Japanese Lacquer Panels
Amber Bailey offers a multi-layered approach to the restoration of a 19th-century lacquered panel
Several years ago I was asked by a client to restore two 19th-century Japanese lacquer panels; they
came with a variety of problems and, on completion, I swore never to work on lacquerware again. In reality, though, it was a matter of weeks before I was being handed them left, right and centre. They went from one of those things that I’d never before noticed to being everywhere I looked!
As an art form, lacquerware is evident as far back as the 16th century, but pieces were rarely seen in the UK until the 19th century when an influx of lacquerware was imported into the country, mostly adorning dark and heavy wooden furniture. As interior designs have changed, however, these vast, imperial pieces have fallen out of fashion and the lacquerware most frequently found today has been cut down from its original groundwork and fitted into less commanding surroundings. My original Japanese lacquer panels, for instance, were in frames despite starting out as a two-part folding screen. Since then, as I hinted earlier, I have gone on to complete numerous such restorations. So many, in fact, that I am now happy (and only too able!) to convey the process in a series of manageable steps. Here, I am illustrating the procedure by returning to its former elegance, this rather lovely but poorly kept framed panel.
Restoring the frame
The surface finish of the frame was chipped and worn, revealing a wood that was much lighter than the varnish would suggest. This dark colouring didn’t work in conjunction with the lacquer panel and past experience told me that a lighter frame would be better suited.
Taking the finish back to the wood required a mixture of processes constantly being repeated. Paint stripper was applied, neutralised with water then scraped with modelling tools, particularly for all the fine carved detail. As the wood is very fibrous it was important not to let the frame get too wet in case it became almost furry with damaged fibres during the scraping process.
One corner of the frame was coming loose largely because of the inaccuracy of the angles when the joint was originally made, so a slither of veneer had to be glued into place before being carved down to the appropriate level. The aim with the frame was not to go for a brand-new look; adding back in some artificial shadow helped with the definition of the frame carving. Sections were painted over a mixture of dark gouache paints before the entire frame was lightly coloured with Van Dyke paste.
Once dry the frame was finished in shellac, beginning with a sealing coat of transparent polish and isopropyl alcohol at a 50:50 ratio before a number of layers at a 75:25 ratio. The frame could then be waxed over using microcrystalline wax.
The major problem affecting lacquerware is movement of the wooden groundwork. As the object undergoes changes in temperature and humidity the wood twists and bends while the lacquer stays unyielding, causing the lacquer to crack in lines across the surface.
Before the damage to the lacquer can be dealt with the groundwork needs to be realigned. The best way to go about this is to drill tiny access holes on the edges of the panel down the lines of the cracks. These holes can then be pumped with water to soften the wood before filling with fish glue (colle de poisson) using a syringe. My panel was then clamped to pull the pieces of wood back together; quick grips were ideal as I didn’t want to inflict too much force.
Replacing missing inlay
Firstly, remember that when you are replacing precious materials such as
mother-of-pearl and bone it is important to source responsibly and in line with CITES regulations. In my panel, large sections of the mother-of-pearl and bone inlay were missing because of the glue drying out and cracking as well as the occasional incident of pest infestation because of the appetising sugars found in protein glue. Any remnants of the old glue were scraped away to reveal a clear groundwork.
To re-cut the missing sections, a paper template had to be made which was stuck onto a new piece of material and cut out with a fretsaw. It is hard to judge the shape exactly so a few trimming attempts did occur! Once fitted tightly, these could be carved. As there is no evidence of exactly how these pieces should look it takes some guesstimating based on the existing pieces. A rough design was drawn onto the bone or mother-of-pearl and then carved out using jeweller’s files and a scalpel blade.
The new sections were adhered into place using a mixture of fish glue and the bulking agent, Microlite. This makes the glue thicker and creates more contact between the two surfaces, this is especially useful with the mother-of-pearl, which in itself was naturally curved then fitted to shaped pieces of wood to form the birds.
A variety of gouache paints were then used to ‘age’ and match up the new sections of detail. To eliminate any chance of losing colour a coat of transparent polish was applied before all the detail was buffed up using microcrystalline wax. Although the general look of the lacquer panel was to be clean but slightly aged, buffing up the mother-of-pearl as much as possible was an exception as it can gain a really impressive shine.
Cleaning and repairing the lacquer
The final stage was to restore the actual lacquer, cleaning any evidence of dirt from the surface involved several applications of white spirit and the ever-faithful ‘enzyme’ cleaning – more commonly known as spitting onto a cloth. NEVER use water as this will leave water stains on the surface that are next to impossible to remove.
The damage produced when the groundwork split needed to be scraped back with a scalpel to leave the surface as smooth as possible. Lacquering is a highly complicated and skilled technique that isn’t practical for repairing minor damages. Instead the damage can be covered up using a fine natural fibre brush and applying gouache paint in the appropriate colour. To seal this, a layer of transparent polish was coated on, making sure not to leave any obvious brush marks.
To give the lacquer a final clean and polish, the surface was buffed up using microcrystalline wax. This wax has an abrasive texture that helps polish out any scratches.