The Hygra Antique Boxes at the Sign of the Hygra
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at the Sign of the Hygra
2 Middleton Road
London E8 4BL
Tel: 00 44 (0)20 7 254 7074
Fax: 00 44 (0) 870 1257669
Antique Boxes in English Society
1760 -1900





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Oriental Lacquer is the natural sap of trees belonging to the Rhus species. It was first used in China both to protect and beautify wood. There are references to Emperor Shun (2255-2205BC) the last of the five sages advocating its use to his people. It is impossible to determine the precise date of its first application; it is part of an ancient and revered tradition interlinked with the culture of this complex ancient civilization.

The tree, which yields the best lacquer, is the Rhus Vernicifera, which is indigenous to China. At first the trees grew wild but as their value was understood they were cultivated and periodically protected by law.

The trees yield the best sap when they are a few years old. Depending on weather and soil conditions they can be ready in five years and continue to yield good lacquer until they are ten. The best time for gathering the sap is during the warmer months of the year when the trees are more active growing and the liquid flows and rises in greater quantities. It also oozes more freely without the cold freezing it. The trees are mostly found on high ground, above six and a half thousand feet where temperatures are very low in winter. In earlier times, before the plains were cleared for agriculture Rhus trees were also grown on lower ground.

A Chinese export lacquer tea caddy in reddish earth colored lacquer having rounded corners decorated with two colors of gold depicting groups of birds highlighted in red lacquer. Circa 1840

A Chinese export lacquer tea caddy in reddish earth colored lacquer having rounded corners decorated with two colors of gold depicting groups of birds highlighted in red lacquer. Circa 1840 

The sap is gathered by incising the trees horizontally and allowing it to trickle into cup shaped containers of copper or bamboo, which are tied underneath. When the sap first comes out it is dirty white, somewhat like a grayish mushroom. When it is exposed to light and air it thickens and darkens.

The preparation of the sap is a long and laborious process. At first it is strained to remove the impurities such as fragments of wood and insects which may have gathered in the containers. Then the sap is heated in shallow containers. Throughout the “cooking” process it is stirred and skimmed so it gradually becomes more pure and even. Finally it is filtered through cloth to make sure that even tiny particles of foreign matter are removed. Once the sap has been turned to lacquer it is stored in airtight containers where it can be kept for years.

Inferior lacquer can be extracted from the smaller branches of the trees by boiling them in hot water and then allowing the water to evaporate. The lacquer is cleared of impurities and it is used for undercoating.

Once the lacquer was prepared an even more painstaking and time consuming process was needed to successfully use it for coating whatever surface was to be lacquered.

The main quality of lacquer is that it provides a hard surface, which is impervious to insects, acids, water and other natural and man inflicted attacks. However for the lacquer to harden evenly, care and skill as well as vigilance must not slacken for one second. The chemical process, which combines the elements within the sap and enables the final product to harden must be carried in strictly controlled conditions. The temperature must be between 25-30 degrees Centigrade and the humidity as high as 80%-85%.

Oxygen is necessary for the process to be successful and humidity ensures that it is easily and evenly absorbed. Added to this, a humid atmosphere ensures that the lacquer dries evenly without the uppermost layer, however thin, drying faster and trapping damp bubbles.   Workshops for drying lacquer were often set up near rivers. Wooden small chambers for drying objects would be kept damp by keeping them moist. Vapour baths were also another technique for increasing humidity.
The base of objects, in our case boxes, to be coated was constructed out of softwoods. The pieces of wood had to be selected so that they had no knots. This is because the resin, which the knotty parts of timber excrete, can seep into the lacquer and spoil the hardening process.

Once the base was made it was primed in inferior lacquer. On some boxes a thin muslin type cloth was also used to cover the base. This was held in place with vegetable glue or lacquer, sometimes mixed with rice paste. Looking at cross sections of damaged boxes it is obvious that different workshops employed different techniques. The main purpose however was always the same: to seal the wood completely before the final more decorative layers were to be applied. The wood sap was thus completely isolated from the final surface.

