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No lacquer style here; antiques fair With Christopher Proudlove These charming objects demonstrate the art of Chinese craftsmen at their pinnacle.

VISIT any antiques fair this weekend and I'll wager you'll find at least one example of Chinese lacquer. It comes in all shapes and sizes from vases and figurines to boxes with a myriad of uses for holding everything from playing cards to ladies' gloves. Most will date from early 20th century (if they're real).

What you won't find is a piece of lacquer like this extraordinary 600-year-old and extremely large dish. It measured 44.5cm in diameter - about a foot and half in old money.

When it changed hands in 1972, it sold for PS1,600. Offered again at Sotheby's in London a couple of weeks ago (May 10) it achieved a staggering PS1,568,750.

Not a bad return, but it was exceedingly special, representing one of the finest examples from the period when lacquer carving in China was at its absolute peak.

Only two other comparable examples are known to exist, one in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, the other in a private Japanese collection.

Apart from its age and the complexity of its tightly interwoven floral decoration, the dish is all the more remarkable for the time-consuming process involved in producing it, even before the carving could commence.

It involved preparing and adding later after layer of thin coatings of lacquer to a wooden base, each of which needed to dry before it could be polished so the next one could be applied. It could take years to complete, Lacquer ware produced during the late Yuan (1279-1368) to the early Ming dynasty (1368-1644) is infinitely more rare than porcelain from the same period, simply because of this laborious manufacturing process.

Many individually skilled craftsmen were needed to create a single piece. One would make the wooden base.

Others specialised respectively in processing the lacquer, applying it and polishing it, while the carving was highly specialised and equally time consuming.

Lacquer is made from the sap of a tree found only in China that goes by the impressive name of Rhus verniciflua.

It is collected and refined in much the same way as sap from the rubber tree, but the similarity ends there. After refining, it becomes a transparent liquid that hardens when exposed to the air.

The Chinese discovered more than 1,000 years ago that it had a remarkable preservative effect on anything to which it was applied.

A natural plastic, when layer after layer of it was painted on the hull of a boat, the vessel was rendered waterproof. Lacquer is also resistant to acid corrosion, rust and insect attack.

It could also be coloured by the addition of carbon producing black; orpiment (arsenic sulphide) for yellow and cinnabar (mercury sulphide) the distinctive brick red, which quickly became preferred for carved pieces like Sotheby's dish.

This dish at When lacquer was applied in successive coats to a piece of furniture, it glowed with a brilliant, glossy sheen that no other type of varnish or polish could match. Hence antique collectors' interest in lacquer.

So it was in the 17th century when trade between East and West was in its infancy.

Europeans had never seen anything quite like this mirror-like finish to furniture and examples of the technique were high on the shopping list of visitors.

In fact, it was admired so much that Dutch East India Company vessels were contracted to deliver furniture purchased in England to China where it was treated by the craftsmen who knew the secrets and then returned to its eager owners.

covers with It was an expensive business. In addition to the cost of this round trip sea voyage, the lacquering process was long and involved.

After careful priming and rubbing down to perfect smoothness, the wood was covered with silk or hemp that had been soaked in the lacquer paste.

The lacquer was then built up with coat after coat, laid thinly and allowed to dry for days in a moist but cool, temperature-controlled environment and then rubbed down again between each application.

A piece could require as many as 100 coats before the required thickness was achieved, the final coat being polished to a the mirror finish using pumice.

Then it was ready for decoration. A great number of decorative techniques involved intricate hand-carving and incising, inlays of mother of pearl, ivory, semi-precious stones, jade, coral, even gold and silver and freehand painting depicting traditional scenes such as landscapes, flowers and animals, usually on a black base.

In some rare examples the wooden carcass was removed before final decoration, leaving the object with lacquer walls of at least half an inch thick attached to the initial cloth layer. Pieces like this are extremely strong but incredibly light.

Chinese lacquer was considered the height of chic in English country houses of the late 17th century, but imitation soon followed.

Japan's craftsmen made lacquer ware of a quality broadly comparable to that of their Chinese cousins and proved to be strong competitors for the rich export market.

English cabinetmakers experimented with a number of different substances, coming nearest using shellac, a substance produced by the lac insect found in India and South East Asia.

They called their efforts japanning (with a small j). In 1688, two of their number, John Stalker and George Parker produced a DIY manual entitled A Treatise on Japanning and Varnishing and gave a course of lessons on the technique, apparently particularly popular with the ladies, for a fee of 40 shillings.

Naturally enough, results were mixed. However, this country's professional japanners produced some stunning work that is now at least as highly valued as the finest quality oriental lacquer ware.

English japanned furniture is usually based on colours more suited to Western tastes: scarlet, green, blue, yellow and cream grounds, rather than the black and reddish brown favoured by oriental craftsmen.

In the 18th century, when Japan's trade with the West took off, lacquer screens were a hugely popular export line, as were chests and small boxes with inset lacquer panels.

Small carved objects such as bowls, plaques and even jewellery made from cinnabar lacquer are among the most common objects you'll find.

Beware modern copies though.

Factories are churning out moulded plastic or resin copies by the million.


Chinese cinnabar lacquer lobed vases and covers with gilt copper mounts, the bodies carved with figures and pavilions. Sold for PS1,200 Photo: Peter Wilson, Nantwich

Left: 19th-century Chinese gilt decorated black lacquer writing slope, decorated with figures in a pavilion landscape, and mythological creatures. PS290. Photo: The Canterbury Auction Galleries

Cinnabar lacquer globular box and cover with copper mounts, carved with flowers. PS80. Photo: Peter Wilson, Nantwich

Early 20thcentury lady's red japanned kneehole dressing table in the Georgian manner, decorated in gilt with chinoiseries. PS380. Photo: The Canterbury Auction Galleries

This monumental cinnabar lacquer dish sold for PS1.6m at Sotheby's
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:May 25, 2017

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