Japanning in America

Christine Thomson, Salem, MA

Tuesday, October 12, 2010Mini-exhibit: 7:15pmLecture: 8:00pm
de Young Museum
Boston japanned high chest 1735-40

Boston japanned high chest, ca. 1735-40

Drawer detail from a Boston japanned high chest

Drawer detail from a Boston japanned high chest with “tortoiseshell” background

Chinese export lacquered table top decorated with gilt images

A lacquered table top decorated with gilt images, made in China for the export market

Frontispiece of "A Treatise on Japanning and Varnishing" by Stalker and Parker

Frontispiece of “A Treatise on Japanning and Varnishing” by Stalker and Parker

Westerners have been fascinated with Oriental art ever since Marco Polo’s visits to China in the 13th century. Through its art, the Far East was imagined to be a region of dreamy, ordered kingdoms where peace and beauty prevailed. As early travelers brought back treasures from these mysterious lands, an intense fascination and desire for them spread across Europe. Eventually the most fashionable homes came to be furnished with exotic imported porcelains (used for, among other things, consumption of a hot new drink, tea), silks and lacquered objects, decorated with scenes of exotic people, animals, architecture and landscapes of types never actually beheld by their owners. Because demand for such objects exceeded supply, European artists and craftsmen began to reproduce them, combining Far Eastern art forms with techniques that simulated the originals, and creating a genre of fanciful hybrid objects—-and a peculiar style—-known by its French name “Chinoiserie.”

Of greatest demand in Europe were objects decorated with glossy black or red Oriental lacquer, the surfaces of which were usually enhanced with delicate gilt figures and scenes in Chinese style. Because Western craftsmen generally did not have access to Oriental lacquer, or the skills to manipulate it, they copied the originals and decorated them using the techniques, resins and pigments that they knew and had available to them. By the 17th century in England, the technique of applying “chinoiserie” decoration to objects had come to be called “japanning.” Many books containing recipes for imitating the glossy look of Oriental lacquer were published, but the best known was “A Treatise of Japanning and Varnishing” by John Stalker and George Parker, published in London in 1688. The two authors cheerfully instructed anyone interested in learning the art of japanning in a lively and humorous way.

The market for goods decorated in the Chinese style eventually took hold in America, and Boston became the major center for the production of japanned items. The Boston city directories of the first half of the 18th century listed more than a dozen “japanners.” Many of their works survive, although few are in good condition. The golden era of japanning in Boston straddled the William and Mary and Queen Anne periods. Much of what survives is furniture - high chests, lowboys, kneehole desks, mirror frames, chairs and boxes. Most japanned objects have found their way into museums, but a few are in private collections.

The japanned surfaces on American furniture tend to be either black or mottled red-black “tortoiseshell,” and are decorated with gilded designs, both flat and “raised.” In “raised work” gold leaf is applied to designs that have been built up in gesso, giving the design a three-dimensional appearance. The designs themselves take many forms. “Chinese buildings, bridges, faceless people, birds, and strange flora of all sorts mingled with griffins, fierce dragons, double humped camels, unseaworthy boats, plodding wheelbarrows, and pompous horsemen, in a scaleless world of make-believe.” (“Boston Japanned Furniture” by Dean Fales in Boston Furniture of the Eighteenth Century (1974)).

Christine Thomson has been a furniture conservator and architectural paint analyst with emphasis on treatment of painted, gilded and varnished surfaces for more than 25 years. After graduating from the University of California, Santa Barbara, she apprenticed in woodworking and wood finishing in California before moving to Boston in 1988. She was Senior Furniture Conservator at the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (now Historic New England) Conservation Center until 1995 and Senior Conservator at the firm of Robert Mussey Associates in Boston, until 2002. (Robert Mussey spoke to the Forum on “Finishing Touches: Techniques and Materials of Furniture Conservation” in 2004 and “New Discoveries in the New Republic: The Furniture of John and Thomas Seymour” in 1999.)

Christine Thomson is now an independent conservator and consultant in Salem, Massachusetts. She has worked for the U.S. State Department and the White House, has treated important examples of American furniture in major museums and private collections, and has been involved as a consultant in a number of historic house renovation projects, including Drayton Hall in Charleston, South Carolina, James Madison’s Montpelier in Orange, Virginia, Stickley’s Craftsman Farms in Morris Town, New Jersey and Castle Hill, a David Adler designed mansion for the Richard Crane family in Ipswich, Massachusetts. Her most recent project was to analyze the paints in the two parlors of the Lee Mansion, in Marblehead, Massachusetts.

Ms Thomson shares her particular interest in traditional gilding practices as a workshop instructor at the North Bennet School in Boston, the only school in the United States with a two-year program in traditional furniture making. She has published and lectured on various aspects of furniture and architectural decoration, including hardware, period varnishes and decorative paint techniques. Chris Thomson last spoke to the Forum in July 2007 on “Understanding the Midas Touch: Gilding Through the Centuries.” Her hands-on demonstration that weekend at the California College of the Arts showed us how different types of finishes are achieved and how we can recognize them.

7:15pm mini-exhibit

More than a hundred years after japanning flowered on American furniture, the Western imagination of exotic, Asian decorative arts flowered again in the 19th century with Japanism and Aesthetic Movement objects. Share your objects decorated with prunus blossoms or sunflowers, prints and paintings, lacquer ware, fans, ceramics, silks, needlework, crazy quilts, bound books or posters.


Koret Auditorium, de Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. Enter from Level B1 of the parking garage; pedestrians enter from the concourse side of Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive and down the steps across the street from the museum’s main entrance.