Japanese Art – Lacquer Wares

The application of lacquer for useful objects has a long history in Japan. Even proto-historic pottery was coated with lacquer. In the 8th century lacquer was used for various useful objects of artistic merit. The swords, musical instruments and bronze mirrors, preserved in the Shosa-in treasury at Nara, are highly important examples of gold lacquer work developed in the 8th century. In these objects the foundation grounds are made of lacquer and incrusted with lovely designs cut out of silver and gold plate. Fig. 45 shows an example of the picturesque design given at the head of a psaltery.

In the succeeding periods, the technique greatly developed, and highly-decorative gold lacquer boxes, desks and various utensils were produced by different processes. Some are flat and others raised, otherwise, inlaid with metals or mother-of-pearl. The different shades of gold are also produced on the lacquered ground by sprinkling different qualities of gold-dust. In Fig. 46 is shown a gold lacquer box owned by the Tokyo Imperial Household Museum. Its design is attributed to Karin who flourished in the late 17th century as a painter of decorative pictures. The design is composed of iris and Yatsuhashi bridge on a black lacquer ground. The iris is represented in gold lacquer and mother-of-pearl, and the bridge is made of lead plates.

Japanese gold lacquer is famous for its beauty and durability, which are the result of technical skill and pains-taking processes required in its manufacture.

The body of lacquer ware is usually made of well seasoned wood. The joints are cut slightly hollow and filled with a mixture of cut hemp and glue to prevent any deformation from the joint parts. Then the whole surface is coated with pure lacquer. After this, a coating of lacquer mixed with wheat flour is given and then a linen cloth is laid over it, and the utmost care is taken to stretch it perfectly smooth. The whole surface is coated several times more with other layers of lacquer. Then coats are given in order to get a smooth ground surface. After this, the black lacquer is applied and the surface is polished repeatedly with charcoal in order to get a glossy black finish of ground-work. The gold lacquer design can now be applied to the ground surface. There are three different methods by which gold lacquer design is produced : flat gold lacquer, polished-out gold lacquer, and raised gold lacquer..

In producing a flat gold lacquer motif, the design required is drawn on paper and transferred by tracing its lines with lacquer on to the article ; then gold dust is sprinkled over the design so that the sticky lacquer will take it. After this, thin transparent lacquer is applied over the design. The article is then dried in an air-tight damp box because lacquer dries only in damp air. Then the surface of the design is polished with charcoal.

The present-day gold lacquer ware of artistic merit is produced mostly in Kyoto and Tokyo and usually in individual workshops.