Tag Archive for: decorative arts
NEW YORK – Earthenware has a long history dating back nearly 30,000 years. The ability to form earth and clay into storage, drinking, cooking and household utensils proved helpful, especially as a nomadic life transitioned into more stable communities.
Earthenware by its nature is porous. Forming earth and clay into a pot or utensil, then allowing it to dry has limited use. It is fragile, unable to hold liquid and cannot be made too large as it is bulky, heavy and easily damaged. Firing it at temperatures as high as 1,100 degrees C (2,000 F) is the only way to strengthen it for daily use as a storage container.
However, to make it impermeable for the storage of liquids, a thin, clear coat of lead glaze and other oxides was fired to seal the pot. Later a tin oxide was added to form a white glaze from which a hand-painted decorative element could be applied.
Lead glaze vs. tin glaze
To fire correctly, the basic composition of clay used for earthenware today is 25% kaolin (a silicate), 25% ball clay, 35% quartz and 15% feldspar. When formed together and fired the result is a biscuit, or bisque, from which the final product is glazed and decorated.
A lead-based vitreous compound consisting of powdered glass melts over the earthenware at very high temperatures to create a glossy, transparent, impermeable coating. This type of “enameling” has been found in China as early as the 13th century B.C. Lead glaze is more durable than the tin-glazed compound and is used for molded decorative items that are painted after firing. Lead glaze alone was largely replaced by tin glaze about the 15th century.
Tin oxide was added to the lead glaze about the eighth century in region that is now Iraq to create a white opaque compound allowing colorful overglazes and design to be painted directly onto a mostly flat surface before being fired. This process required more skill since mistakes couldn’t be corrected and therefore was more expensive to produce. Tin oxide became difficult to get during World War I and zirconium and zircon has since been substituted as a cheaper alternative, except in very small quantities.
Identifying tin-glazed earthenware
Once tin oxide was added to lead glaze, most collectible earthenware is made with this formulation.
This is the French name for tin-glazed pottery first produced during the 15th century Renaissance period in the Italian city of Faenza, near Ravenna. Today, it is more of a catch phrase for white tin-glazed pottery glaze that doesn’t have its own particular style. Usually the term refers only to the tin-glazed wares made in France, Germany and Scandinavia.
Said to have come from the Spanish island of Majorca to Italy in the 15th century, this style of tin-glazed pottery is highly decorated with vibrant stylized natural or historical events known as istoriato. It is common in collector circles to identify lead-glaze pottery as majolica and tin-glaze pottery as maiolica.
A vibrant blue and white tin-glazed pottery from the city of Delft in the Netherlands. This style is easily recognized in the Delft blue tiles and jars showing Dutch scenes such as windmills. The heyday of Delftware is from 1640 to 1740 but became popular in England (known as English Delftware), Japan and China in the 18th century. Delftware production continued at a greatly reduced level through Victorian times into the 20th century.
Tin-glaze pottery having a golden iridescent sheen is aptly named luster, or lusterware. Originating in the Middle East in the ninth century, this metallic glaze of copper and other metallic oxides provides an earthy brown to the white tin-glaze underglaze. Luster decoration became popular with English potteries in the first quarter of the 19th century.
Produced during the period of Muslim Spain beginning in the eighth century, tin-glaze earthenware was originally produced using Islamic and Christian elements, particularly the “IHS” monogram and personal coats-of-arms for export to Europe. The 14th and 15th centuries constituted the peak period before the Italian maiolica earthenware become prominent.
From 1520 to 1550, a specialized and highly detailed bas relief white lead glaze earthenware was produced in the French city of Saint-Porchaire intended only for high-end collectors of the time. Known as Henri II ware or Saint-Porchaire Ware, only about 70 pieces survive from the period.
French potter Bernard Palissy (1510-1590) created high relief, polychrome lead-glaze natural scenes such as fish, snakes, frogs and even mussels often from taking casts of the real thing. Known also as “rustic ware,” most examples at auction are 19th and 20th century reproductions attributed to the style of Palissy while the 16th century originals are considered museum pieces.
