Osterley Case Study: Material Goods – Lacquer


Figure 18: Detail: Child Family Crest in lacquer. Photo Courtesy: Stuart Howat.

A decorative art in Japan, Korea and China, lacquerware held a particular exotic appeal for its European collectors as a luxury craft especially popular for its polished finish and vibrant luster. Raw lacquer was collected from the milky sap of the Rhus verniciflua tree, which was harvested annually and then cured through heating and filtration. The natural plasticity of processed lacquer and its resistance to water, acid, and low heat made it amenable as a decorative surface coating for a range of materials such as wood, leather, and metal. The process of lacquering in itself was labor-intensive – successive coats of lacquer could at times be built up into a pile of over hundred layers. The lacquered object was then stored in a humid, dust-free cabinet to dry.[1]

The English East India Company was one of the primary importers of lacquerware furniture from East Asia in the 18th century through its flourishing network of maritime trade. Though the Company primarily exported tea, silk, and porcelain from China in exchange for British woolens and Indian cottons, a large private trade of lacquered goods flourished alongside. Chinese lacquer furniture became an especially popular import into English country houses as the imperial court relaxed its trade barrier in 1672. By 1700 the East India Company began to conduct regular trade with the Qing Empire directly from its “factory” base at Guangzhou (Canton). Lacquer furniture was made on order by merchant-run guilds at Canton who were licensed to conduct foreign trade. These guilds were equally skilled in their ability to work on bespoke designs for private clients and larger retail orders placed by foreign shop-men looking to sell lacquerware in Europe.

The lacquer collections at Osterley highlight the popularity of a particularly delicate technique of gold engraving on lacquer, a Chinese variant of the Japanese style that combined gold and silver inlay with surface painting on lacquer. Armorial designs on lacquer and porcelain were especially fashionable amongst wealthy families who could wield a strong influence on private trade in Canton because of their intimate connections with the East India Company.

Child Lacquer Chest


Figure 19: View of the Lacquer furniture at Osterley House. Photo Courtesy: Stuart Howat.

The armorial lacquer furniture at Osterley House includes a brilliantly finished wooden lacquer chest, wooden hall chairs, and a stunning eight part folding screen made of leather, brass, and wood. On display is an elegant rectangular dome top beechwood coffer with brass fixtures finished in black lacquer bearing the Child family crest on its front panel that was brought into Osterley in the second quarter of the eighteenth century. It is possible that the beechwood was brought in from India and traded at Canton. The utilitarian design of the coffer and the minimalist geometric diamond decorative border in gold suggests its use as a traveling sea chest. Such coffers would have been ideal containers to store personal items or to pack specialist buys of armorial porcelain and tea acquired on behalf of the Child family in Canton.

The Child Lacquer Screen

The eight-paneled screen is a remarkable example of a large-scale private commission. The screen features what appears to be a palace complex fronting an enclosed landscaped garden with its rivulets, bridges, and fenced gardens. The scene is populated with figures shown engaging in their daily activities. The top sections of the screen bear the Child family coat-of-arms and the bottom section is complimented with a floral design enclosed within a rectangular cartouche. The decoration is picked up in gold, silver, and red and both the design and technique pay homage to the Japanese aesthetics.

While it would be plausible to assume that all the lacquer furniture at Osterley was commissioned around the same time, the second half of the eighteenth century, the folding screen presents some interesting possibilities. Company records show that in 1730, the period in which Francis Child II was deeply involved in the East India Company, an order for two large lacquered screens was completed – ‘By the Princess of Wales your Honours will have two large lacquered screens with the Company’s arms upon them, being made purposely for the Court Room’.[2]

20-Osterley House-6-lacquerscreen-detailreduced

Figure 20: Detail of decorative section of the lacquer screen, Osterley House. Photo courtesy: Stuart Howat.

The screens were transported on the ship Princess of Wales and bore the EIC’s coat-of-arms. There is every possibility that Francis the younger had knowledge of this commission, which would have been a noticeable addition to the courtroom. Company Directors and Chairmen were also privy to the arrival of diplomatic gifts on board EIC ships. For example, in 1771 Lord Rochford at St. James’s wrote to the Chairman and Deputy Chairman asking about a box addressed to the Queen:

Lord Rochford presents his compliments to the Chairman and Deputy Chairman of the East India Company and sends them the enclosed parcel received in a box from the Nabob of Arcot. Lord Rochford would be glad to know if on board the Ship Egmont there is a small box for the Queen, and if there be, he desires it may be sent to the Commissioners of the Customs to keep unopened till Lord Rochford sends a person to receive it from them. St James’s, 11 Sep 1771.[3]

The contents of the box for the Queen aboard the Egmont notwithstanding, the letter shows the extent to which Company heads were involved in the culture of gifting and private trade. Thus, it is possible to date the Child lacquer screen to Francis Child the younger’s tenure in the EIC and possibly to the period of the arrival of the screens for the EIC court room.

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[1] Summarized from Marianne Webb, Lacquer: technology and conservation: a comprehensive guide to the technology and conservation of Asian and European lacquer (Boston: Butterworth-Heinemann, 2000).

[2] G/12/30, 10 Dec 1730. Till date, at least one such screen with the EIC coat of arms is known to exist in the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum. Further information on such screens can be found in W De Kesel, & Greet Dhont, Coromandel Lacquer Screens (Brussels, 2002).

[3] BL E/1/55, 1771, Letter 300.