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Lacquered Furniture

The history of lacquered furniture, like the story of porcelain, is a tale of Western efforts to imitate Asian technologies. Chinese, Japanese, and Indian lacquered pieces became highly desirable in England and Western Europe at the end of the 1600s. This fashion--what became known variously as chinoiserie, japanning, or India varnish--waxed and waned through three phases for a century after about 1675. Imported Asian pieces were rare and expensive. Secrecy shrouded the precise recipe for making and working Asian lacquers, which we now know is made from the poisonous resin from the tree Rhus vernicifera. Attempts to import the lacquer were largely unsuccessful because of its instability and restrictions on its export.

Enthusiastic demand for the style in the West stimulated efforts to reproduce the effect with alcohol-soluble spirit varnish. The textbook on the subject for the English-speaking world for several generations was John Stalker and George Parker's 1688 work, "A Treatise of Japaning and Varnishing." Stalker and Parker provided elaborate recipes for each stage, from preparing the wood, to brushing on layers of varnished color ground, to applying metallic ornaments, to making the gesso paste for the raised, sculptured figures, to cooking up the final protective varnish. Japanners could also consult Stalker and Parker for designs. The book contains 24 plates with illustrations of fantasy structures, people, and landscapes, all in the Asian mode.




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