More on Western Techniques for an Eastern Look – Japanning and Tôleware
Japanning is a technique developed in Britain in the last quarter of the 17th century which aimed to imitate the much sought after oriental lacquer which was being imported from the East.
Lacquer is made from layers of tree resin which is allowed to harden and then polished. The drying and hardening process is temperature and humidity dependant and aside from the lack of appropriate resins in Britain the climate conditions are also not conducive to producing the material in the traditional way. When demand for lacquer started outstripping supply local materials and skills adapted to meet it.
Black Japan, which was among the most widely used traditional japanning materials, is a mixture of molten asphalt, natural-resin varnishes, drying oils, and turpentine and has a clear, brownish undertone. Overtime the constituents were refined and the process improved. Initially the most common base material was wood and the designs were very close to the originals which had inspired them. They consisted mostly of a black ground with gold decoration in a traditional Japanese style. Later the designs became more adventurous and natural colour paintings on a variety of ground colours, principally red, green and blue, became more popular. In the 18th century papier mache as a base material became more common as did tinplate. Mother of pearl as a decorative feature was also commonly used.
Almost anything could be japanned and products produced ranged from stage coaches, large pieces of furniture to snuff boxes and everything in between.
In Britain large scale production started in the West Midlands with Bilston in 1719. Production was well established by the late 18th century and Wolverhampton and Birmingham became prominent in the trade.
Japanned tinplate is known as tôleware, a term derived from the French name for such objects, tôle peinte. Tinplate sheets of iron or steel were dipped in molten tin or pewter and worked into a variety of domestic and decorative items, such as teapots, trays, urns, and candlesticks. The objects then were japanned with a varnish the composition of which differed from maker to maker and area to area.
Tôlewares were principally produced in Pontypool and Usk in England, Zeist and Hoorn in Holland, Paris, and, in the United States, Pennsylvania. Pontypool in the south of Wales was the first place in Britain to produce tinplate in the 1720s and from the 1770s became the leading centre for the production of japanned metal objects.
Do It Yourself
Amateur japanning became very popular and recipe books and guides were widely available from the late 17th century eg. John Stalker and George Parker’s, A Treatise of Japanning and Varnishing (1688) and Robert Dossie’s, The Handmaid to the Arts (1758). Japanning was considered to be a respectable female accomplishment of the upper and middle classes. This evolved in the 19th and 20th centuries into the handicraft of découpage. A small box or item of furniture is here covered with cutouts from magazines or from purpose-manufactured papers and each layer is sealed with varnishes. So many layers are applied that the result looks like painting or inlay work, this is then polished.
A Note on Chinese Goods for Export
Whether items made in the East for export can be termed as Chinoiserie is open to debate. Critically these were items which were designed with European taste in mind and so are symptomatic of the melding of styles which is such a feature of Western chinoiserie.
Chinese export porcelain tends to be generally decorative but without the symbolic significance of wares for the home market. Famille rose and verte, monochromatic pieces, imari and Armorial porcelain were all popular.