The application with a brush of a European-imitation of Asian lacquerwork, made using traditional materials such as shellac.
This craft uses products derived from animals – please read our ethical sourcing statement.
|Historic area of significance||India, China, Japan|
|Area currently practised||London|
|Origin in the UK||16th century|
|Current no. of professionals (main income)||1-5|
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
|Current no. of trainees||1-5|
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
|Minimum no. of craftspeople required|
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.
Japanning technique involves preparing a board with up to 25-30 layers of European lacquer to create a mirrored black surface to then gild images upon. The gilded gold/silver leaf silhouettes are subsequently built up with layers of shade and line before being finished with layers of shellac.
- Penwork (white lacquer) – similar in the way it is lacquered but with a different mixture of pigment and the image is drawn instead of gilded.
- Coromandel – a similar technique to japanning where a board is built up with layers of gesso and subsequently lacquered but instead of building images with gold leaf and powders, images are carved into the lacquer.
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 & 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 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.
- The Institute of Conservation
- City & Guilds of London Art School
- Worshipful company of Painters and Stainers
- Cockpit Arts
Craftspeople currently known
A list of conservators with japanning skills can be found on the Conservation Register maintained by the Institute of Conservation.
- Alexander Schouvaloff, conservator, maker and teacher of japanning. A former City & Guilds of London Art student as well as protegé of Margaret Ballardie.
- Kirsten Walsh, conservator and maker
- Bella Chipperfield, maker
- Nancy Wilden, conservator
- Hugi Hicyilmaz, Conservator
- Pedro da Costa Felgueiras, specialist practitioner in Oriental and European lacquer and historic paint techniques
- Tuesday Riddell – Alumna of City & Guilds of London Art School BA Fine Art and former Decorative Surfaces Fellow, is a fine artist using japanning and japanning techniques in her work.
- Polly Bennett – Alumna of City & Guilds of London Art School BA Fine Art and former Decorative Surfaces Fellow, is a multidisciplinary artist and craftsperson using japanning techniques.
Margaret Ballardie, Head of the Restoration Diploma Course at the City and Guilds of London Art School, sadly passed away in 2017. Margaret did much to promote the skill of japanning in the UK.