I’m not usually quick off the mark, so left to myself I probably wouldn’t have got around to the new Dr Susan Weber Furniture Gallery at the Victoria and Albert Museum before the spring, but Yannick rushed off to see it virtually as soon as it opened so I tagged along. And found it much more interesting than I expected.
Why was that then? Well, it’s not laid out the way you would expect, starting with stuff from the olden days and working up to the present. Instead, it’s arranged by method of construction, so at first it feels as though it’s leaping around all over the place, until you get the hang of it – and then it’s really interesting. And of course the bit that interested me most was the bit on lacquer and japanning.
Lacquer comes from the sap of the tree Toxicodendron vernicifluum and is built up in layers on a base of wood. Each layer has to be cured in a warm, humid atmosphere before the next is applied. It’s time consuming work but the more layers there are the more lustrous the lacquer. It can be decorated using metal foil, metal powder and other stuff. Like this ornate shelved cabinet, made in Japan in about 1850 where gold powders were sprinkled onto wet lacquer as the layers were built up.
People wanted lacquer but it had to be transported all the way from the Far East. Beautiful but so expensive. What to do? Learn to make it in Europe, that’s what. So along comes japanning – furniture made using the same techniques but in Europe. Like this bureau-cabinet from about 1735 with a coloured alcohol varnish based on plant resin.
Or this French tea chest, made with Vernis Martin, named after the Martin brothers who developed it in the 1730’s. It uses plant resins suspended in drying oil.
Or you could have the best of both worlds – this hall chair from about 1725 is made from panels lacquered in China, sent over in a flat pack like something from Ikea and then assembled in England on a frame japanned black to match.
This mirror from 1680 re-uses lacquer veneer panels from a Chinese screen. It’s ‘cut colour’ where the design is cut into a dark base made from pig’s blood and brick dust and then lacquered.
Stove Japanning was even cheaper. This involved thin panels made from compressed papier mache which were japanned with stove-dried varnish. They could then be glued onto something more solid as a veneer. Like this corner cupboard from about 1780.
But what really caught my attention was the little section devoted to Eileen Gray. I love Eileen Gray. (Yes, it’s Gray, not Grey – I was surprised too). She was an Irish designer who worked mainly in the nineteen-twenties, first in the Art Deco style and then as a pioneer of Modernism. She spent most of her life in Paris where, in 1906, she met Seizo Sugawara, a Japanese lacquer master, and became his student.
She set up a special workshop for furniture and lacquer and didn’t always follow Japanese traditions – she used flat, glossy surfaces instead of the subtly variegated effects of Japanese lacquer.
You can still buy Eileen Gray’s furniture at the Aram Store which holds the worldwide licence for her designs. I sometimes pop in to their shop on Drury Lane and admire her lacquer pieces. Like this lacquered Petite Coiffeuse – currently a snip at £3,801 (normally £4472) in the sale:
This Rivoli table, currently £1756 (normally £2066).
This little round side table at £774:
Or this red lacquer screen £3114:
Sadly, at those prices, admiring is the closest I’ll get.
By the way, I bet you’re wondering about the photo at the top of the page. It’s a lacquer coffer inlaid with mother-of-pearl, made in Kyoto between 1590 and 1610. The stand is English, made of wood with painted or Japanned decoration. I could find a little corner for it if the V&A ever finds it surplus to requirements, couldn’t you?