By R.M. Healey
Yvonne Jones, Japanned Papier Mache and Tinware: 1740–1940, Antique Collectors’ Club, Woodbridge UK,2012; pp335 plus many illustrations in color and line Hardcover, £45 $89. ISBN 978 1 85149 686 0
This is a badly needed book. Japanned ware has always been admired and collected and yet few seem to know exactly what it is or how japanning developed as a process. Yvonne Jones, a world specialist in the field, provides all the answers in this deeply researched and beautifully illustrated work, which is unlikely to be bettered.
Jones begins by explaining the difference between the exquisite and very expensive black lacquered work exported to Europe, mainly from Japan and China from the late 16th century, and its later imitation, which is the subject of this book. The first imported black lacquer work owed its glossy surface and toughness to the application of many layers of a poisonous sap extruded from a tree, rhus vernicifera. Later, because of the dangers of working with such a deadly material, Indian seed lac and shellac were substituted. What we in the west call ‘Japanned’ work, on the other hand, involved the use of a varnish made from the readily obtainable asphaltum mixed with linseed oil, which was painted onto tin and baked.
The surface was then colored and decorated. This ersatz lacquer ware was first produced in Pontypool in the early 1730s.Around 30 years later, manufactories in Birmingham, saw a market for lacquered ware made from papier mache that could, unlike tin, be moulded into a variety of shapes, including trays, workboxes, wine coasters and tea caddies.These products proved extremely popular and factories were established in Wolverhampton, continental Europe and the USA. Jones devotes the core of her book to these various manufactories, their innovations in design and manufacture and the place of lacquer ware in the history of domestic life.
Before I encountered this book I had no real idea of the amazing variety of ware in both tin and papier mache and of the skills that designers in the late 18th and early 19th century brought to comparatively humble objects. The best of these objects seem to be tinware and papier mache tea caddies, most of which date from the late eighteenth century, and are painted with stylized flowers, figures from antiquity and repeating patterns that can also be seen on ceramics of the day, such as Wedgwood creamware. Trays from the same period, and later examples from the factories of Henry Clay and Jennens and Bettridge, that feature mother of pearl and abstract designs in gilt, do more to charm the eye than do the standard mahogany examples of the period. Exquisitely decorated papier mache is even used for such tiny bibelots as snuff boxes and card cases.
As with most decorative art, less is more. I own two papier mache coasters of around 1800 which do the job as well as any examples in Old Sheffield Plate or solid silver, but which, simply decorated with stylized vine leaves in gilt, add more glamor to the table than do the more conventional pieces in silver or plate. For me, things starting going wrong for the japanning trade when ( as with old Sheffield Plate )standards in craft overtook inspiration in design. When the restrained designs of the late Georgian and Regency period gave way to the overwrought confections of the high Victorian era, the appeal of such work to us today drops off significantly. Papier mache was never meant to be used for tables and chairs, and over-decorated japanned iron coal boxes in pompous shapes, tend more to incite laughter than admiration. As the nineteenth century progressed the shapes grew uglier and to me it seems ludicrous that japanned ware continued to be made be made right up to 1940.
Today, though japanned tinware of the 18th century is still sought after for its ability to grace may a modern interior of painted furniture, with rare items fetching high prices, japanned papier mache has gone out of fashion somewhat and demand is generally limited to the most elegantly decorated trays, tea caddies and objets d’art.
However, perhaps this book, which dedicates itself to showing the astonishing range of japanned papier mache products, may initiate a new trend.
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