When the box was primed it was smoothed down with ground stone or clay so that it was as even as possible before the more precise and arduous application of the top layers began. At this stage the required pigment was added to the lacquer. The lacquer was then applied in very thin coats and allowed to dry for three days or more if necessary, until it became completely hard. It was then rubbed smooth with clay or charcoal dust. Several layers were built up until a completely smooth and even surface was achieved. The final coats were rubbed with deer horn ash, which was the finest form of abrasive.

Again looking at cross sections of damaged boxes it is obvious that different craftsmen favored different techniques. The color of the undercoats is sometimes whitish, sometimes brown and sometimes grayish. This must be because the undercoating lacquer was sometimes mixed with clay, sometimes with fine ash and sometimes with rice flour in different combinations. All these techniques were traditionally used for thousands of years.

It could take up to thirty coats of applied lacquer, starting with undercoats grading up to finer coats before a box was ready for decoration. It would then move on to the “artist” having gone through the hands of the cabinetmaker who made the wooden base and the lacquerer who prepared it.

Lacquer has always been revered in China as one of the great arts, which combine special materials with the uttermost skill and design flair. Prized throughout the centuries above gold, it reflects the civilisation that developed it, in that it is a patient and meditative process requiring a variety of structured disciplines and intellectual input.

Perceived as such a special reflection of the country’s culture, it is not surprising that the art of lacquer decoration was a constant striving towards perfection. This art took many and varied forms throughout the four thousand years or so of its known existence.

Archaeological evidence points to lacquer first used as a protective coating and by the second millennium BC as an in-fill in bronze incised objects, or adhesive for precious metals or stones.

Carved objects made out of multi layered built lacquer have been made at various periods and are still made to day albeit the fact that new techniques have made the work simpler and the quality inferior.

19th c. Chinese Export Lacquer with ivory Chess, Drafts, and Backgammon pieces 

 19th c. Chinese Export Lacquer  with ivory Chess, Drafts, and Backgammon pieces / gb101 Enlarge Picture

Shallower carving on its own or in conjunction with other techniques has also been used from time to time.

Gold leaf, gold lines, painting in colors or gold were used since the first millennium BC and continued to be used until the end of the 19th century. Commercial versions are still employed today with the sporadic attempt at traditional methods, which are no longer financially viable.

The boxes we are concerned with which were made in the late 18th and up to the late 19th century, continue the tradition of painting, predominantly in gold on a black and very occasionally red background.

Painting on flat surface lacquer was found on objects, which date from the Han Dynasty (206BC-221AD). Although gold was used it was more as gold leaf inlay with the painting done in other colors such as black and gold, the pigments mixed with lacquer.

Different ways of employing gold leaf or lines were used in lacquer decoration throughout the centuries. However the origins of gold painting as seen on the boxes we are discussing here date from the fifteenth century AD. The art of lacquer was introduced to Japan by Chinese craftsmen, who also introduced the art of incising lacquer and enhancing it with gold lines.

Fitted Chinese Export Lacquer Sewing Box decorated with Tea Cultivation Scenes, circa 1830

This particular box is painted exceptionally well, with a robustness of line, with attention to minutiae, and with skillful use of bright gold contrasted against black expanses.

Fitted Chinese Export Lacquer Sewing  Box decorated with Tea Cultivation Scenes,  circa 1830

The Japanese were most impressed by lacquer as an art medium and by the use of gold in its decoration. When more gold reserves were found in Japan the Japanese artists perfected the craft of powdering gold very finely and mixing it with lacquer, making it possible to paint or build layers of gold dust and lacquer on the pre prepared surfaces.

Craftsmen from both countries were sent back and forth to learn from each other. A renowned Chinese lacquerer, Yang Xuan is said to have gone to Japan to learn the new gold techniques from the Japanese early in the fifteenth century AD. He not only learned but also invented a technique of incising and in filling lacquer with gold which impressed his teachers.

