Before I describe these unique and beautiful works of art, exclusively Japanese, I feel that you need to know more about lacquer, the extraordinary medium that was used. Only then will you fully appreciate these brilliant creations.
For readers who are unfamiliar with old Japanese lacquer, I suspect you will be thinking of the typical modern lacquer trays and bowls that are mass-produced. These items are very decorative, but completely fail to compare with the magnificent earlier hand made works.
From China to Japan
Lacquer is really the sap from a tree known as ‘Rhus Vernicifera’. The Chinese were the first to discover and use it, at least a century before Christ, when it was used as a paint, and more often as a preservative. It was a very effective preservative, as many pieces still exist from as far back as the Han period 206BC, when lacquer was very popular and in extensive use.
The earliest known Japanese lacquer dates back to about the 7th Century, but it was not until the 14th and 15th century that the Japanese lacquer works became so much more decorative. By then they had refined and created exceptional techniques, far finer and more beautiful than the Chinese lacquer that they had simply originally copied.
The Chinese had used shades of black, brown, yellow, green, and mostly red or cinnabar Lacquer. They mainly favoured deep carving of the Lacquer, to form the decoration, and produced some outstanding work.
They often applied the colours in layers, so that once carved, these colours would be revealed. One particular technique is known as ‘Guri’ lacquer: the colours mostly red and black were built up in layers, and then a geometric or symmetrical pattern would be carved with a deep `V’ shaped cut, so that all these alternating layers would be revealed within the cuts. The Chinese also painted, incised and inlaid lacquer with iridescent pieces of shell, but these works were treasured by the Japanese often more so, than by the Chinese.
To begin with all these methods were copied, but by about the 15th century the Japanese had become, justifiably, the unrivalled masters of the art!
Lacquer was, quite rightly, highly valued for its lasting qualities and strength. A very high gloss could be achieved, proving impervious to alcohol, acids and hot liquids. It would also have appealed to the Zen Buddhism ideals of ‘Yin and Yang’, as Lacquer appears to be so delicately beautiful and light in weight. Yet, it is hard, impermeable and enduring.
It is a very difficult medium to work with, uncompromising, sticky, and time consuming. It had to be strained to remove any impurities, and gently heated to thicken, and evaporate any moisture content. All the time it had to be kept in a dust free environment, and added to these difficulties, in its liquid form it gives off a poisonous gas! Strangely, it requires a damp humid atmosphere for it to harden.
It had to be applied in very thin layers, otherwise it runs, and if too thick, will not harden at all but will just form a skin. After each layer had hardened, all the time in a dust free area, it was carefully rubbed down before another layer would be added.
An average piece consisted of a minimum of 30 layers, in order that there would not be a trace of the wood base, or on larger pieces the hemp cloth applied in the early layers, to help strengthen the wood. The lacquer artist would have taken over, only at this stage, to create the decoration by the addition of yet even more layers.
The number of colours possible, due to chemical reactions with pigments and the composition of lacquer were limited. So lacquer artists were still restricted and blue was a very rare colour.
It was the Japanese that developed the idea and the techniques of adding gold and silver to liven up the decoration. Real gold and silver metals were used in the form of foil, flakes, metal particles of various grades, as well as powders. All of these precious metals were brilliantly used to great advantage, particularly in the late 18th and early 19th century.
The sprinkling of gold or silver metal particles had been used before and over a very long period, to brighten up the interiors. Even very early Lacquer works have ‘Nashiji’ inside. This is where fine particles of gold have simply been sprinkled in to the lacquer. Some were scattered unevenly, producing cloud effects, whilst others varied in the density. However no pictures were formed.
Sprinkled, Not Painted!
In the 18th century they invented and refined the idea of sprinkled pictures, and these were used to great effect in what are known as ‘Togadashi’ pieces. They are easily identified, as the surface of the lacquer is always perfectly smooth in togadashi work.
These designs and amazing pictures were created purely, by very skilfully pouring various grades of fine metal and pigment powders on to the wet lacquer, so that they would sink in. There was no way of correcting any errors! Extra layers of the background colour, normally black, would be added over the picture. Then by carefully polishing down until the picture reappears, the top edges of the metal particles would be made to glisten from the polish, providing brilliance impossible to achieve any other way. The last very thin coats would be of the purest clear lacquer, providing the mirror like high gloss finish.
Various shades of black were created, by charcoal mixed with different quantities of silver powder, so that they could even simulate painted brush strokes. These powders were mainly used for black pictures on a gold background, that one would never imagine were created by sprinkling techniques. What is also quite remarkable, is the very fine degree of control in shading that they were able to achieve. This meant that far more sophisticated pictures could be created, than had ever been seen before.
There are three types of sprinkled picture techniques in all and Togadashi, already described, is my favourite! Another is ‘Hiramakie’, which is where quite a thickly sprinkled gold powder is used, and the lacquer is raised just a little above the background. As usual the surface is polished and burnished, before the final clear layers, and has a very rich appearance. Lastly, there is ‘Takamakie’, which is again similar to Hiramakie, only it is in much higher relief. This thickness was achieved by building up and modelling the areas required in relief, with a combination of Lacquer and charcoal, before applying the gold powder layers.
Highlights of Pure Gold
Many Lacquer artists made use of a combination of these techniques in a piece of work. Just to further enrich these pictures, finely shaped tiny pieces of pure gold, so small that it is hard to imagine how they were handled, are individually applied near the final surface to create highlights. Frequently these are exactly matched shapes, tiny squares or diamond pieces that are all so amazingly very accurately placed.
One of our favourite examples of this type of work in this collection is a fine Box that appears as two overlapping boxes. One shows the figure of the swordsmith forging the sword ‘Little Fox’, assisted by the Fox Spirit in the guise of a woman; the other has an overall design of a mass of gold and coloured flowers.
Looking closely at the gold centres of the flowers one can see how these consist of a number of very tiny shaped flakes of gold; each flake has been carefully placed by hand.
It also has a marvellous fitted tray just in gold togadashi of three foxes running in a landscape with a really dream like quality. The border of the tray is decorated in ‘Gyobu’, which is where each individual flake of gold has also been positioned by hand, rather than sprinkled.
Another wonderful Box that is purely, fine togadashi, depicts a busy street market scene, and what more can I say, other than it is an outstanding piece of work!
Neither of these boxes is signed, but they are nevertheless, of the finest quality. To see the photographs please use the link at the end of this article. These wonderful lacquer works feature on Japanese inro too (the subject of another article).
A word of warning when buying lacquer, it is important that the condition is both good and original. As there are now some cleverly repaired pieces on the market, expert advice should always be obtained.
Fine lacquer is made even today, and there are certain living traditional lacquer artists who are held in very high esteem in Japan. So much so, that some have been designated as ‘Living National Treasures’, and their contemporary hand made Lacquer work is in high demand and extremely expensive.
I have seen an example, at a Lacquer study weekend held at the V & A museum. A remarkable modern box that combined thick clear Perspex with black Lacquer in a geometric design that really was very dramatic. Personally I still prefer the earlier works and for the cost of this modern box a very good collection could be formed!