Dear Elfrida, Did I tell you that shortly before she died Katharine [Reeve, Elfridas sister] gave me a fascinating cane sofa which had been made in China and just at the time Mrs. Oliver Iselin gave me a flat sofa bed which had been in one of her familys China Trade boats? I found space for a little roomIt is called the China Trade Room.
Katharines sofa is against one wall and Hope Iselins on the other. We also have some black lacquer pieces given me by Gladys Thayer.These words from Henry Francis du Pont, in a 1962 letter to his friend Elfrida Reeve, illustrate his enthusiasm for the creation of Winterthurs China Trade Room.
His taste for Asian material is reflected in many of the museums rooms in the form of black lacquered furniture and objects with gilt decoration, ceramics, and wall papers. Winterthurs collection was enriched in 2004 by the gift from Mrs. Violet Thoron of a rare form of lacquered dressing table and a screen.
The dressing table, one of fewer than ten known of this form, was previously owned by merchant William Ward (17611827) of Salem, Massachusetts. A table closely related to this one is in the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, and was brought to Salem by Captain William Gray (17501825), the leading New England shipowner, whom William Ward worked for prior to becoming president of the State Street Bank in Boston.The dressing table belongs to the collection of lacquered objects created in China for the export market during the late eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth centuries.
Chinese workshops were producing black lacquered pieces decorated with gold, which copied the much-appreciated Japanese maki-e lacquerware. A survey of 33 objects by Winterthur conservation staff revealed that the lacquer on almost all has suffered significant deterioration and exhibits, in varying degrees, a dull surface, cracked and lifting lacquer, losses and past repairs, fills and inpainting. Six objects in the group were prioritized for treatment and study based on condition, rarity of form, and the existence of an American China trade provenance for specific pieces.
An Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) grant is currently funding treatment of those pieces in the worst condition and the associated analytical work necessary to better understand this material. The poor conservation state of Chinese export lacquer objects is believed to be closely related to manufacturing techniques and to the construction of surface decoration. The ground layers, lacquer layers, and final decoration layers of export lacquer were modified in comparison to traditional techniques.
This was done to hasten the manufacturing process and to ensure available products for different consumers. The consequences of this practice, which includes using both different materials and manufacturing methodologies, are visible in the present state of preservation of a large number of pieces from this period and origin. Chinese lacquer objects for export, perhaps due to their perceived lower quality, have often been neglected in terms of research and conservation.
Understanding the methods of manufacture and materials used will not only help to understand these differences but also yield more effective and longer-lasting treatments for these objects. Regarding the museums dressing table, cross-section microscopy of samples indicates a paper layer adhered directly to the wood substrate, with a ground layer applied on top. This is followed by a second paper layer and second ground application to which two distinct lacquer layers are applied as finish coats.
Two restoration varnishes are the topmost finishes, which have since darkened and undergone severe flaking. Asian lacquerware made for the domestic market would have included additional lacquer layers.Analysis of the tables ground layers indicates the binding medium is primarily proteinaceous; animal glue or blood sources were common to the lacquerware made in China for export.
Lacquer is the black exudate from trees within the Anacardiaceae family. Analysis thus far of the lacquer layers on a selection of Winterthur pieces identified the source to be the Rhus succedanea species, commonly known as the sumac tree, found in Southern China, Vietnam, and Taiwan. The lacquer accounts for only a minor portion of the layer composition, with the majority composition being a drying oil and cedar oil.
Increasing the shine of the lacquer layer without the need for long polishing procedures is probably one of the reasons for the addition of these oils to the lacquer mixture. This would reduce manufacturing times as well as material costs. The composition of the lacquer layer is also consistent with previous analyses of pieces from the same provenance and time period.
The results from analysis of all objects studied during the IMLS project will be shared during a symposium on Chinese export lacquer to be held at Winterthur during the Fall of 2015 and will also contribute to a database being developed by the Getty Conservation Institute of Asian and European lacquer materials. A selection of lacquered objects will also be exhibited in the Winterthur galleries in the fall of 2015, in connection with the symposium on Chinese export lacquer.Stephanie Auffret, PhD.
, is associate furniture conservator at Winterthur Museum and adjunct assistant professor in the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation (WUDPAC). Catherine Matsen is associate scientist at Winterthur Museums Scientific Research and Analysis Laboratory and adjunct assistant professor in the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation (WUDPAC). Maria Joo Petisca, is a furniture conservator specializing in lacquer, from Lisbon, Portugal.
She is currently working at Winterthur Museum and is a Ph.D. candidate in Preservation Studies at the University of Delaware.
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