The application with a brush of a European-imitation of Asian lacquerwork, made using traditional materials such as shellac.
|Historic area of significance|
|Area currently practised|
|Origin in the UK||16th century|
|Minimum no. of craftspeople required|
|Current no. of trainees|
|Current no. of skilled craftspeople|
|Current total no. of craftspeople|
There is much confusion surrounding the terms ‘japanning’ and ‘lacquerwork’:
Japanning: A European imitation of Asian lacquerwork, using traditional materials such as shellac, and applied with a brush.
Lacquerwork: An Asian lacquer made from the sap of the lacquer tree (urushi).
Lacquerwork: A modern coating often made of volatile organic compounds or acrylic compounds, such as melamime, and applied with a spray.
Japanning was developed in Europe in the 16th century to imitate Asian lacquer made from the sap of the lacquer tree (urushi). At this time, ‘Chinoiserie’ was a popular style for interior decoration. Many books and treatises were written on japanning in the 17th century, and are still the best form of reference today.
Today, nobody makes their living as a japanner. It exists primarily as a conservation craft, with hardly anyone/no one producing japanning in the traditional way, and it is mostly conservators who have access to the skills of traditional japanning. While many furniture companies do produce ‘lacquerwork’ items, these are spray-applied modern lacquers and not urushi or japanning.
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
Today, japanning exists primarily as a conservation craft – it so extremely rare to make it for new items so it is taught from a conservation/restoration approach (i.e. as part of the City and Guilds three-year Conservation degree course).
Skills transmission: The skills of japanning are seriously at risk as few people are passing on their skills. While the 17th-century treatises do still exist, you need to of have an understanding of japanning in order to interpret them.
Skills transmission/time intensive: West Dean runs postgraduate and adult short courses which give people a basic understanding of the craft – but you can’t teach how to do all the layers on a three-day course.
Cost/time intensive: Japanning is extremely time consuming and nobody wants to pay for the hours (so if an alternative, spray-on material is available then people will go for that).
Changing tastes: Chinoiserie goes in fifty-year cycles.
Craftspeople currently known
A list of conservators with japanning skills can be found on the Conservation Register maintained by the Institute of Conservation.