Luxury French Lacquer and Japanned Furniture
By Sharen Custer, 62days expert
Imported lacquer furniture from China and Japan proved to be extremely successful with the Europeans throughout the 18th century. Under the reign of Louis XV in 1730, the vogue for lacquered furniture developed under the influence of the so-called “marchands-merciers”, which was the French term for an entrepreneur working outside of the guild of craftsmen and was broadly conferred on merchants dealing in objects of art and luxury goods.
Initially they only imported complete furniture such as chests, cabinets and screens to be sold on the local markets. However, gradually they started dismantling the pieces by cutting out their lacquered panels to apply as decorations on the French furniture. Among the popular redesigned items were writing boxes and desks, commodes, corner cabinets, wardrobes and chairs. These marchand-merciers were responsible for delivering the materials to cabinet makers, whose role was to incorporate them into the frames of the cabinets, while the final products were sold by retailers to their elite clientele, who often did not know the identity of the actual cabinetmaker.
Original lacquer panels were thick and often double sided, which prompted the cabinetmakers to cut them in half, plane and refine the finish in order to flatten them and mount them onto furniture surfaces very similar to a traditional European veneer or marquetry. Quite often the lacquer panels were framed to enhance the decorations using ormolu gilt mounts. Exposed parts of undecorated surfaces were painted or varnished – giving a term varnish-martin to such techniques – in order to enhance the appearance and blend with the lavish lacquer design of the panels. This method created a very clever illusion of a fully lacquered furniture piece. Similar techniques were also used by cabinet makers as an alternative to other expensive furniture. Entire pieces were varnished or japanned to imitate original Asian lacquer, which quickly became a very expensive and desired commodity. And only the largest merchant-merciers such as Thomas-Joachim Herdert, François Gersaint, Lazare Duvaux and others could afford the use of real luxury lacquer pieces. They were obtained from the traders of the French and Dutch East India companies, usually in the auctions or sometimes directly from the ship crew members who had permission to transport a certain amount of goods for their personal trade.
Japanese lacquer panels were much more sought after rather than their Chinese counterparts. This was due to their superior quality, as well as rarity in supply. Starting in 1639, access to Japanese trading posts was only reserved for the Dutch East India Company, thus the entire European market depended on their monopoly. Therefore, it was to the best cabinet makers that such lacquer panels were supplied. Among the notable masters were Jacques Dubois, Bernard Van Rysamburgh, Adam Weisweiler, Joseph Baumhauer, Martin Carlin, Jean Desforges and others, all fetching significant amounts on the today’s collectors market.
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For tips and information on where to go to find antiques take a look at our How To Spot a Bargain Antique article.