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Japanning

Japanning: European lacquer work is a form of decorative art that has been practiced since the 17th century. It is a process of applying layers of lacquer to wooden objects to create a painterly, durable finish. The lacquer is typically made from a combination of natural resins and oils, and can be applied to both hardwoods and softwoods. The process involves multiple layers of lacquer, which are applied in a specific order and then cured and polished to a high sheen.

Japanning is a form of decorative European lacquer work that imitates oriental lacquer the finish has been used for centuries. The process involves the application of multiple thin layers of paint, lacquer and gilding to the surface of the object, which is then waxed to seal. The lacquer is usually made from a combination of plant-based oils and resins, and can be applied to both ferrous and non-ferrous metals, as well as hardwoods and softwoods. Japanning creates beautiful and durable finishes on European metal and wooden furniture and decorative objects.

During the late 17th century, European demand for lacquerwork and decorative techniques originating from the East, such as Japanning, began to grow. The East India Company’s importation of lacquered objects and screens created a desire for larger, more practical items with similar decorative finishes. To replicate the appearance of oriental lacquerwork, European cabinet-makers turned to John Stalker and George Parker’s 1688 “Treatise of Japanning and Varnishing.” This treatise contained formulas for creating various colours and patterns of Chinese figures, plants, pavilions, and gardens that could be modified as necessary¹³.
European “Japanning” became popular throughout the 18th century. However, almost all attempts were of inferior quality compared to the original. To keep up with the demand for lacquered items, English craftsmen and artists began to paint their pieces using a process known as japanning. One such example is a two-door cabinet that enclosed small drawers, which would have sat on the floor in a Chinese household, but in England, it was placed on an elaborately carved stand to be the centerpiece of a room. The cabinet’s finely japanned surfaces are of high quality and imitate Chinese lacquer with exotic romantic scenes as imagined by craftsmen working in England around 1700¹.
However, the Europeans were unable to create lacquer, as the necessary resin could not be found in Europe. The japanned technique used varnishes, which created a similar appearance to lacquer when applied in a particular way. One such varnish was shellac, which was made of spirits of wine and a catalyst².
For decoration, craftsmen made a concerted effort to copy designs directly from China and the East. Porcelain, textiles, wall hangings, and lacquer pieces were used as sources of inspiration for chinoiserie decorative schemes. Illustrations of trips and missions in Asia by travelers also served as sources. By the mid-18th century, European craftsmen had developed their own style of japanning that was less dependent on Chinese models¹³.
Source:
(1) The influence of East Asian lacquer on European furniture · V&A. https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/east-asian-lacquer-influence.
(2) Japanning – Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanning.
(3) Lacquerwork – Japanning, Vernis Martin, and Boîte de Spa. https://www.britannica.com/art/lacquerwork/Europe.

See:
Stalker and Parker 
Vernis Martin

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