During the four centuries following this visit there was a lot of cross-pollination between the two cultures as regards lacquer decoration. The sprinkled gold and other metal dust technique, which is associated with Japanese work, is also found to a much lesser degree on Chinese objects. Although the decorative styles are on the whole distinguishable, there are overlaps to the extent of confusion.

Finally there are the oriental symbols and motifs which are found on lacquer throughout the far east, such as dragons, vases, insects, diaper patterns to denote water, air and earth, as well as stylised borders of Greek key designs etc. It is not always certain where each design originated from, although China with its history of early cosmopolitan trading was usually the first oriental country to add to the repertory of lacquer decoration.

Chinese artists absorbed and translated designs from different traditions giving them a unique oriental flavor. These imported influences were added to the art which had its roots deep in Chinese culture to create the spectacularly beautiful export boxes which encapsulate that particular moment in history when the East truly met the West.

EXPORT LACQUER BOXES late 18th Century to 1820
By the end of the eighteenth century the East India Company had its feet well ensconced in Chinese soil. (See Tea and Opium). Near the warehouses of this Company and other European and American company headquarters a small trading community sprang up trading not only in commodities such as tea and spices, but also in an unprecedented


wealth of eclectic goods, such as silk, porcelain, paintings and of course lacquer. Most of these artistic outlets were in China Street, which was within easy reach of the foreign traders.

The first boxes in what we now call ‘export lacquer’ to be made were commissioned by the foreign traders or diplomats for their own use. These are of very high quality and often bear family crests or initials. Such a box included in the 1774 inventory of the Clive collection at Powis Castle combines several characteristics of the period. The overall design is that of plants with the crest in the centre.

The early boxes have several features, which betray their European destination. They were made to be used for the needs of the Europeans or Americans. They were mostly card boxes, sewing boxes and tea caddies. They were of the type, which in other countries were made mostly in wood.

The decoration was of floral designs, borders of linear patterns and cartouches filled in with crests, monograms or simply alternative flora or shapes. There is a definite influence of decorative conventions, which were fashionable in England at the end of the eighteenth century. These originated from the fad for the classical world, which was being revealed through the numerous excavations and extensive travelling of those who wished to be better informed.

Vines, ivy and other stylised flora were the order of the day. Symmetrically arranged, these motifs were reminiscent of ancient Rome although in raised gold lacquer they definitely acquired a Chinese aura. A few boxes had flat painted decoration in other colours. This was done by mixing different pigments with oil or lacquer. Sometimes the stylized raised lacquer was juxtaposed with a cartouche, or an alternative line of flat painting.

Zig zag designs with alternative bands of decoration sometimes one flat one in relief were also made. More than one color of gold with sometimes a little red or blue was used for subtle differentiation.

Some early lacquer boxes have an overall effect of very opulent brocade with mounts of gold covering most of the black surface. Such boxes must have been decorated by very experienced and serene artists. They represent months of immaculate work, which was only possible after years of training.

Other early boxes look as if they were painted with the lightest of brush strokes in the most ethereal subtle colors.

The shapes of the early boxes are restrained. They are mostly rectangular with flat tops and flat sides. The interior contents reflect their use.

GAME boxes contained smaller boxes for playing cards and gaming counters. Some also contained trays which were stacked on top of each other when not in use. In the earliest examples the trays were decorated in a similar way to the main box and the smaller interior boxes.
SEWING boxes had a top compartment with a lift out tray, which contained ivory sewing tools. The tools were in shapes similar to their English counterparts. There was a drawer, which pulled out from the front of the box, which had a lift up drawing surface and small compartments. Sometimes there were small china dishes for use when painting on silk.

TEA CADDIES contained pewter canisters with a double lid. These were decorated with incised designs. 

Chinese export lacquer tea chest with scenes of tea trading the interior fitted with metal canisters, circa 1840 Chinese export lacquer tea chest with scenes of tea trading the interior fitted with metal canisters, circa 1840. chtealac01.jpg (112718 bytes)

The type of boxes made in the nineteenth century is on the whole the same as those made in the latter part of the eighteenth century. There are however significant stylistic differences which are very pronounced by the 1830s. On boxes made during the early years of the century the differences are subtler, often resulting in very pleasing cross-cultural effects.

