It is not every day that you see people talking about antique japanned furniture. With the fast-paced lives we’re living today, everything from the past seems blurred – just like the objects on the outside of the window appear to the people inside a fast moving train.

The art of Japanning has quite similarly faded into the pages of history. We wouldn’t be surprised if the only people who knew about it are those who either sell or own antique Japanned furniture.

So, What Exactly is Japanning?

The word Japanning originated back in the 17th century. It was used to describe a lacquer finish which was created as a European imitation of the original Asian (mostly Oriental Chinese and Japanese) lacquer-work.

Image result for stalker parker treatise japanning
A Treatise on Japanning and Varnishing by John Stalker and George Parker

The Japanning Story

The Background

When the Portuguese discovered and conquered Asian territories in China, Japan, and India in the 16th century, it opened gates for trade of oriental goods that included spices, shellac, porcelain, mother-of-pearl, and the lacquered goods. However, it wasn’t until the 17th century when Britain officially began importing lacquered objects, including furniture through the thriving and ever expanding East India Companies trade networks.

The advent of classic oriental lacquered furniture in Europe quickly grew popular. It was exotic and unique, it was expensive, but most of all – it was the talk of the town simply because it brought a new dimension to interior décor and business opportunities in Europe.

19th century Japanned yellow lacquer cabinet

The local European craftsmen were quick to pick the furniture style, but there was one small problem – where would the lacquer finish used to replicate the imported expensive and scarce furniture come from? The lacquer from China was made using taped resin from the Chinese Lacquer Tree – Toxicodendron Vernicifluum. They could have imported it, but it was expensive and impossible to import because the resin would set while in transit at sea. While health and saftey were not high on the agenda for those handling the sap, it was also a highly toxic and carcenagenic substance.  

 

The Invention of Japanning   

So, the only possible solution to locally cater this rising demand for oriental lacquered furniture was to come up with home recipes to imitate the Chinese exports. The beginning of 17th century saw the British craftsmen making initial attempts at imitating the oriental lacquer. However, it was not until 1660 in the era of Charles II that the country and the continent saw a boost in the production and sale of imitation oriental furniture with spirit varnish which gave a surface finish that resembled Chinese lacquer. The technique became known as Japanning.

Regency Black Lacquer Tilt Top Round Chinoiserie Centre Table

 

Needless to say that the technique spread like wildfire throughout Europe and it was works like A Treatise of Japanning and Varnishing (1688) by George Parker and John Stalker, and more that helped promote the recipes and application techniques for Japanning to the rest of the continent. With time, the technique and recipes improved to use oil based varnishes instead of spirit.

In France, the most famous lacquer work was attributed to the Martin brothers. They used a signature technique called the Vernis Martin. The brothers perfected the art of adding green or gold powder their varnish that gave their lacquered items a unique and polished look.

One of a pair of early 19th-century red japanned table tops.

Although not as well known as it was in the 18th century, antique Japanned furniture is still one of the most desirable areas of antique furniture collecting. Whimsical designs adorning elegant furniture made for the Royalty, nobility and wealthy merchants will surely never fall from favor of the keen-eyed antique furniture collector. 

Where to buy Antique Japanned Furniture?

Nicholas Wells Antiques is delighted to present an exceptional collection of fine 18th and 19th century antique Japanned European Furniture.

George III Black Japanned Lacquer Cabinet on Stand

 

Click here to see our Georgian Furniture Style Guide.

Nicholas Wells

Attributed to Michelangelo Maestri (Italian, d. 1812)

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