Making use of the white, glassy lead-glaze coating, potters in 18th century England, particularly from Staffordshire and Leeds, created a relatively inexpensive substitute for porcelain. Josiah Wedgwood’s production of what was called pearlware was so prolific by 1780, that his mass- produced transferware was exported throughout Europe and undercut the more expensively produced tin-glazed, hand-painted earthenware.
When reviewing auction values for vintage lead-glaze or tin-glaze earthenware, it doesn’t seem as if there is a significant difference in the final hammer prices. The style, period, age and condition dictate what is more collectible.
Tin-glazed earthenware doesn’t hold up as well as lead glaze, however. Edges, posts and the feet of tin-glazed objects are prone to crack and decay more often than the harder edge lead-glaze pottery.
While most early tin-glaze and lead-glaze pottery have higher auction values, a resurgence in replicating early Renaissance tin-glaze pottery in Italy in the early 20th century can be an alternative. Artists such as Roger Fry, Duncan Grant, Alan Caiger-Smith and others from the 1920s to the 1950s can be the start of an alternative collection. Even Picasso has his own brand of tin-glaze earthenware design.
There is a lot more to glazed earthenware to discover. With so many design elements and periods to choose from, tin-glaze and lead-glaze earthenware easily lends itself to the collector mantra: Collect what you like first.
Lacquered wares – wood or metal objects decorated with coats of lacquer – date from antiquity. This opulent art, however, reached Russia in the 18th century when Peter the Great “Westernized” the country.
Over time, four great schools of Russian lacquerware arose in villages near Moscow, each developing a distinct style based on specific traditions and techniques.
The earliest, dating from 1795, produced lacquered, papier-mâché visors for army helmets, as well as lacquered snuffboxes. When inherited by Piotr Lukutin, this workshop also produced papier-mâché match boxes and cigar cases, typically depicting sentimental scenes of Russian life.
Preparation was extensive, generally taking an average of six weeks. Yet boiling these lightweight, handcrafted boxes in linseed oil, then oven-drying, priming, polishing, and lacquering them, made them not only durable but also impervious to water.
When Lukutin’s workshop closed in 1904, its craftsmen continued independently under the name of their village, Fedoskino. “Fedoskinos,” created with successive layers of thin oil paint, agleam with mother-of-pearl, metallic powders, or gold-leaf underlay, are famed for their detail, visual depth, and luminescence. Many portray realistic scenes of rustic landscapes or peasants dancing, fetching water or assembling tree-bark shoes. Others depict famous personalities, miniature reproductions of classic paintings, or favorite fairy tales, like Father Frost and the Maiden, The Frog Princess, and Ruslan and Ludmila. “Fedoskino” typically appears at the center or left lower margin of these miniatures. Artists’ signatures, rendered in complementary shades, appear to the right.
After the 1917 Revolution, Russian authorities widely suppressed religious expression, so craftsmen of Palekh, a village long recognized for its superb Russian Orthodox icons, applied their extraordinary skills to lacquered boxes instead. Like their icons, “Palekhs” feature brilliant, egg-based tempera images against dark, solid grounds, enhanced by fine gold or silver leaf ornamentation.
Many portray popular folk songs, legends, ballets, operas and poems with images of elongated, icon-like figures. Others feature traditional images, like fierce Cossacks atop majestic steeds, spirited “troikas,” or three-horse teams, pulling sledges through the snow; or unfolding folk narratives like “The Tale of the Humpback Pony.” More contemporary Palekhs depict dramatic scenes of Soviet life , the USSR emblem or portraits of Joseph Stalin. Many are signed in fine gold script.
Some describe Palekh miniatures as “small miracles,” owing to their fine workmanship and illustrious lineage.
Craftsmen in nearby Kholui also originally made icons before venturing into lacquer boxes. While their boxes feature egg-based tempera images embellished with gold-leaf highlight, their designs are more realistic, less nuanced, and bolder. In addition, “Kholui” palettes feature employ reds, yellows, browns, and orange against bright, dramatic, swirled backgrounds.
