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An inside-out Tansu

Japanese Export Lacquer Cabinet
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An inside-out Tansu

Vanessa Tothill
19th Oct 2018
By Vanessa Tothill

The SISJAC-funded physical audit of Japanese Collections underway at Maidstone Museums is resulting in the creation of detailed photographs and documentation of every item in the Japanese Collection.

Some of the objects, owing to their fragile or damaged condition have been deconstructed (flat packed) and are in need of conservation. One such artefact was reassembled so that it could be thoroughly documented.

If you enjoy solving three-dimensional puzzles then you may find the following photographs interesting!

This Japanese lacquer cabinet, or ‘tansu’ [NO_ID6725], was collected by the Hon. Henry Marsham in the early 1900s and gifted to the museum before his death in 1908.

Lacquer is the sap drawn from the Toxicodendron vernicifluum (formerly Rhus verniciflua) tree. It was collected, mixed with organic colourants before it was applied to a wooden form in layers to produce a durable and reflective surface.

Marsham’s cabinet is decorated with designs in high-relief (takamaki-e) and low-relief lacquer (hiramaki-e). Maki-e translates as ‘sprinkled picture’ because gold powders were sprinkled onto multiple coatings of lacquer to create pictures and textures.

Dazzled by the cabinet’s gold ornamentation and reflective black surface, one rarely takes time to appreciate how the craftsman has combined pattern and motif.

By viewing the cabinet’s component parts, piece by piece, it becomes possible to see how the total design was achieved. The cabinet’s two outer doors with cock and hen in raised-relief lacquer, bordered by an interlocking ‘seven treasures’ shippō design, open to reveal golden poetry slips. The upper-most surface is decorated with insects, while the sides and back of the cabinet are comparatively plain.

The nine inner drawers are ornamented with flowers, butterflies, birds, and tea-related vessels, while the cabinet’s two lower drawers show sailboats within a sansui landscape, and birds perched on a flowering branch.

Japanese export lacquer cabinets can be seen on display in stately homes or behind glass in museums, but their gorgeous appearances can be deceptive.

These photographs reveal how the cabinet has a lightweight wooden structure, joined together using basic methods of assembly, and that the lavish decoration was only applied to surfaces that would be on show.

The Japanese cabinet is pure theatre: a confection of black and gold lacquer, inlaid shell and engraved metal locks. Its eye-catching finish was designed to appeal to western consumers of Japanese applied arts.