The Economic Botany Collections at Kew house an impressive collection of Japanese lacquerware, illustrating each stage in the production of these meticulously crafted and beautiful objects, from cultivating the trees to applying the finishing polish. Lacquer is the sap derived from the tree species Rhus verniciflua, commonly called the ‘varnish tree.’ The tree, found in both China and Japan, is a member of the Anacardiaceae family, whose other members include the cashew, mango, and pistachio.
In the mid 19th century, Japanese trade networks with the West opened and interest in ‘all things Japanese’ exploded. Lacquerware was just one example of the western demand for Oriental art. John James Quin, a British diplomat living in Japan, was commissioned by the new Museum of Economic Botany at Kew to gather a collection of the materials used and objects produced in the lacquer industry. By 1882, Quin’s collection was complete, with nearly 200 objects demonstrating every phase of lacquer-making.
The Collections include a fine range of lacquerware items, such as rice and sweet meat bowls, paper trays, carved boxes, and sword sheaths. Some styles include Nambu, Tsui koko, Tokio, Chinkinbori, and Guri. The objects illustrate the diverse decoration used by lacquerers, including traditional red and black design, gold and silver dusting, watered silk patterns or sharkskin textures, and inlaid material such as ivory or antler. The Collections contain sample boards as well, used to illustrate the process of lacquering from start to finish.
Quin also brought to Kew examples of the tools necessary for lacquerware production. Craftsmen used brushes of human hair and spatulas of cypress for applying the lacquer in layers numbering anywhere between 8 and 36. For more delicate work, such as tracing the gold lines of a design, they used fine rat- and mouse-hair brushes. Rat body-hairs were used for common brushes, reserving the long side hairs of the rodent for the finest detail. Rats and mice fed on rice flour were prized for the best quality hair for these brushes.
The exquisite collection of Japanese lacquerware at Kew paints a unique picture of the craftsman’s workshop at the end of the 19th century and earlier. It provides us with an invaluable opportunity to compare the craft today with that of yesterday and it gives researchers an archive of materials that can be studied to reveal age, quality, and origin.
For further information on Japanese Lacquerware check out A lacquer legacy at Kew: the Japanese collection of John J. Quin.
The Economic Botany Collections also contain fine examples of lacquerware from South and Southeast Asia.