Kholui lacquer boxes often depict ancient cathedrals, churches, convents, monasteries, or the architectural glories of historical cities like Suzdal or Yaroslavl. Many, celebrating the joys of nature, depict local landscapes, like the springtime floods along Kholui’s picturesque river, the Teza. Some are more fanciful and portray sweeping oral epic poems or beloved fairy tales like “Seven Semeons” or “Scarlet Flower.” Others depict traditional Russian customs, like greeting guests with loaves of bread and loaves of salt.
Mystera was once an icon-making village, too. But unlike Fedoskino, Kholui, and Palekh boxes, their designs were decorated only the lids. Some are edged in lacy gold or silver and depict fine, floral bouquets. Others portray villages, fields, or forests (replete with faraway blue and lilac-hued hills and dales), romantically melting into pale, egg-based tempera pink, blue, gold, or ivory backgrounds.
Other “Mysteras” depict seasonal fairs, festivities, or traditional Russian activities like mushroom or berry-picking. More dynamic examples commemorate historic events or heroic battles. Others feature colorful fantasies inspired by Russian songs, legends, fairy tales, and literary works like Pushkin’s “Tale of the Golden Cockerel” and “The Snow Queen” by Hans Christian Andersen.
Antique Russian lacquer boxes are prized not only for their beauty and exquisite craftsmanship but also for the passion and national pride their images evoke. Because each box is a handmade artwork, collecting opportunities are endless, and the potential discovery of a new addition to one’s collection is always just around the corner.
Examples of 18th and 19th century Pennsylvania needlework – samplers, show towels, still life floral depictions, aprons and bibs, state seals and more – are marvelous expressions of American folk art. Some are so finely detailed, it’s hard to believe they were wrought by young girls barely in their teens, some even younger.
“The enduring appeal of Pennsylvania textile arts stems from its long and rich needlework tradition,” said Will Kimbrough, Vice President and Department Head of Americana and Fine & Decorative Arts at Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates in Mt. Crawford, Virginia. “This tradition is represented by any number of iconic pieces from varying regions, time periods, and styles – from the band samplers of Colonial Philadelphia, to the silk-embroidered pictures and memorials popular in the Federal period, to the pictorially exuberant compositions of Mary Tidball’s school operating at the western edge of the state in the mid-19th century.”
Kimbrough added, “This deep Pennsylvania needlework tradition is undoubtedly linked with the strong Quaker and Moravian influence in the early settlement of the state. The vast majority of this needlework was produced in schools, and the Quaker and Moravian emphasis on education led to the widespread establishment of affordable educational opportunities for men and woman alike in the early period.”
The standard curriculum for girls in these schools, in both the English and Germanic models, included needlework as a core component of a young woman’s education. “Accordingly, more schoolgirl needlework from Pennsylvania survives in comparison with that produced in other states.”
Kaitlyn Julian of Pook & Pook, Inc., in Downingtown, Pennsylvania, said we should thank devoted scholars for their curiosity and dedicated studies to the subject of samplers. “Important research has invigorated the market and compelled collectors to appreciate the historic context and intrinsic value of samplers,” Julian said. “In the past, samplers may have been seen as frivolous pursuits or old-fashioned crafts made by little girls, but research carried out over the past few decades has revealed the extent of the craft and, more importantly, connected collectors to the young women behind the craft.”
The definitive reference book for samplers is Betty Ring’s Girlhood Embroidery: American Samplers and Pictorial Needlework, 1650-1850, published in 1993. As the body of knowledge on samplers deepened, especially in the 1990s after the publication of Ring’s book, auction values climbed. “We saw many important collections cross the auction block, like Joan Stephens’ collection in 1997 and Betty Ring’s collection later in 2012,” Julian pointed out.
She continued, “I believe a factor of the enduring popularity of samplers today is partly thanks to online genealogy websites. It is now easier than ever to connect yourself with the past. The lovely thing about samplers is that they contain the name and often location of the maker. These two pieces of information, when typed into a genealogy website, can connect you personally with the young lady who made the piece. From there, you may be able to determine who her teacher was, who her classmates were, what her family was like, and so forth. You can then begin to identify certain regional motifs taught by various school mistresses and appreciate the intricacies of design and differing skill levels among the students.’
