Terms of the Trade: Japanning

Japanning is the term given to the European practice of applying East Asian style lacquer work decoration to large items of furniture and household goods. The term originates from the late 17th century as the opening of trade routes in the East triggered an interest in Chinese and Japanese fashions in Britain, France, Italy and the Netherlands.

European japanning differs from traditional East Asian lacquerwork which uses sap from the ‘Toxicodendron vernicifluum’ tree, also known as the Chinese lacquer tree, which is not indigenous to the West. Instead, japanned furniture in Europe and North America uses resin-based varnishes, similar to Shellac.

The seminal work on the subject was ‘A Treatise of Japaning and Varnishing: Being a Compleat Discovery of Those Arts’, by John Stalker and George Parker, first published in 1688. The book not only offers recipes for creating lacquers and guides to their application, but even includes a series of illustrated designs for readers to copy. 

JapanningJapanned items usually use a rich black lacquer which is then highly polished to create a smooth glossy finish. Eastern motifs are then added, predominantly in gold which contrasts powerfully with the rich dark base.

Although black is the most common base colour, it is not unusual to find japanned items in red, green and even blue, such as the examples illustrated in this article.

In its earliest form in Europe, the art of japanning was encouraged as a suitable pastime for wealthy young ladies with publications such as “The Art of Japanning: Varnishing, Pollishing, and Gilding ... by Mrs. Artlove” proving immensely popular upon its release in 1730.

By the mid-18th century examples of japanning could be seen on items of fine furniture, trays and all manner of chests and boxes throughout the manor houses and country seats of England. Indeed by 1760 the fashion had become so popular that more than 20 firms operated professionally in Wolverhampton alone.

JapanningSoon commercial companies were applying the art of japanning to a vast range of household objects and demand for their products remained popular throughout the Victorian era, with some firms continuing production well into the 20th century.

These days artists skilled in the craft of japanning are in sadly short supply and work predominantly in the field of restoration and conservation. Perhaps more concerning was the inclusion of Japanning as one of 74 endangered crafts on the Heritage Crafts Association’s Red List of 2021.

Click here to view a selection of Japanned works currently available from BADA members.