Hello from the Getty Conservation Institute – Lacquer Projects

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Wednesday 21 August 2013
Sarah Hillary

On Monday I had lunch with two of the visiting scientists who have been contributing to the Getty Conservation Institute study into ancient lacquer finishes, Julie Chang and Ulrike Kerber. I managed to show my ignorance about this topic very quickly by asking about the use of shellac! I soon learnt that lacquer is nothing to do with shellac. Shellac is a resin secreted by an insect, but lacquer is based on sap collected from trees of the Anacardiaceae family.

The sap is very difficult to collect, and all of the processes of manufacture, which require great skill, are incredibly time-consuming. Julie had found a Chinese document from the 1st century BC which complained about the waste of resources in this process, because a lacquer cup would take 100 men to make and a lacquer screen, 10,000. The sap dries to a layer which is so tough that it can outlast the wooden structure that it is applied to. Many different processes were used to produce the traditional lacquers, but even with the subtle variation in end-product, it is still possible to spot a modern forgery.

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Julie Chang with a lacquer cross-section on the screen

More information can be found on their website and the Getty is running workshops on the characterization of Asian lacquers.