White japanning in Blickling Hall

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My Project at the National Trust:  White Japanning in Blickling Hall, Norfolk and Anglesey Abbey, Cambridgeshire.

By Marta Czyz

MLitt Technical Art History 2012-13,

University of Glasgow

The Project
The project was part of my master’s dissertation research. The main aim of this research was to gain understanding of white japanning as a decorative technique and to highlight English white japanned furniture and thus raise the interest of these kind of artefacts and museum objects. The understanding of white japanning and its material-technical aspects is crucial for conservation of this type of decorative finish.

White japanned wardrobe in Blickling Hall
One of the highlights of the collections at Blickling Hall is a rare white japanned wardrobe with green ornamentation in the Chinese style. The term japanning is the English term for European lacquerwork. Japanning is often referred to as the art of painting in varnish: a decorative technique predominantly developed in the 17th and 18th centuries to imitate Oriental lacquer, in which pigment in a varnish medium was used to decorate objects made of wood, papier-mâché, leather, and metal.

The colour of japanning is determined by the colour of the ground, therefore white japanning can refer to plain lacquered finish or multi-coloured (often with gilding) decoration laid on white ground. Examples of white japanned objects are rare and only few museums have such objects in their collection.

Thomas Chippendale (1718-1779)
His name is usually associated with carved mahogany furniture, yet Thomas Chippendale throughout his career supplied many of his distinguished clients with richly gilt and japanned pieces.

By conducting a detailed art historical and art technical analyses of japanned furniture attributed to Chippendale, the aim was to not only gain a deeper understanding of the materials and techniques employed, but to also try and establish the attributions of japanned furniture to Chippendale workshop.

Research and scientific analysis
I was given a great opportunity to take samples of japanned finish from two objects in the collection of the National Trust: a dressing table (Anglesey Abbey) and a wardrobe (Blickling Hall), and conduct a detailed analysis of the techniques and materials used on both works.

For aesthetic and ethical reasons the samples were removed from inconspicuous areas of damage where no new incisions in the finish were made. The cross-sections were used for the study of layer build-up which helped to explain the technique of white japanning.

The scientific methods included light and UV-fluorescence microscopy and Scanning Electron Microscopy with Energy-dispersive X-ray Microanalysis (SEM-EDX). The samples were examined together with ArtTA, a partnership between Technical Art History and Imaging Spectroscopy and Analysis Centre (ISAAC) at the University of Glasgow. The detailed technical examination revealed two different japanning techniques.