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Lacquer- Chinese Decorated Clocks

East India Company

When talking about antique lacquer clocks and their cases we need to discuss the China trade and the formation of the East India Company.

People today see the trade with China as a route for cheap goods or services. They also 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.

Role of our Great Navy in Trade

We were undoubtedly a great sea power. 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 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 which 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 clock making in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Trade With China

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) Then 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.

Lacquer Decoration

Furniture, boxes and antique clock cases were all decorated in this way. They were then transported back to homes in the UK. It is suggested that very few clock cases were sent out to the Far East for decorating. I do not agree with this. If you look closely at the records of the East India Company. Many clocks and pieces of furniture are clearly listed, with the lacquered description clearly evident. I am not saying some lacquer production does not start up in the UK. 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. These from UK decorators trying to copy the highly skilled Chinese in this regard.

UK versus Chinese Quality in Lacquer Work

No lacquer cabinets have a decorators mark so we will never know for sure which is which. 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. We need to remember the great contribution of the Chinese nation. This development is carried out far earlier than in the UK.