The use of lacquered objects in the Far East can be traced back for a very long time. Famous are the lacquered cups excavated from early Han Dynasty tombs in China (206 BC - 221 AD), but outside China lacquer was applied to wood, reed, bamboo, leather and even metal as well.
Lacquer is made from the juice of the lacquer tree (rhus vernificera or verniciflua, a variety of sumac) that is indigenous in China and Japan and has spread to the sub-tropical climates in Asia. The sap is tapped from incisions made in the tree-trunk, then it is cleaned and matures while the superfluous water evaporates. The resulting fluid is mixed with pigments and when applied in thin layers and dried, this lacquer protects against moisture, insects, mould and almost all chemicals, but is inert itself. Therefore it can be used for a variety of purposes, including the storage of food and drink.
The lacquer tree did not grow in Europe and Westerners were unaware of this substance until the Portuguese started trade in Asia in the fifteenth century. One of the exotic items they marvelled about was lacquerwork, which had become the subject of high-quality, specialised craftmanship in Japan. From the middle of the century onward, the Portuguese not only bought this Japanese lacquer, but also ordered lacquered objects to be made in Japan after Western models and specifications. Decorated with gold lacquer on a black lacquered ground, and inlaid with small pieces of pearlshell, this type is called namban, lacquer ordered for the 'Western outsiders'.
When the Dutch East India Company (VOC) entered the Asian scene shortly after 1600, competing with the Portuguese, several trade offices were set-up all over Asia, including Japan. Namban lacquer became one of the trade commodities of the Company but did not sell very well in the Netherlands. Only when a new, more Japanese style of decoration was introduced around 1630, without the pearlshell and with depictions in goldlacquer of landscapes, animals, figures and Japanese architecture, an interest developed in the West. The Dutch made good profits with this exotic Japanese lacquer at their auctions in Amsterdam and Zeeland. This was not only because lacquer from Japan was generally acclaimed as the best quality available in Asia, but also because the Dutch had a monopoly on the trade with Japan and were the only Westerners allowed in that country, with a base on the artificial island of Deshima in the Bay of Nagasaki. Besides buying exclusive lacquered boxes, dishes, bowls etc. of Japanese shape and decoration, the VOC also ordered lacquer with Western shapes from the lacquer workers in Nagasaki and Kyoto,
such as square cabinets with drawers behind two doors, coffers with a curved lid, chests with a flat top and even chairs and tables. At the end of the seventeenth century this lucrative trade slowly came to an end. Not because the interest in Japanese lacquer waned in the West, but because ordering the large and luxurious pieces of furniture became so expensive that the profits did not match the costs any more. After c. 1700 large cabinets - the most popular type of furniture - were no longer ordered by the Dutch East India Company, and private merchants employed by the Company in Japan rarely could afford the price if they wanted to order such pieces themselves. The VOC ceased buying lacquer completely, but private interest shifted to smaller objects, mainly boxes, plates and dishes, pipe cases and cutlery holders. In the early eighteenth century, Japanese lacquer had become a minor export commodity.
At this stage China comes into the picture. By the end of the seventeenth century drinking tea had rapidly become a fashion in Western Europe and enormous quantities of the dried leaves were needed. At that time, tea only grew in China; thus Europeans came to the Celestial Empire to buy fresh black and green tea in Canton (modern Guangzhou), the main trade centre in the south, situated on the Pearl River in Guangdong province. The French and the English organised a regular China trade from 1700 onward; the VOC joined in 1728. Apart from tea, the Companies also bought silk thread and silk garments, porcelain, and all sorts of objects that now are ranged under the label 'Chinese export art'. This included ivories, fans, soapstone figures, dolls, and - in the second half of the century - paintings and gouaches. Lacquer, too, was in demand. Mostly such export art was bought as souvenirs or private trade goods; the European trade companies dealt with it only sporadically. This Chinese lacquer usually comprised small objects, for instance shaving bowls, sewing boxes, tea caddies, trays, bowls, mirror frames etc. Much more rare, however, are large pieces of export lacquer such as tall cabinets with glass doors and drawers, cupboards, different kinds of tables, chairs, chests and writing desks. Such furniture, too, was ordered privately; for instance, the Chinese lacquered furniture bought by Danish captains of the Asiatic Company in the 1730s is well documented and partly is still preserved at the royal palace in Copenhagen. At the end of the eighteenth century the Americans, trading in Canton, bought a variety of lacquered furniture as well, some of which is documented, for instance pieces in the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem (Mass., USA).