Chinese export boxes were first made for foreigners who commissioned work for their special needs. As in other forms of such commissions, for example furniture or paintings, the person ordering the item supplied designs and specifications. The craftsmanship of the Chinese was admired, but the European eye was too unaccustomed to Oriental art to accept it without a degree of western mitigation. Thus the 18th century boxes have tendrils which could have been copied from Pompeii and vines which could have grown in Greece. These were combined with lattice and abstract meandering designs, which were more oriental, but these were subtle and unobtrusive.

However as the foreigners became more familiar with Chinese art forms and the symbolism and culture expressed therein, the balance began to shift. Whereas at first they were trying to tell the Chinese what they wanted them to know and make, by the nineteenth century they wanted the people back home to know what the Chinese knew and made.

The vignettes within the elaborate borders began to have paintings portraying Chinese courtly scenes. These were mostly of figures in pavilioned gardens or in landscapes. Such figurative paintings were already part of the long tradition of Chinese lacquer decoration. Another type of early 19th century decoration within a cartouche was the depiction of an animal or bird in flat paint usually in blue, grey and red. These creatures were stylized and glamorized and harked back to lacquer paintings of previous centuries.

By the 1820s the inter-trading was very robust and although the foreigners were forbidden from living in the Chinese areas, a lot of social intercourse had developed between the traders, the diplomats and the Co Hong merchants. These merchants who were the go-betweens allowed to trade with the ‘foreign devils’ amassed huge fortunes and kept impressive and beautiful establishments where they occasionally entertained their foreign colleagues.

Their fairy tale homes were constructed amongst wondrous gardens in shapes and structures of unfamiliar curves and pinnacles. These together with the visits to the botanical gardens which the foreigners were allowed, must have opened up a miraculous new world to people who came from societies which adhered to strict classical rules and constricts. The Chinese people too, floating in their rich silk robes must have looked pretty spectacular. In short this was an exotic world, which expanded one's understanding of beauty and culture and as, such the traders wanted to share it with the people back home.

The artwork on the boxes began to depict more and more scenes from Chinese life. Gardens, water, pavilions peopled with ladies, sages, musicians, animals and birds. In a way the boxes became like elaborate and precious postcards of the foreign land. Sometimes complex scenes of festivals, battles, the processing of tea, or the life of the harbour would be depicted on a box.

The earlier convention of painting within cartouches was still used but the cartouches expanded to the point that they became more like borders framing an important scene. The borders too gradually changed from tendrils of flora to more oriental motifs allowing for dragons, insects and more exotic plants.

The more complex scenes, especially the ones with freer movements hardly had any borders. The designs on these are not symmetrical but composed more like landscape paintings with the picture sharply drawn in gold against the black lacquer.

As the century progressed and demand increased many boxes were produced which although very attractive were not of the artistic merit of the master decorated examples. The scenes and filled in borders or cartouche surrounds became simpler. The decoration was standardised and done by craftsmen copying typical scenes. This was still time consuming and needed dedication, but it did not of course need the enormous investment of time and intellectual input of the special pieces.


Although the decoration became more Chinese the shapes of the boxes continued to be influenced by English forms fashionable during the early part of the century. The flat oblong boxes gave way to what can be described as the Chinese version of the sarcophagus shape. This however was quite different from the English version.

The Chinese shapes are softer and look as if they are organically grown rather than architecturally constructed. They have a hint of gourds and lanterns about them. In fact some tea caddies were gourd shaped and some caddies and other boxes were in the form of a butterfly. The early nineteenth century boxes often stand on wooden feet, which are a version of the Regency monopodia. Some very good examples stand on dragon, Chinese lion or ball and leaf feet, which are totally oriental in feel.
The interiors of the boxes were similar to the earlier ones with slight variations. The tools in the sewing boxes were more elaborately carved in the Chinese fashion, usually with floral motifs.

