Boston Japanned Furniture

T

HE exoticism of the East has long whetted the imagination of Western man. In our early decorative arts, the colonies felt shimmers of the Orient through ceramics, textiles, furniture, and books. Whether these were actual productions of the East or not made little difference. Precision was not a requisite to the eighteenth – century mind when sublime remoteness could provide delight through flights of fancy.

In furniture, the true Oriental lacqucrwork could not be produced in the West, but simplified imitations became popular in Holland and England by the end of the seventeenth century. In the 1700s, Indian work, or japanning as it became better known, spread to the colonies; Hoston and New York became the major centers of this work. First prize goes to Boston, with over a dozen jspanners – work­ing prior to the Revolution and with an array of varied examples of their works still preserved,1

Boston japanners simplified the European process in two ways. The base paints were applied directly over the wood, usually maple incascpieccs and pine in clocks, rather than the paint being put over a layer of whiting which was used by the English and New Yorkers to fill in the surfaces of oak or other coarser-grained woods. In English

1. Gertrude Z. Thrums. "Lacquer: Chinese, Indian, ‘ULfilii’ japan, and American.’1 Anupitt, lxxix (June, lyrii). For inform srion on Boston jap inning, see

Joseph Downs, "American Japanned Furniture,1′ OW-Ttote JVru> fosulmul, xkviii (October, 1517), ftl"*7; Ejrher Stevcni liraicr, “The Early Boiton jjpmucn,’1 An- tiqun, ІШ (May, Richard H- Randall, Jr., Ametkm Furniture in fAe

Muieutи of Fine Arts, Boston [Boston. iprtj). pp. dfi-fiS; Dean A. Pales, Jr., AmMom Pmnltd Fumitmt idtfo-iAftl [New York, Юті). pp. ДH—ЛО1: and Sinclair Hitching*, ‘Thomas Johnston,’1 Boston Prims and Prsmtпакт 1670-1775, Colonial Society of Massachusetts. hibUtnitons, xm (1573), Sj-iji.

japanning the colors were transparent ones, with sccd-iac varnish mixed in with the pigments,2 The Boston japanner used plain oil colors and after raising his figures with whiting, a gesso-like ma­terial, gilded them with metallic powders or leaf, painted m details with lampblack, and then varnished the finished product. Interest­ingly enough, these colonial simplifications were frequently used in English japanned pieces during a later eighteenth-century revival of the art.

The designs themselves were delightful. Chinese buildings, bridges, faceless people, birds, and strange йога of all sorts mingled with griffins, fierce dragons, double-humped camels, unsea worthy boats, plodding wheelbarrows, and pompous horsemen in a sea lei ess world of make-believe. Many motifs reappear with much variation and Little or no duplication on several pieces, but a careful examination of the decorations produces two distinct impressions: that with many qualified japanner s working m Boston, it is virtually impossible to separate their work with few exceptions; and that a careful observer will ultimately be struck more by a strabismal myopia than by a pat set of attributions.

At the moment, there are less than half a dozen candidates for known examples by known jspanners. The first, and most frustrat­ing, is a tall case dock made by Benjamin Bagnall. formerly in the Philip L. Spalding Collection, bearing the engraved trade card of Thomas Johnston (also spelled Johnson).3 The fact that the case has been refillished to its naked native pine tearfully removes it as the Rosetta Stone for Johnston’s work.

The second example is a William and Mary stvlc high chest of about 1720 at the Adams National Historic Site in Quincy. Massa­chusetts. The chest is signed by William Randle,4 a Boston japanner,

2. Ralph Edwards, Tlir Sheriff DidUmary of Lttgliih Furniture (London, 1964), PP-

j, Illustrated in "ftmjamm П1Ц111Н of I Just on, Clodtinaltcr," Old-Time New Lng – land, XXVI (July, lyjs), si; and Harvard Ttftentntary lixhibitiort (Cambridge, 1936), no. 1J7, pi. +6,

4. Tills. high chest was brought tr> my attention afid сопіріяпчі of the inidc. Ridurd H. Randall, Jt., discusses and illustrates the then in "Williitn Randall, UustutL Japanrirt," Antiques, CV (May, 1J7+), lliy-lljl.