The history of English lacquer is merely a continuation, or rather a divergence, from the main stem of the Oriental work itself, and to illustrate the progress of the latter fully, in text and photograph, would occupy several volumes of the size of this book. In addition, many of the points advanced would require actual pieces for their elucidation, to be either satisfactory or convincing, and a technical description of the various processes would be desirable. In the Eastern work, we would have to consider practically the whole of the Mongolian races, and from the present day to a somewhat remote period. The difficulties of the task can be indicated by the following classification. In point of date, we know that Oriental lacquer work was made almost continuously, since the sixteenth century, from the evidence of actual examples, and there is every reason to suppose that the art is much older than this. As regards countries of origin, ultimately we must look to China. The work, however, must be studied in Korea, the Malay Peninsula, Japan, India and Persia, and if we attempt to classify the lacquer work itself, we find the flat ornament, the raised, the cut (or Coromandel) and the carved (the " coralline " or cinnabar lac being an example of the latter). As regards colouring, we find the black, the red, the yellow or buff, the green, occasionally the blue, and sometimes the gold grounds. The ornament is either simply gilded, in other pieces inlaid with solid gold, or decorated with many colours, - the polychrome lacquer. When we enter into the field of European lacquer work we still find the same classes, with others added, and the further confusion of Occidental pieces sent in the East India Companies' tea ships to be lacquered in China and Japan, as we know from a study of the old bills of lading, and actual pieces of Oriental work imported here and cut up and used in the making of European furniture. It will readily be seen, therefore, from the foregoing, that to treat of the subject in full detail is out of the question in a single chapter of this size, and we have to adopt the least objectionable method of condensing it, with due regard to such knowledge as may be useful to the collector.
We may begin by defining the terms to be used. The word " lacquer " itself is a recent innovation, or rather, has changed its significance. Even at the present day the word has a dual meaning, to describe what we know as lacquer work, and also to indicate a protective coating of varnish used to prevent metals, such as brass or silver, from tarnishing. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the words "Jappan work," "japan" or "japaning" were indifferently used. Japanning, at the present day, is a term which has been coined to describe the rough graining and varnishing finish of cheap servants' bedroom furniture. The eighteenth-century word "japan" served to illustrate the country, or the region, from which a good deal of the lacquer was imported. Various fancy names were also used, such as " Bantam work" to describe the cut or Coromandel lacquer, a name adopted from that of a Dutch trading-station in the Malay Peninsula, which was abandoned when the settlement was removed, in 1817, to Sirang some miles further inland.
Fig. 500. Japanese Sake Cup In Red Lacquer. With Decoration In Two-Coloured Cold.
Fig. 501. The Reverse Of Fig. 500 Showing The Signature. - (Ka-Ritsu-Sai. Mid-nineteenth Century.) Tokio or Kioto.
Fig. 502. A Japanese Sake Cup Similar To The Above, Fractured To Show The Thin Covering Lacquer.
This predilection, in nearly all the older records, for the use of the name Japan instead of China, is both curious and instructive. The only actual knowledge which appears to have been possessed was that of the ports of export, - generally the Dutch trading-stations, such as Bantam, - from whence the tea ships received their lading. Even as late as the middle of the eighteenth century, China must have been a terra incognita, other than to a few adventurous travellers. Even the name itself is seldom mentioned. Here and there we find a reference to the Empire of Cathay, but of the inner life and productions of this vast country little or nothing appears to have been known. It is not surprising, therefore, that the difference between the work of China and Japan, - very different from the Oriental, - especially in the case of lacquer work, was not apprehended, and, with the exception of certain names which were coined to express it, in various of the Eastern ports, the term "Jappan work" is the one nearly always employed in the inventories and bills of lading of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.
For our present purpose, however, it will be better, and more convenient, to use the words " lacquer " and " lacquering " in spite of any dual significance which they may possess. The preparation of these lacquer grounds consists in the application of numerous coats of protective varnishes, either black or stained with colours. In the European work the ground is nearly always applied in flat colours, of somewhat brighter hues than the finished effect which is desired, to allow for the toning caused by the many coats of varnish, which, however clear, are always more or less tinged with yellow. Much of the Chinese work, especially the late Ming or early Manchu, other than the black or the Cinnabar, is first prepared on the underlying soft pine, with a flat grey ground, over which stained varnishes are applied in a manner similar to the "scumbling" of the decorator.