The Radcliffe Red List of Endangered Crafts

 

Japanning

 

The application with a brush of a European-imitation of Asian lacquerwork, made using traditional materials such as shellac.

 

Status Endangered
Craft category Wood
Historic area of significance
Area currently practised
Origin in the UK 16th century
Current no. of professionals (main income)
Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
Current no. of trainees
Current total no. serious amateur makers
Current total no. of leisure makers
Minimum no. of craftspeople required

 

History

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.

 

Techniques

 

Local forms

 

Sub-crafts

 

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.

 

Support organisations

 

Craftspeople currently known

A list of conservators with japanning skills can be found on the Conservation Register maintained by the Institute of Conservation.

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.

 

Other information

 

References