“Visualizing a classroom, perhaps not unlike the one you were taught in, brings to mind these girls laboring over their work, trading stories, and being rewarded by their teacher. Making a personal connection like this can make a huge difference in how you engage with, enjoy, and value historic artifacts. Across generations and centuries, the common thread of human experience endures.”
Pennsylvania has produced an abundance of samplers, partly perhaps due to its rich early history as America’s melting pot. By the time of the Revolutionary War, Philadelphia was the world’s second-largest English-speaking city. Quakers, Moravians, Pennsylvania Dutch, and Mennonites all populated the state in the early 18th century, following William Penn’s dream of religious freedom. With each culture came new and different histories and traditions of needlework and embroidery. Quakers and Moravians both placed value in women’s education and as a result, Pennsylvania was one of the first colonies with schools for girls.
As for the demand for samplers and other expressions of Pennsylvania needlework, Will Kimbrough said the market for top-quality, fresh-to-the-market examples in excellent condition will continue to escalate over the next five years. “Additionally,” he added, “identified examples connected with specific schools and regions will continue to perform well. As is true with other segments of the market, more typical, less visually interesting pieces, and anything with distracting condition problems, will continue to decline in value.”
Kaitlyn Julian said, “With all the great scholarship on the subject, I believe that a continued interest in collecting samplers is here to stay. I don’t believe the market is as strong as it was twenty years ago, but interest remains high and the market now presents a chance for young collectors to build their own collection at reasonable prices. In order to maintain a strong market, it is crucial to establish an interest with the younger generations.”
She added, “As always with antiques, exceptional examples will continue to achieve exceptional prices. Samplers that consistently achieve high prices on the auction block include those which are easy to read, brightly colored and without stains or fading. Easy to read samplers with visual interest and intricately embroidered borders always catch the eye of collectors, especially those with balanced compositions and regional motifs. My favorite samplers include those with spectacularly detailed brick houses, boasting rows and rows of windows, a mansard roof, and a dog running in the front yard. Especially impressive are those which are marked with the age of the maker, including some as young as five or six.”
NEW YORK – Through the Atomic Age, from the late 1940s through the 1960s, developing nuclear power, atomic science and the space race inspired out-of-this-world interior design. Its stylized, instantly recognizable cosmic shapes and motifs endowed utilitarian objects, large and small, with bursts of futuristic, optimistic, peacetime energy.
Millions of kitchens, against a background of steel cabinets and Formica countertops, boasted bright walls, ceramic coffee mugs and soap dispensers patterned with whizzing rockets or dynamic galaxy decorative touches. Others, inspired by structure of the atom, depicted orbiting atomic particles.
Drinking glasses, serving plates and Melamine dinnerware often featured colorful star bursts. Delicate, organic, spidery plant forms and amoeba-like free forms, reflecting strides in x-ray and microscope technologies, adorned place mats and table cloths. Boomerangs, another popular Atom Age motif, not only mirrored magnified bacteria. Used as stylized arrows, they symbolized directional energy fields, capturing movement.
Bold, aluminum, atomic-inspired lamps graced millions of homes across the country. Desk and ceiling “flying saucers,” which feature gently rounded metal domed shades, were not only popular, but easy on the eye. So were minimalistic floor models, perched precariously on spindly gooseneck, tripod or “cricket” brass legs. Pole tension lamps, whose adjustable cone-shaped shades created focused spots of light, were also great favorites.
In contrast, airy, light-hearted, “bubble” table and ceiling lamps offered warm, soft, diffuse – yet abundant – radiance. George Nelson, for example, coaxed their malleable steel-wire frames and translucent white plastic or sprayed resin into fanciful pear, globe, cigar and elliptical shapes. Gino Sarfatti designed bubble pendant lamps featuring transparent, richly textured, handcrafted Murano glass globes. Angelo Lelli created nickel-plated brass and steel ceiling lights whose radiating branches, tipped with frosted glass spheres, look, for all the world, like planets in orbit.