In the game boxes some of the trays had paintings depicting European playing card figures.

 These figures, like the early playing cards have legs and feet. They are painted obviously in the manner in which Europeans were perceived: with large noses and fat bodies over ungainly legs ‘like monkeys in an opera’. In addition to gold other colours, mainly red, were used. These are curious and amusing insights into this venture of cross-cultural art.


Detail: Chinese export lacquer card box. The card suits of cups and pentangles are visible. 


The tea caddies contained pewter containers, only now the containers were of more complex forms, often with canted corners so that they could fit into the new shapes of the boxes.

Other boxes worth mentioning are the jewellery boxes. Very few of these were made and as a result they are now very rare. They contain a silk velvet covered tray. The shapes and decoration are similar to that of the tea caddies.

Some types of boxes were made for containing other precious things. Long thin small boxes for fans, flat square boxes for silk shawls and oblong boxes for holding wonderful ivory Chinese puzzles. One extremely rare example I came across contained a tea service. This was reminiscent of Japanese boxes of this kind.


Chinese export lacquer boxes were made mainly for pleasing the foreign buyers. In the 19th century these buyers learned to appreciate Chinese art and life and the boxes reflected this change of attitude. A few boxes however went a step further and asserted the superiority of Chinese culture as perceived by the craftsmen and artists who decorated them. The Chinese character of the art was subtly and exquisitely hinted at.

An Exquisite Chinese Export lacquer tea chest with expressive paintings in gold and coloured lacquer of Oriental life containing lift out pewter canisters Circa 1800
An Exquisite Chinese Export lacquer tea chest with expressive paintings in gold and coloured lacquer of  Oriental life containing lift out pewter canisters  Circa 1800


One example is the shape, which as I said earlier hinted at Chinese forms. In rare examples this shape goes a step further and the rounded line sarcophagus shape becomes even rounder. Extremely rare rounder boxes are also taller and reminiscent of Chinese lanterns.

Calligraphy was an art form much appreciated by the Chinese. Early on this was practiced on lacquer boxes in order to insert the initials of the person for whom the box was made. However the best use of calligraphy was when it was combined within the design of the box for the insertion of Chinese classical poetry in Chinese. Very few Europeans would have been able to read and understand it, but the beauty of the characters and the finesse of the paint strokes is indisputable. It is possible that some of these now extremely rare examples were commissioned by Chinese speaking foreigners. No doubt the Chinese liked to remind the Europeans of their ancient literary tradition.

A very rare caddy I have seen has the names of teas and merchants written on depictions of containers. This is a pictorial record and was presumably made for one of the merchants or a company.

Occasionally a really exceptional box may combine Chinese decoration aimed at the Europeans with a very strong Chinese symbol, such as certain plants like the peonies and the prunus. Other strong but subtle Chinese motifs such as the Buddhist symbol of a vase are rare but not unknown.

Another extremely rare feature is the insertion of a European figure within a Chinese landscape or setting.


During the latter part of the nineteenth and earlier part of this century ignorance contributed to the neglect of many of these fine boxes. Many must have perished or damaged beyond recognition.

Even if the boxes were appreciated the very nature of the decoration causes it to wear with usage. The soft gold gets rubbed off with handling and extremes of temperature cause the boxes to split. Very few if any lacquer boxes have survived totally intact. Very few have survived in very good condition. Most tops are worn to a lesser or greater degree.

This has had the effect of a good number of excellent examples being available at a reasonable price. Such boxes have escaped the mania for new looking antiques - a phenomenon of our times. Even if such a box is worn it is still very beautiful and has parts of exquisite decoration. A fragment of good lacquer represents hours of precious work.

Restoration must not be attempted as lacquer is very toxic and by the nature of the work not really possible or cost effective. Consolidation is the best way of avoiding further erosion if the box is splitting.

Added to the quality of the lacquer work the cross cultural undertones of this art make it a fascinating varied and rewarding field of study.  

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© 1999-2006 Antigone Clarke and Joseph O'Kelly