People today see the trade with China as a route for cheap goods or services and they probably believe this trade route is a relevantly new process. This is far from the truth though on both counts, we have traded with China and areas of the world like this for many centuries. The ability to trade came about with our nation making huge advancements in marine technology that I have discussed in previous blogs. We were undoubtedly a great seapower. Merchants in the 16th and 17th and 18th centuries were amazed at the many treasures and skills the Chinese people possessed. It was not until 1672 though that the famous East India Company secured a trading post in Taiwan, this was ten years or so later than their counterpart, the Dutch East India Company was expelled from the country by the Chinese. At the start of 1700, the company’s base was changed from Taiwan to Canton. With its Royal Charter the company was granted a monopoly of trade in the East Indies until 1833.
As I have discussed in previous blogs about the Clockmakers Company. London and the UK was the centre of the world’s clockmaking in the 17th and 18th centuries. The China trade expanded many different skill sets though, and cabinets from English clockmakers were sent out to China to be decorated. True lacquering originated from Asia and it is obtained by applying many coats of the sap of the lac tree with polishing between coats. The colour or surface dye is mixed with this lacquer, black, blue, red, green and many other colours and then after the lacquered cabinet is decorated with raised gold leaf decoration. These skills are thought to have been employed in Japan and China as early as the third century BC. Clearly its importation into Europe came at a much later time and was facilitated by the East India Company described above. Furniture, boxes and antique clock cases were all decorated in this way and transported back to homes in the UK. It is suggested that very few clock cases were sent out to the Far East for decorating but I do not agree with this. If you look closely at the records of the East India Company, many clocks and pieces of furnture are clearly listed on the import sheets , with the lacquered description clearly evident. I am not saying some lacquer production does not start up in the UK but any that does I believe to be not of the same quality as the clock cases decorated out in the Far East. Later 18th and 19th century clocks with have been lacquered sometimes show an inferior quality, are these from UK decorators trying to copy the highly skilled Chinese in this regard. The truth is as no lacquer cabinets have a decorators mark so we will never know for sure, but the records of the East India Company do show a large importation of lacquered products throughout this period, this is for sure. We have a great history in this country in the UK but it is amazing what countries like China manufactured many centuries earlier. The East India Company imported fantastic Chinese porcelain and many other items into the UK during this time. These were not inferior cheap products at all. UK Porcelain Factories in places like Stoke set up off the back of this but we need to remember the great contribution of the Chinese nation over the many preceeding centuries.