Three years after Russia’s earth-shattering launch of the Sputnik space satellite, the Sputnik chandelier reached the market. This opulent starburst creation, featuring central spheres with multiple radiating prongs fitted with glowing light fittings, was a favored décor of the day. So was the Sputnik-like dandelion sphere, whose myriad glass blossoms or spiked pinpoints of light evoke their namesake. These high-end, Atomic Age decorative statements were sculptures by day, supernovas by night.
Atomic-inspired table and wall clocks also made dramatic decorative statements. Though all essentially performed the same function, they differed in shape and style. Some bear flat conventional flat faces bright with random atomic motifs. Some, bearing numerous, slender, outstretched arms radiating from round, conventional, central clockworks, resemble cheery sunflowers or sunbursts. Ball wall clocks, which feature circular centers spiked by slender shafts tipped with brilliantly hued balls, indicate time by position rather than by number. Rare models, like George Nelson’s ovoid “Eyeball,” which resembles its name and his striking wooden, watermelon-shaped ones, are particularly desirable.
During this era, designers also produced Atomic-Age inspired furniture. Some pieces, like Adrian Pearsall’s sculptured Gondola sofa, along with scores of anonymously designed coffee tables enhancing middle class living rooms, resemble boomerangs.
Others, rather than embodying atomic motifs, utilize exciting, postwar, state-of-the-art materials. Nelson’s whimsical Marshmallow sofa, for example, features comfy cushions “floating” atop tubular steel frames. Harry Bertoia’s nature-inspired, sculptural Diamond, Butterfly and Bird chairs are wrought from bent, welded, transparent steel wire grids.
Charles and Ray Eames’ sleek, curvy, stools, rockers and tables are fashioned from pliable plywood. These, as well as their celebrated, molded, Fiberglas chairs, realized in shades from neutral to vibrant, ultramodern orange, yellow and blues, have remained popular for decades.
Most Atomic Age pieces at auction, which were acquired from original users, were not only well used, but well loved. Today too, many appreciate their pleasing visual appeal infused with optimistic energy.
A substantial and wide-ranging auction titled Artful Interiors: Decorative Art & Furniture will be presented online Wednesday, Aug. 7, by Jasper52. Bidders will discover an array of decorative objects—antique to modern—to enhance their abode.
View the auction here.
Learn more about the auction on Auction Central News.
NEW YORK – Hooked rugs have been described as the comfort food of antiques with collectors coveting them for their artistic qualities and homespun nature. Rug hooking dates back several centuries and ranges from simple rugs hooked out of fabric scraps by thrifty crafters or elegant designs.
Hooked rugs come in all sorts of designs from abstract and geometric to whimsical and floral. Karen Swager, decorative arts and textile specialist at Brunk Auctions in Asheville, N.C., says that elaborate floral wreaths and bouquets, farm scenes, cats and dogs are common motifs in the designs of hooked and sewn rugs.
“Lions became a popular theme with hooked rugs due to the peddler Edward Sands Frost (1843-1894) who created an industry of stenciled rugs patterns,” she says. “There are few examples of people on 19th and early 20th century rugs. The most well-known hooked rugs with people were designed by James and Mercedes Hutchinson in the mid 20th century.”
Kimberly Smith Ivey, senior curator of textiles at Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in Williamsburg, Va., said rug-hooking techniques originated in North America, specifically Maine, and grew from their 19th century origins to become a national pastime. The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, part of Colonial Williamsburg, presents the 2018-20 exhibition “Folk Art Underfoot: American Hooked Rugs” surveying the art of hooking and sewing rugs, featuring some 20 hooked and sewn rugs.
“By the early 19th century, sewn rug work was among the special sewing projects a young schoolgirl could create while attending one of the many day or boarding schools that specialized in sampler making, wool embroidery and other female accomplishments,” she said. Jan Whitlock, in her 2012 book American Sewn Rugs: Their History with Exceptional Examples, notes that 40 schools advertising rug work had been identified. Several schools as far south as Virginia also included rug work in their curriculum.
