Rhonda Nolan


Some of the techniques used in this Early American ornamentation had its roots in Europe and beyond. Oriental lacquer, or japanning, may be traced back to as early as the 12th Century BC in China, and from the 3rd Century AD in Japan. The trade of the Dutch and Portuguese with the Orient created interest in lacquerware, and from these countries it spread to England and France. Ornamentation in America probably started toward the end of the seventeenth century.

During the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries a great deal of Oriental lacquered furniture and smaller pieces was brought to Europe, and in the course of time this style ofdecoration came to be widely imitated there. It was then that the craftsmen of Europe developed the art which they called “japanning”. They succeeded in imitating the Oriental designs comparatively inexpensively by the substitution of coats of varnish for the lengthy hand polishing employed in the original lacquer work. Over time, the term “japanning” lost its original oriental lacquer connotation and came to describe, generally, any coated and or decorated piece of metal or furniture.

Ornamentation in China and Japan greatly influenced European and English art of the 18th century. As the 19th century neared, tray making and decorating was a thriving industry. Seventeenth and eighteenth century tray units were carried out in free hand bronze and gold leaf techniques in highly skilled productions. Trays of various sizes and shapes, richly ornamented with gold leaf, contributed a showy elegance to the formal refinement of England’s Georgian and Victorian homes.

The fashionable taste for japanned furniture spread to America, and early in the eighteenth century men trained in the craft were attracted to the more flourishing towns and cities such as Boston, Salem, Newport, New York and Philadelphia. A wide variety of period furniture owed its fine ornamentation, some of it elaborate, to local craftsmen. In the late 18th century, there was an upturn in American trade and these arts began to flourish, producing many outstanding pieces such as painted settees, sewing tables, dressing tables, mirrors, chests, commodes, beds and window cornices. Painted ornamentation on chairs became the fashion and every home that could afford it had one or more of these fancy chairs (a term loosely used to describe any chair with a painted decoration). Many of these were shipped to the southern coastal states of Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina-the cities of Charleston and Savannah being the most notable importers.

Painting on glass, in reverse, was used to decorate many mirrors and clocks. Also, a number of glass paintings were made simply to hang on the walls as pictures. The painting was done on the back of the glass. Fine details and highlights had to be painted first and backgrounds or sky last. Many glasses were done in gold leaf only or in gold leaf and color. Others had stenciled borders or details. Favorite subjects were ships, eagles and landscapes.

This period of fine design in decorated furniture did not last long. Large factories began turning out chairs and other pieces in bulk, causing small producers to revise their standards of decoration. Stenciling in bronze powders, a speedier method of decoration than purely free hand techniques, was introduced about 1815. Its popularity lasted until about 1850. As the years went by, decorative standards were lowered, eventually putting an end to several decades of production of painted ornamental design on furniture.