Description & Technical information

The art of lacquering originated in China with the discovery of the protective properties of the sap
of the lacquer tree ‘Rhus verniciflua’. When applied to wood or metal, the sap forms a hard,
durable semi-transparent film which can then be used to coat the surface of most materials. The
benefit of the lacquer is that besides being a preservative it provides a smooth surface which can
then be coloured, painted and gilded on.
Europe, towards the end of the 17th Century, and throughout the 18th Century, became
fascinated by all goods associated with China and so many such goods began to be imported
into the West. Organisations such as the East India Company
commissioned labourers in China to produce Chinese designs, but in the style of the West. The
result was bureau-cabinets of this style with Chinese scenery, frequently being imported into
England; the first recorded import of lacquer ware by the East India Company taking place in
1683. It is virtually unknown however for a large piece such as this to be made in England and
specially shipped to China to be decorated.
By the 18th Century many countries in Europe began to devise methods of imitating oriental
lacquer, known as Japanning. The main ingredient of the lacquer was not available in Europe so
European imitations were made of gum-lac, seed-lac or shell-lac. The
finest examples are difficult to distinguish from true lacquer although the decorations (which are
often Chinoiserie) usually give them away. Stalker and Parker are believed to have been two of
the leading craftsmen in the art of Japanning having written A Treatise of Japanning and
Varnishing, Oxford, 1688, which describes the various ways of imitating Japanese lacquer.