To the untrained eye lacquer and japanning can appear to be the same. However japanning is a European imitation of lacquer and is less refined.

As early as the 17th Century lacquered pieces of furniture were being imported from Asia. In 1614 the inventory for Lord Northampton's London town house itemised a 'china table'. The Japanese cabinet illustrated below dates to the late 17th Century and demonstrates the high level of detail seen on the finest pieces.

The lacquered finish is created by the application of the sap of Rhus Vernicifera in up to 15 succesive coats. This process gives a perfectly smooth ground on which an artist can apply his decoration. This decoration is typically full of birds and insects set within a mythological landscape and the best examples show a superb delicacy of touch. For an excellent step by step guide to lacquering please see K. Koizumi's 'Traditional Japanese Furniture' pp. 198-200.

As the 18th Century progressed European prototypes and designs of furniture were sent to Canton to be recreated as lacquered examples. This mid 18th Century bureau cabinet is a superb example of Cantonese export furniture.

The importance of the export trade in lacquerware is reflected in the East India Company's prohibition on the export of gum-lac. Gum-lac was the main constituent in the varnish used for japanning; a European technique invented to replicate the qualities of lacquer. The art of japanning was brought to Europe by Jesuit missionaries who had studied the creation of lacquered furniture at first hand. In France this taste for japanned furniture among the elite led to workshops being established at the Gobelins factory. The English cabinet-makers' need for instruction in the technique for japanning was met by Stalker and Parker publishing a treatise in 1688. The impact of this treatise is reflected in most English japanned furniture quoting directly from its plates. This reliance on pattern books caused japanned decoration to be far more laboured and tentative than lacquered furniture as seen on this French japanned escritoire.


July 09, 2013 — Peter Alexander