It’s all very well, rushing around town as I do to discover new and sometimes fleeting exhibitions, but it occurred to me recently that all this activity has led me to overlook the treasures that reside in the permanent collections of the museums and galleries that make London such a wonderful place to be. So I’ve decided to do an occasional series focusing on the objects you can see for free anytime you want – starting with the Japan gallery at the Victoria and Albert Museum and its fabulous collection of lacquer.
I have actually written about lacquer at the V&A before – but that was about the story of lacquerwork explained in the new furniture gallery. The collection in room 45, which is where you’ll find the Japanese artefacts (conveniently close to the V&A’s main entrance and even more convenient for the shop) contains a wonderful range of beautiful objects. There’s a lot more than just lacquer, of course, but lacquer deserves a post all of its own.
A quick reminder – lacquer is made by applying layer after layer of urushiol (the sap of the lacquer tree), generally to a wood-base. It is then decorated, often by the maki-e technique of applying gold or other metallic powders to the wet lacquer and polishing when dry. Time consuming and difficult – but that’s what makes it so beautiful.
A lot of what is on display is boxes for writing utensils – their flat lids provided a convenient space for lacquer designs. On this one the grain of the wood has been exaggerated to set off the lacquer and shell spring plants.
This red lacquer box dates from 1626.
But there are also cabinets, some with drawers, like my favourite, the cabinet decorated with hens and cockerels (detail shown at the top of this post.) from around 1900.
Although this box is Chinese in style, it is in fact Japanese and is dated 1877.
This box for the shell game dates from 1800.
This 1870 cabinet apparently shows cranes and long-haired tortoises. I’ve tried zooming in on the photo but the tortoises are hard to spot. Must be all that long hair.
You can see the back view of this cabinet earlier in this post.
This ivory-framed screen decorated with a hawk on a stand is made of gold lacquer, shell and coral in the Shibayama family style.
This vase has an ivory bugaku butterfly dancer on the lid. It was made around 1890-1910, a period when the adoption of western dress made netsuke, which were toggles worn with kimonos, obsolete, so netsuke makers were looking for ways to diversify.
I’ve saved the best until last – the Mazarin Chest, described as ‘ the single most important Japanese item in the V&A’ on the explanatory card. Why? Because it’s ‘one of the single largest intact examples of extremely high quality lacquer objects made in Japan for the European market between the 1630’s and the early 1640’s.’
It’s recently been the subject of a joint conservation project between Britain and Japan. It’s made of black-lacquered wood decorated with landscape scenes from the Tale of Genji and the Tale of the Soga Brothers.
The Victoria and Albert Museum is open every day 10 am to 17.45 pm, 10 am to 10 pm on Fridays. It’s free to everyone to visit as often as they like.