This is a short summary of the historical context for the bureau or writing desk of Chinese lacquer presented here. It clearly is shaped after an English model of the same shape and dimensions, to be dated c. 1735-45. The lower part stands on a rectangular base, with four flat corner-feet, and is divided in four sections: below are two large drawers above each other, then there is a third section with two smaller drawers and on top a low drawer which is less wide. The upper part has a reclining fall-front which opens to function as a writing top, supported by two ledgers that can be pulled out. When lowered, it reveals a section with three reclining drawers on the left- and right-hand sides, separated by three compartments, each with a deep drawer below. These compartments are divided by two narrow panels, shaped as columns, that can be opened to the empty space behind. The top is flat; the drawers have shaped paktong handles.
The bureau is beautifully lacquered in shades of gold and partly with cinnabar red on a black lacquered ground. The five lower drawers, the outside of the fall-front, the flat top and the two sides show a river landscape with hills on the background, the rocky shores with houses, pavilions and trees. The large rock formations are detailed in low relief with cinnabar red lacquer, which gives the scenes a dramatic effect and certainly adds to the visual complexity of the landscapes.
The landscapes on the drawers are surrounded by narrow bands with a zig-zag pattern in gold; the fall front and the sides have bands with a continuing leaf- and flowerhead (or fruit) spray while the flat top has a narrow decorative band of a twisted cord.
The composing parts behind the fall front, the back of that flap and the three sides of the base are decorated with sprays of different plants and flowers, including bamboo, orchids, prunus and arrow-head, rendered as separate motifs in gold lacquer scattered over the surface. The back of the bureau is lacquered black, without any decoration - it clearly was meant to be placed against the wall.
Apart from the fact that large pieces of Chinese lacquered furniture from this period are rare, the lacquered decoration of the bureau has some interesting features. First of all, the lavish use of cinnabar lacquer is very unusual, because this substance was expensive and was mostly used for smaller objects, mainly boxes or dishes for the domestic Chinese market. It is quite rare to see it on a piece of export lacquer.
Even more interesting are the stylistic features that are borrowed directly from decorations on Japanese lacquer, namely the zig-zag motif in the bordering bands of the lower drawers and the scattered flower motifs in gold. It is not difficult to point to many Japanese examples with such decorative motifs and therefore the question rises if this bureau is not only imitating an English model, but also tries to give a 'Japanese' impression.
As said before, Japanese lacquer was widely regarded in the West as the top in Asian lacquer, but large lacquered furniture in Western style was not produced any more in Japan. By embellishing the bureau with decorative elements in Japanese style, the intention might have been to enhance its quality and status. Supporting this theory is the surprising find of the Chinese character wa, written in black ink on the back of each drawer. Wa means 'harmony', but can also mean 'Japan'. Was this a deliberate suggestion to be read as 'made in Japan' ? Is this an attempt to produce a Chinese 'Japonism' ?
The bureau, restored to its former glory, thus exemplifies an as yet unknown aspect of the history of eighteenth-century Chinese export lacquer and hopefully triggers further research in this fascinating field.
Carl L. Crossman, The Decorative Arts of the China Trade. Paintings, Furnishings and Exotic Curiosities, Woodbridge 1991
O.R. Impey & Christiaan Jörg, Japanese Exportr Lacquer 1580-1850, Amsterdam 2005
Treasures of Imperial China. The Forbidden City and the Danish Court, exhibition catalogue Christiansborg Palace, Copenhagen 2006