Lacquer, which is the refined sap of the Rhus Verniciflua tree, has been used in Japan since at least the sixth century AD. When filtered and concentrated by evaporation it can be used as an extremely durable and highly protective coating for virtually any carefully prepared item fashioned from wood, metal, paper or other material.
Its resistance to liquids, acids, heat and the cold coupled with its ability to be coloured and polished to a high gloss finish made it absolutely ideal for the production of an immense number of everyday Japanese domestic wares. These range from a multitude of boxes and other containers, bowls, stands etc through to large items of furniture, armour, armour boxes, palanquins, coffers and the like. In fact virtually anything found inside or outside the traditional Japanese home – be it a simple rural dwelling or the magnificent palace of a Daimyo.
Being in everyday use lacquer work provides an opportunity for the Japanese to express and enjoy their exquisite and poignant artistic taste and also for the lacquer artist to display his remarkable skill. There are a great many varied techniques used in the making of these works of art but it is not my intention to go into these in great detail as many reference works are available on this topic. However the basic processes and principles are the same and give an understanding of the time it takes to produce even a small treasure.
Lacquer usually coloured either black (from iron) or red (from mercury or iron) is painted or spread onto the craftsman made object whatever it may be, and allowed to dry. This process is repeated many times slowly building up a thicker stronger coating which can be polished to a gloss finish if desired. Often clay or other bulking agent is used which greatly thickens the lacquer allowing areas within the design to be built up resulting in a raised effect. This is frequently used to give depth and perspective in landscape designs where hills, trees, valleys, buildings, clouds etc can be given a subtle three dimensional appearance. Whatever the chosen design, it is then applied to the lacquer base by painting, spreading or sprinkling metal powders, usually gold of varying colour or silver, in a dazzling array of techniques.
Further decorative enhancements include the use mixed metal inlays often made by sword fitting artists and may depict the mounted warrior on horseback or the weary traveller in a lacquer landscape or perhaps an insect on foliage. Also various iridescent shells of remarkably vibrant colours can be incorporated into any design whether it be a formal brocade pattern, the wings of a magnificent butterfly or individually highlighted flowers. The shells used include the electric blue and pink of abalone and the yellows, purples, bronzes and blacks of mother of pearl, all readily available in Japan. Often these shell inlays sit precisely flush with the polished lacquer surface – another example of remarkable skill.
From an artistic evolution perspective it is surprising to find that designs remained fairly uniform over the last 400 years or so, largely falling into three categories. The first is the outright utility item with little or no decoration and aimed at a mass domestic market. The second is a more formal design comprising noble family “mon” or crests in gold with scrolling foliage on a black or gold ground. These often came in very large matching sets of wonderful domestic utensils. The third is where the artist has been free to depict the many beautiful scenic or natural subjects that appeal to the refined (and wealthy) Japanese client. Very often legends, poetry, tragedy and poignancy are alluded to in a variety of subtle designs.
It was only in the Meiji period that a few artists, most notably Shibata Zeshin and his pupils brought a more radical and innovative approach to the subject matter found on lacquerwares. The scarce products from the studios of these masters are nowadays very highly prized and command substantial prices
Lacquerware can be found in a huge array of objects, designs and qualities and, being one of the most ancient and commonly used Japanese art forms, it presents the connoisseur with a very wide scope for collecting.
Interestingly many of the very finest pieces are of a modest size, for example inro, writing (and other) boxes, tea containers etc. These sumptuously decorated works of art with lavish use of pure gold and beautiful artistry have been admired in Japan for centuries yet have still to be fully appreciated by the western world. This is remarkably surprising given the immense demand for other Japanese art forms.
Naturally quality varies dramatically from the very finest of pieces destined for the elite of Japanese society through to lower qualities aimed at more of a mass domestic market.
The ideal way to judge quality is to understand what the best pieces look like. Look at the staggering detail and artistry. The tranquillity or poignancy portrayed in a landscape, the beauty and delicacy in a subject taken from nature and the artistry captured in the designs and subjects.
As always the best way to judge quality is to handle as much material as possible, visit museums, sales and exhibitions and study any reference books that are available.
Condition and Damage
Lacquer itself is highly durable but the items that it is applied to are often very susceptible to damage. Anything with wood used as its base is obviously prone to impact damage or sometimes warping and splitting due to extremes of heat. The most frequently encountered damage is corner splitting on boxes and their lids. Also if cleaned and polished in an over zealous manner the gold or other designs can become worn.
There are artisans in Japan that can successfully repair and restore damaged lacquer often back to its original perfect condition. However the process is time consuming and expensive and is really only viable on the very finest work.
Accepting damage and restoration is a matter of personal choice, however I would suggest that there is a sufficient volume of high quality items available that enables the collector to concentrate on perfect or near perfect examples. Slight age wear is almost inevitable on older pieces but examples from the Meiji period can be found in truly mint condition.
Perfect pieces will always be more desirable and will command higher prices. However some minor damage on a masterpiece by Zeshin for instance may be perfectly tolerable whereas the same damage on a lesser piece would render it undesirable. It is all a question of degree of damage balanced against the quality, rarity and value of a given work, and in the end only the collector can decide what is acceptable.
General advice is to buy from reliable trustworthy sources who will stand by all attributions, signatures and condition reports until such time as the collector is totally confident in his own judgement and knowledge. A lasting relationship with a trusted dealer can prove invaluable in sourcing these increasingly rare objects,
It is a certainty that any signed piece will be far more desirable than the same piece unsigned. However the majority of older lacquerware is unsigned although of course there are exceptions to this, the main one being inro which frequently carry the artists signature. Also pieces from the more notable Meiji artists, again a good example is Zeshin and his pupils, can be found signed.
There is a well-known saying “something is worth what someone will pay” – and in truth that applies perfectly to these wonderful lacquer works.
Certainly works by top artists and studios such as those mentioned were rare and very expensive when they were made! The same applies now. These masterpieces represent the most coveted outputs of this art form and are sought by wealthy collectors world-wide. They therefore command very high prices.
However as explained at the top of this section, in my opinion, there are very many exceptionally high quality works that represent staggering value for money.
As already mentioned, damage has a very dramatic effect on value. Damage on a superb masterpiece can bring the piece within the collecting range of many and may even make it a useful study item …again it is a matter of personal choice.
It is my contention however that a few better things are always preferable to a high volume of lesser items!