Though the art world abounds with items of rare beauty, few art forms require the confluence of skill, luck, time, and sheer disregard for human safety that characterize the carving of cinnabar-dyed lacquer. In its pure color, rich layering, and incredible detail, the Chinese Cinnabar Lacquer Lobed Box and Cover in our Important Winter Auction, a very fine example of the elaborate decorative style of the Qianlong-era China, epitomizes the single-minded pursuit of beauty that must occur in every step in order to produce superior carved lacquerwork.
Though lacquerwork in general spread throughout the various countries of East Asia over centuries, the technique of carving layers of lacquer applied to a base material (usually wood) is generally associated with China, having been refined during the Southern Song period (1127-1279). This technique is sometimes referred to as being the most pure form of working with lacquer since the lacquer is the dominant decorative material, as opposed to lacquer inlaid with mother-of-pearl or gold, or lacquer as a clear coating for other materials. Subsequently, carved lacquer pieces, most commonly colored with cinnabar, are incredibly precious, as the process of preparing and working with both the lacquer and the cinnabar is highly toxic, hugely time-consuming, and uncompromisingly exacting.
Lacquer is the sap of a number of trees in the Anacardiaceae family. The sap of these trees is made up of 65% urushiol, the chemical compound in poison oak and ivy that causes a terrible rash in 80-90% of adults. To harvest it, a worker takes a knife into a stand of lacquer trees at night, and collects the sap from a fresh slash in each tree. In the morning, the sap is slowly stirred and heated until it has reduced to a sufficient viscosity to be used as coating. The prepared lacquer is usable until evening, but it does not last overnight. The only way to re-use a batch of lacquer is to mix it with some that has been freshly prepared.
Oddly, lacquer will only dry in a sufficiently warm, humid environment. Traditionally, lacquer pieces were placed in caves or pits in the ground to dry. Because the lacquer needs constant exposure to humid air in order to dry, it can only be applied in very thin layers - otherwise only the very top of the lacquer will dry and the remainder, deprived of contact with the humidity, will stay forever liquid. Therefore, in order to create a thick enough layer of lacquer to carve on top of the base material, many, many layers of lacquer must be applied and dried, one at a time. Each layer takes at least 24 hours to dry. So a piece with 30-35 layers of lacquer (the number often found in Chinese carved pieces) will require over a month just to prepare the carving surface. The one silver-lining in this plodding drying process is that once dry, the urushiol in the lacquer is finally inert and can no longer cause an allergic reaction.
Remarkably, given the incredible laboriousness of working with lacquer, it pales in comparison to the danger of processing the cinnabar that was so commonly used to dye it. On its own, lacquer dries a clear brown-ish color. It's suitable as a coating in this state, but the ornate carvings of the Qing period were most often dyed an opaque shade. There were few dyes being used at the time that didn't react with the lacquer and lose their character, and so by far the most commonly used dyes were carbon (black) and cinnabar (blood red).
Cinnabar is found in rock seams near volcanoes or hot springs, and is a dramatic red color, especially in crystal form. Cinnabar is actually mercury sulfide, the only important ore of mercury, and it is highly poisonous. Mercury is a potent neuro-toxin, and the effects of prolonged exposure to it include muscle-weakness, tremors, memory and vision-loss, erratic behavior, and eventually death. The term "mad as a hatter" comes from the the effect of mercury on the hatmakers who used mercury to process the felt for their hats. Cinnabar was used as pigment by ancient cultures the world over, wherever there had been volcanic activity. The Romans often used it in cosmetics, even though they recognized its toxicity - Roman cinnabar mines functioned as penal institutions. The average life span of a Roman cinnabar miner was 3 years after they started at the mine.
The mercury in cinnabar can be extracted by heating - it turns into a gas and then back into a liquid metal once cooled. Most of the world's mercury is obtained from cinnabar in this way. The cinnabar used to dye lacquer was usually processed to remove the mercury before being added to the lacquer, so Chinese cinnabar processors bore the brunt of its toxicity rather than the highly-skilled lacquer carvers.
The techniques developed by the Song period artisans were refined up until the end of the Ming dynasty, when the art of lacquer work fell into decline. It was revived during the Qing period however, first by the emperor Kangxi, the first emperor in the dynasty, who established 27 workshops for the craft around the palace in Beijing. The carved lacquerware produced during the reign of Qianlong, exemplified by the large box in our Important Winter Auction, is characterized by its formal themes and extremely detailed carving. Qianlong reigned over the height of the Qing dynasty, and traditional Chinese art forms like lacquerwork flourished during the period, and reflected the emperor's inclination towards elaborate displays of national pride.
While lacquer is completely water, acid, and mostly heat resistant, it is also very fragile and prone to chipping off of the base material. The wood beneath it is also obviously highly perishable if the lacquer is penetrated, and so fine historical examples like the one in our Important Winter Auction are far more rare than contemporaneous pieces made of more durable materials like jade.
Content created by the Leland Little editorial team