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A taste for lacquer:
Lacquer from China and Japan immediately captured the European imagination from the moment it began to be imported into Europe at the beginning of the 17th century. As a material, lacquer had no equivalent in the West. Its gleaming surface was decorated with figures, flora and fauna with which Europeans could identify, yet their depiction was entirely novel: asymmetrical, stylised, exotic, showing no adherence to accepted rules of single point perspective. With bold, lively designs and rich colours, lacquer became eagerly sought after by collectors. Demand soon far outstripped supply; it was impossible to ship raw lacquer to Europe, so furniture makers had to evolve alternatives, using spirit varnishes. But however good, the imitations never totally succeeded in competing with the durability (resistance to acids, alkalis and hot water) or the surface and decorative qualities of true lacquer.
Urushi, or true lacquer, was in use in China by the 4th century BC, and introduced into Japan, where it was called namban, in the 3rd century BC. As a most desirable and exclusive material it was prized by Chinese collectors and much favoured at the Imperial court; by the 12th century AD it was highly sophisticated in the use of both shape and decoration. True lacquers were produced from the sap of the Rhus verniciflua, or sumach tree. The sap was tapped and purified; the resulting liquid could be left clear, or coloured using specific pigments. A ground wood was carefully prepared; layers of cloth were then applied to create a smooth base onto which coats of lacquer were gradually applied. These layers, perhaps 50 or more, required one to five days drying in a carefully controlled humid atmosphere between each application in order to 'set' the lacquer. Each layer, which could be of different colours, had to be rubbed down before the next coat was applied in a highly time-consuming operation. The finished surface was either left plain, carved, incised, inlaid with shell, sprinkled with gold dust or gilded. Lacquer exported by Europeans was taken by boat to staging posts on the Indian Coromandel Coast, and the term Coromandel became particularly associated with colourful incised lacquer.
Most lacquer arrived in Europe in the form of cabinets, boxes or folding screens. In the 17th century it was frequently cut up and remade into European shapes, chests, tables, mirror frames etc., often with complete disregard for the coherence of the design. Nor was it unusual for European furniture makers to augment the decoration if they felt there was too much empty space - the judicious addition of an insect or bird helped to make the designs entirely palatable to European taste. Imported lacquer continued to arrive in Europe throughout the 18th century and was incorporated into the fashionable furniture of the day. By carefully removing most of the ground wood from the back of the lacquer panels they could be used like veneer on the serpentine and bombé shapes so fashionable during the Rococo. In France, during the later 18th century the incorporation of bold, simple but striking designs of Japanese lacquer were much admired and exemplified in the work of the most eminent neo-classical ébénistes such as Saunier and Weisweiler.
The exotic appeal of lacquer and the fashion for Far Eastern styles flourished from the mid-19th century with increasing exposure to wares directly exported from China and Japan. The Empress Eugenie, establishing her Chinese Museum at Fontainebleau in 1863 and keen to recall the passion for lacquer of her predecessor Marie-Antoinette, decorated one wall with lacquer panels cut from two 18th century Chinese screens from the royal garde-meuble. Elsewhere, European manufacturers invested increasing energy into the search for satisfactory ways of imitating the beauties of true lacquer.