URUSHI:
THE TECHNOLOGY OF JAPANESE LACQUER

John J. Quin 
1896
Originally published as: Report by Her Majesty's Acting Consul at Hakodate on the Lacquer Industry of Japan 
London: Harrison and Sons, 1882.
$8.95 + $2.50 P&H

 

INTRODUCTION 

Lacquerware is an ancient decorative art form.

Developed in China, and evolved in Korea and Japan, artifacts of this art form found a ready audience in Europe. As early as the seventeenth century, recipes for reproducing a lacquered finish began to appear. 

European craftsmen did not have access to the raw materials, and they would not take the time to produce the true article. What they could do, was to reproduce the effect using other materials available to them. 

The book, A Treatise of Japanning and Varnishing, by John Stalker and George Parker, published in Oxford, in 1688, gave European craftsmen, and through them, their clientele, access to a new style of interior decoration. 

The report which follows is the result of research conducted by John J. Quin. The present account is reproduced from the text printed inWorkshop Receipts, edited by C.G.Warnford Lock in 1896. The 1882 text referred to below has been compared with the 1896 text and they are substantially identical. The main differences are that the 1896 editor wrote a new introduction, taking up Quin's report at the point of saying: "...great difficulty has been experienced in obtaining throughly reliable information..."; the subject matter headings are lacking; and the inventory is not reproduced. 

In addition, a few exceptions commencing with Kata-ji and continuing through Manzo are not reproduced in the 1896 (or in the present) account. Refering to the exceptions to previously described operations Quin states: "The first four classes being modifications of each other, a comparative numbering was adopted, but the following styles differ so materially that this plan can no longer be adhered to." 

Under section 8, Tools and materials used in the manufacture of gold lacquer, the names of the samples deposited at Kew are omitted. 

Those whose research would be advanced by knowing the information absent from this account are encouraged to obtain a copy of the 1882 report, and to examine the exemplars at Kew. 

In the present account, the two texts are combined in italics at the beginning to the extent that most of Quin's original introduction (excepting two paragraphs referring to an earlier version of this research) and the subject headings have been restored. Diacritical marks in the original have not been retained. 

The editor of the 1896 version included the text of a separate report and an illustration which are reproduced here. 

The samples and tools which he submitted with his report form part of the collections at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. 

David V. Field, Head of Economic Botany collections at Kew related in a communication dated 11 January, 1995, that: "...most of the 170 items listed in the Quin report on Japanese lacquer remain at Kew and are available to bona fide researchers on request by prior appointment. This collection is now housed with some 73,000 items in the Economic Botany Collections in the Sir Joseph Banks Centre. 

"John J. Quin published his 'Report by Her Majesty's Acting Consul at Hakodate on the Lacquer Industry of Japan' as part of the Commercial Reports by Her Majesty's Consuls in Japan, 1882 . Presented to both Houses of Parliament by Command of Her Majesty, August 188[2]. 

"Quin also published another article on 'The Lacquer Industry of Japan' in theTransactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan, Vol. IX, Part 1, Feb. 1881. Yokohama: Lane, Crawford & Co.; Kelly & Co.; Shanghai: Kelly & Walsh; London: Trubner & Co.; Paris: Ernest Leroux; both are without illustrations. 

"H.K. Rein published an earlier detailed account (in German) of the lacquer industry as part of his The Industries of Japan. An English translation of this volume was published by Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1889. 

"This account is well illustrated and shows many of the implements which are identical with those in the collection at the Royal Botanic 
Gardens, Kew. " 

Field indicated in his communication that the proper botanical name for the lacquer tree exemplars submitted by Quinn was vernicifula, not vernicifera, and that change has been made in the text which follows. 

It is interesting to note John Quin's observation that the craft of lacquering was rapidly dying out, that the work being done during the 1880's was not as good "...as was the work of a generation or two since," was repeated nearly 100 years later. 

In 1983, John Lowe had much the same to say in his book, Japanese Crafts. It is a common refrain in eastern and western writings about hand-crafts that the best work was executed in the past. Yet, somehow, there always seem to be enough toilers in craft to satisfy the requirements of collectors, writers and their readers. 

In the introduction to an undated exhibit catalog in the editor's collection there is the following comment: "For a time, it seemed as if the creation of original designs was a thing of the past; but the impulse given by International Exhibitions stimulated artistic ability, and now master pieces in gold lacquer are produced that rival those of the best former periods." 

The catalog has the title, Kyoto. Compliments of Kyoto Exhibitor's Association, and a pencil inscription: "July 20, 1893. Fo[u]rth day at fair, both played out. Clara S. Edwards."