Among notable areas known for hooked rugs is the distinct style of hooked rug that originated in Waldoboro, Maine, a shipbuilding community originally settled by German immigrants.
“The rugs are characterized by a deep pile that is clipped and sculptured creating a design that stands out from the background,” Smith Ivey said. “The finest Waldoboro rugs were crafted between 1860 and 1880 and were intended as decorative showpieces rather than floor coverings to be walked upon. Today, hooked rugs with raised motifs are referred to as Waldoboro-types, whether they are actually made in Waldoboro or not.”
The most desirable rugs are ones that showcase the inventiveness and artistry of the maker, Swager says, noting that whimsical designs featuring animals are very sought after. In March 2010, Brunk Auctions sold the collection of prominent collector Tom Gray, including a number of fine hooked and sewn rugs. Among them was a bias shirred rug with a whimsical farm animal scene that hammered at $30,000.
“Some collectors also seek rugs made with a distinct technique. For example, bias shirring, where fabric strips are cut on the bias and stitched to the foundation lengthwise in the center of the strip, is one of the most time consuming and difficult techniques of rug making. This technique also allows for subtle shading and the incorporation of wavy designs that can enhance the artistry of the rug.”
Smith Ivey explains that designs for early sewn and hooked rugs echo motifs found in other home furnishings including woven rugs and quilts.
“Rug makers found inspiration in published sources as well as in the details of everyday life,” she says. “Houses, birds, floral arrangements, and animal motifs, especially household pets, were the most popular designs. During this period, house cats were a major family pet and the most popular design for hooked rugs. Geometric patterns, which are the easiest designs to draw and produce in a rug, are also common.”
She said four hooked rugs created by Lucy Trask Barnard (1800-1896) in Dixfield, Maine, between 1850 to 1860 are some of the best and most striking forms of hooked rug work for a number of reasons.
“First, it is rare to find a rug with a known maker. Four hooked rugs attributed to Lucy Barnard feature a large white house on a hill with attached outbuildings,” she said. “Her rugs display an unusual sophisticated awareness of perspective through the use of oversized flowers in the foreground and two-sided buildings. Landscapes such as these require greater skill and appear less frequently than floral and geometric patterns.”
Highly collectible today are Grenfell hooked mats, which became a cottage industry in Newfoundland and Labrador in the first half of the 20th century. Dr. William Grenfell established “the industrial” to help provide a source of income for the local women, Swager says. “Designs for the mats were inspired by regional scenes and animals. Polar bears, owls and winter landscapes are found on a number of Grenfell mats.”
While the market for hooked rugs has softened a bit in recent years, the best and most artistic examples continue to bring strong prices while the beginning collector still has the opportunity to enter the field at affordable prices.
Some of the attributes that collectors should consider, Smith Ivey says, include:
- Condition: Does it have its original binding? Are the colors bright or faded?
- Materials: Is it worked on burlap, which degrades easily and indicates a later date? Is it worked on cotton or linen, which are more stable ground fabrics and indicates an earlier date? Are there mixtures of fibers in the pile that create interesting textures?
- Design: Is the design original to the maker, and if so, is it an important expression of American imagination and ingenuity? Is the pattern derived from a published design? Did the maker customize the publish pattern to express some of her personality?
- Maker: Is the maker of the rug identified? Does the rug have a known provenance? Is it dated or signed in any way?
- Technique: Is it hooked or is it an example of a sewn rug, such as yarn-sewn, bias shirred; chenille shirred, or patch? Are different hues of one color used to create a shading effect?
Beautiful decorative art – with an emphasis on sterling silver – worthy of a well-appointed home are offered in a Jasper52 online auction that will be conducted Wednesday, June 19. Going up for bid early in the 129-lot auction is an eight-piece Art Deco sterling silver tea set by Christofle/Cardeilhac of France.
View the auction here.
Learn more about the auction on Auction Central News.
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.