It is acknowledged by all connoisseurs that in the art of lacquer the Japanese far surpass their teachers, the Chinese. This may be partly because the lacquer-tree, though also apparently introduced from China, finds in Japan a more congenial climate; but we shall scarcely err in attributing the superiority chiefly to the finer esthetic instincts of the Japanese. So exactly did lacquer-work suit their taste and talent, that they were already producing triumphs in this branch of art at an epoch when England was still rent by the barbarous struggles of the Heptarchy. The highest perfection was, however, not reached at once. The end of the fifteenth century may be said to have been the dawn of the classic age, which, culminating about the year 1700, lasted on through the whole eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth.
Appreciation of lacquer is a taste which has to be acquired, but which, when acquired, grows upon one, and places the best lacquer in the category of almost sacred things. To show a really fine piece casually to a new-comer, or to send it home as a gift to one of the uncultivated natives of Europe or America, is, as the Japanese proverb says, "like giving guineas to a cat." He will take it up for an instant, just glance at it, say "What a pretty little thing!" and put it down again, imagining it to be worth at most a couple of dollars. Not improbably it cost a hundred, and was the outcome of years of patient toil and marvellous art.
The material employed is the sap which exudes from the lacquer-tree (Rhus vernicifera) when incised. This tapping for lacquer, as it may perhaps be called, affords a means of livelihood to a special class of men, who, on the approach of mild weather in April, spread all over the northern provinces of the empire, where the best lacquer-trees grow, and continue their operations on into the autumn. The age of the tree, the season when the tree is tapped, and the treatment to which the sap is afterwards subjected-as, for instance, by being mixed with iron filings, turpentine, or charred wood-produce widely different kinds of lacquer, which are accordingly appropriated to different uses. Every species of lacquer turns black on exposure to the light; and it is a fact, mysterious but undoubtedly authentic, that lacquer dries most quickly in a damp atmosphere. The damper the atmosphere and the darker the room, so much the more quickly will the lacquer harden.
Many kinds of material admit of being lacquered. On metal, in particular, very pleasing results have been obtained. But the favourite material is wood, and the best kinds of wood for the purpose are the hinoki (Chamæcyparis oblusa) and kiri (Paulownia imperialis). The woods of the Cryptomeria japonica (sugi) and Planera japonica (keyaki) are those best adapted to general purposes, such as common bowls, trays, etc. The Japanese constantly employ lacquer utensils to hold boiling soups, alcoholic drinks, and even burning cigar-ash. But so strong is the substance that it suffers little if any damage from such apparently rough treatment.
The process of lacquering is complicated and tedious. To begin with, the surface of the wood is covered with triturated hemp and glue, and then the first coating of lacquer is applied, only to be itself covered with the very finest hempen cloth. Numerous coatings of various qualities of lacquer are laid on this foundation. A careful drying intervenes between each coating, and a partial rubbing off with a whetstone follows each drying. A powder formed of calcined deer's horn serves in most cases to give the final polish. But all this process, of which we have merely indicated the bare outlines, is itself but preparatory if the object is to produce one of those beautiful gold-lacquered boxes which the word "lacquer" generally calls up in the mind of the European collector. In this case, writes one of the authorities quoted below:
"A thin species of paper, prepared with sizing made of glue and alum, is used. On this paper the design required to be transmitted to the lacquered article is drawn. On the reverse of this paper, the outline is lightly traced in lacquer-previously roasted over live charcoal to prevent its drying-with a very fine brush made of rat's hair. This paper is then laid on the article to be lacquered, and is rubbed with a spatula made of hinoki or whalebone, where the lacquer has been applied, and on removing the paper the design is observed lightly traced in lacquer.
"To make it perfectly plain, this is rubbed over very lightly with a piece of cotton wool, charged with finely powdered whetstone, or tin; this brings the pattern out white. From one tracing, upwards of twenty impressions can be taken off, and when that is no longer possible, from the lacquer having become used up, it only requires a fresh tracing over the same paper to reproduce the design ad infinitum. This tracing does not dry, owing to the lacquer used for the purpose having been roasted, as previously mentioned, and can be wiped off at any time.
"The pattern thus traced out is then filled in with ground-work lacquer, with a brush made of hare's hair, great care being taken not to touch or paint out the original tracing line. This is then powdered over with fine gold dust, silver dust, or tin dust, according to the quality of the ware. This dust is applied with a piece of cotton wool, charged with the material to be used, and the article is then gently dusted with a very soft brush made from the long winter coat of a white horse, to remove any loose metal dust that might adhere to the article, and to slightly smoothen the surface. If the article under manufacture is large, only a small portion is done at a time, and it is at once enclosed in an air-tight press, so as to prevent any dust or outside matter adhering to the freshly lacquered surface. At the proper time, when the lacquer has sufficiently hardened, the article is taken out, and the part over which the gold dust has been sprinkled receives a coat of transparent varnish (suki-urushi), laid on with a hare's hair brush, and a further portion is prepared with a coating of gold dust, as on the previous day: the article is again closed up in the air-tight damp press as before, till dry. When the portion which has received the second coat of lacquer over the gold dust is quite hard, it is rubbed smooth with a piece of hard charcoal made from camellia wood or hōnoki, until the whole is level with the surrounding parts. Then it is rubbed with the finger and some finely powdered whetstone and deer's horn, with the smallest quantity of oil, till it attains a fine polish. If upon this surface any further work takes place, such as the veining of leaves, or the painting of stamens, etc., of flowers, these are traced in lacquer and covered with gold dust, and when dry the final polish is given with the finger and powdered deer's horn."
Such is the most usual process, which is suitably modified in the case of raised gold lacquer and other varieties. It should be added that much of the so-called gold or silver lacquer is really manufactured with the aid of bronze and tin, especially at the present time, when cheapness and quantity are insisted on by a foreign public whose taste is imperfectly educated. Nevertheless, specimens worthy of the best age still continue to be produced. Competent critics assert that Shibata Zeshin, who died as lately as 1891, was probably as great as any lacquer artist that ever existed, and that others no less skilled are still living to-day.-The lacquer poison, of which so much has been said by travellers, is never fatal, though it is extremely painful in some cases. Blood to the head, swelling, violent itching and burning, occasionally small festering boils, are the symptoms. Lacquer in any stage, except when perfectly dry, is capable of producing it. The lacquer tappers always use gloves as a protection.
Only one item more. If you possess any specimens of good lacquer, be careful to dust them with a fine old silk cloth. A common duster will scratch them. Some of the best collections in Europe have been ruined by rough treatment.
Books recommended - . The Lacquer Industry of Japan, by J. J. Quin, in Vol IX. Part I. of the "Asiatic Transactions".- The Industries of Japan, by J. J. Rein, p. 338et seq.- Brinkley China and Japan, Vol. VII., p. 341et seq.