What started as a utilitarian need for watertight objects eventually became its own art form known as lacquerware. To keep wood, pottery tin and other metal objects watertight, layers of natural lacquer were brushed onto boxes, buckets, trays and other household items. Once dried, though, lacquer turns a distinctly dark black which is not always a designer choice of color. That’s why, over time, artistic designs were added to help make the item more decorative as well as useful.
Lacquerware: 5000 BCE China, Japan, Korea
Around 7,000 years ago, sap from Toxicodendron vernicifluum, a tree grown and cultivated only in East Asia, was refined into a useable waterproof compound used to coat household items such as tableware, boxes, furniture, trays, bowls, screens and even coffins.
Known in China as a varnish tree, the sap is tapped by cutting into the bark and collected. Smaller branches are soaked in water and its sap is collected, all of which contains urushiol, the skin irritant in poison oak. Once exposed to air, the sap slowly turns black. After being strained and heated to remove moisture, the final product, lacquer, is stored in airtight containers ready to be brushed onto wood, tin or another metallic object.
The process of applying lacquer is a time-consuming process, usually over several days. Each successive layer, 20 or more at times, is left to dry and harden before another layer can be applied. Curiously, in order for lacquer to dry it must be placed in a moist atmosphere such as caves, according to early Chinese accounts. This process can take as long as 18 days before a design can be introduced. This process was eventually spread to Japan and the Korean peninsula by the sixth century.
Decoration can include gold, silver, charcoal, white lead, and mother of pearl surrounding decorative plants, animals and intricately carved domestic scenes. Carved lacquer, known as diaoqi, started with a buildup of many layers of different color lacquer (red, known as cinnabar, green, brown and even purple) until it was quite thick. Once dried, an intricate design was carved by hand into the object.
Chinese lacquerware was prominent throughout each dynastic period with its process a closely guarded state secret. Exports of generally mundane consumer items began in the 17th century to Europe but by the middle of the 19th century Chinese lacquerware was no longer a stable export.
Japanning: 17th Europe
Chinese exported its lacquerware to Europe by the early 17th century, mostly to the Netherlands, Italy, France and Great Britain by the East India Company, but it was mostly utilitarian items, not its most noted artwork. Yet, Chinese lacquerware became popular at all levels of society. The process of lacquer production as practiced in East Asia for thousands of years was limited to the sap from the varnish tree which grew only there. And China wasn’t sharing its secret. An alternative needed to be developed.
A viable lacquer was finally discovered from the secretions of the female lac bug known as Kerria lacca. Mixed with ethyl alcohol, these secretions became known as shellac, which dries into a high-gloss finish.
With this discovery, Italian craftsmen saw an opportunity to expand a market for the popular East Asian lacquerware, particularly from Japan, by creating their own Asian-themed designs that they felt represented daily life there usually on heavily lacquered tin and ironware in stark black or red with gold painted decoration. Because Asian societies were generally closed to outsiders, particularly to Europeans, scenes depicted by Italian craftsmen were more imaginary than realistic.
Still, japanning, as the art form was known in Europe, became popular from the early 18th century until the late 19th century. Once its popularity declined by 1920, the focus moved away from japanning metal items to japanning bicycles. In fact, by 1887, the Sunbeam bicycle company was formed to create the ubiquitous black japanned bicycle with gold stenciled markings.
Toleware: 18th century Americas
By the time lacquerware was introduced in 18th century America, rolling mills were being perfected in Pontypool, England. Pressing bars of steel and iron between rotating wheels allowed for the cost-effective formation of plates, coated with tin, then stamped into household goods like trays, candle holders, breadboxes, plates and utensils for export and commercial trade.
Once formed, the goods were coated against corrosion with a special blend of linseed oil, an asphalt compound, turpentine and other industrial compounds. The final dark varnish (a version of lacquer) is called “japan black.” Henry Ford’s Model T was painted with “japan black” giving rise to his quote that “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.” Once the varnish is applied to iron, steel or tin-plated items and cooled, the item is decorated similar to the Japanese lacquerware, known as japanning.
Rather than import these items from England and France, communities in North and South America, particularly in 18th century New England (mostly Boston and Hartford, Conn.) and the Pennsylvania Dutch, manufactured, hand-painted and later stenciled their own tin, pewter and metal goods for trade and home use. It was called toleware from the French term tôle peinte or painted sheet and practiced as tole painting.
The production of hand-painted toleware lasted from early 18th century to late 19th century when its popularity declined. There has been a resurgence of tole painting from the late 20th century within communities as an individual art project with classes, workshops and even organized groups such as the Society of Decorative Painters or the National Society of Tole and Decorative Painters.
Acrylic paints have replaced the variations of natural and industrial lacquers common before 1950 or so. Their use is simply more efficient, cost effective to produce and is more conducive to innovation where the early lacquer was easily more time consuming and toxic to create.
Lacquers aside, in the end it is difficult to distinguish vintage lacquerware in any of its forms. The use of different lacquers might just help on an atomic level (which is why this article focuses on types of lacquer) but the decorations applied, styles used or even what colors are predominant simply don’t lend itself to specific periods, which can be easily categorized without knowing each local style. Even the carved lacquer of early China is faithfully reproduced today.
Still, certain characteristics do stand out. Japanned items from France in the 17th and early 18th century, for example, have a rougher surface and more rust from peeling varnish because they hand stamped their iron or steel plate which produced more uneven surfaces.
What do collectors like? Collectors like bright colors, intact inlays like mother of pearl or gold leaf, regional styles such as “thumb work” of the Pennsylvania Dutch, flowers, Japanese or Chinese motifs, or any number of combinations. Decorators love the blend of colors that stand out. Most examples after 1950 are widely available for under $100.
Since variation is the main theme of lacquerware, whatever its name, the first rule of collecting applies: Collect what you like first.