ‘and the combination of form and decoration should appeal to you personally.’
It’s important to see and handle as many pieces as possible, she adds. ‘Lacquer is a very tactile material. When you hold a piece in your hand and turn it in the light all the various intricate techniques come alive, which is a very different experience to looking at it on a computer screen or in a book. The lacquerers usually applied exactly the same level of attention to detail to larger objects as they did to miniature boxes. When you think about the painstaking processes involved, it’s quite remarkable.’
Condition and acceptable levels of restoration
Another aspect a specialist can help you with is determining the condition of a piece of lacquerware. ‘Lacquer can be restored, but there is a balance between an acceptable level of restoration and what might be considered a bit too much,’ advises von Seibold.
It’s also important to understand that lacquer does not fare well in dry climates. It can resist water, alcohol, and heat to a certain extent, but dry air is a problem.
Versatility, from contemporary to classical interiors
‘Whether you prefer very ornate and densely decorated lacquer or wonderfully simplistic forms — such as negoro, which are decorated in red and black lacquer — there really is something for everybody,’ maintains the specialist. ‘Japanese art as a whole is wonderfully versatile because it can be combined so well with a contemporary or a classical interior.’
Notable collections, from the V&A to the Met
If you can’t make it to the Tokugawa Museum in Nagoya to see the Hatsune wedding set, there are plenty of places to broaden your knowledge. ‘A lot of Japanese lacquer found its way into Europe and the United States,’ says von Seibold, ‘so there are many museums with important lacquer collections. The V&A in London has amazing export lacquer, including the Mazarin chest, which is one of the most important pieces of export lacquer you could ever see, and the Met in New York also has a great lacquer collection.’
Marie Antoinette’s collection of Japanese lacquer is fascinating for being comprised of mostly domestic-taste lacquer, rather than the export ware so popular in Europe at the time. The collection is split between the Louvre and the Musée Guimet in Paris, and the palace of Versailles.