What it is and how it developed

Japanning is a method and a style of protection and decoration. Its name derives from the fact that the method and style came originally from goods produced in the east, mainly China, India and Japan.  The best work came to be associated with Japan and, although in earlier times Indiaware was a common term, Japan was the idea which stuck and came to predominate.  Alexander Pope, in The Rape of the Lock, reflects these origins when he mentions tea trays in the English version of the tea ceremony:

"On shining altars of Japan, they raise
"The silver lamp ...."

The original oriental japanning was produced by the use of natural lacquers which would take a very high polish.  The surfaces were highly decorated.  The ground colour was most often black and the decoration usually in gold.  When the demand for such wares proved to be more than the oriental countries could provide (and the Japanese were supposed never to export their best pieces anyway) Europeans tried to produce their own version of it (much as they had tried to reproduce porcelain).  Japanning in this country seems to have started in the last quarter of the 17th century.

Covered vase (one of a pair) on tin base, in gold leaf and painted birds, by  Frederick Walton & Co., about 1850. 

Photo copyright Wolverhampton City Council 2001.

The lacquers that were used in this country were not the natural lacquers of the east but substances, mostly based on asphaltum, which were developed here for the purpose.  Over time they improved greatly and were as fit for their purpose as the originals. Originally the style was practically an imitation of the Japanese and it always consisted mostly of a black ground with gold decoration.  To this would be added painting in natural colours and, later, thin slivers of pearl.  The ground colour could be almost anything and reds, greens and blues can all be found as variations on the black theme.

One of the boards for a blotter cover, c.1865. 

Photo copyright Wolverhampton City Council 2001.

Japanning could take place on almost anything.  The most usual bases were tin plate and papier mache, though wood was also used.  The products produced ranged from large pieces of furniture to small boxes - and everything in between: Japanned goods could play the role of plastics.  Though not as durable as many plastics, they were more durable than one might suppose: although tea pots and cups were made on a metal base they were also made on a papier mache base.  Of the thousands of different japanned items made in Wolverhampton, trays were the most common.

Teapot, japanned on tin, by J. W. Baker of Bilston, second half of the 19th. century.

Photo copyright Wolverhampton City Council 2001.

The trade in the West Midlands was divided between Birmingham, Wolverhampton and Bilston.  Of these Birmingham started first and Bilston followed.  The first mention of japanning in Bilston is in 1718/19 and the trade was very well established by the end of the 18th century.  Japanning seems not to have started in Wolverhampton until the middle of the 18th century and not to have been fully established until the start of the 19th..  The two towns differed in that Bilston japanning was almost never carried out on papier mache; and was nearly all directed at the cheaper end of the market and the export trade, especially to Spain and South America, to whose taste much of Bilston's design was directed.  

Of developments in Bilston, Lawley says: wood was soon found to be unsuitable, and a softer material, known as papier-mache, was invented in 1773. This was a few years after almost discarded for iron, a process of rolling having been invented by Wilkinson, which enabled the ironworkers to roll iron into thin sheets, from which an infinite variety of articles could be manufactured both for purposes of ornament and utility. One of the earliest and most ingenious of local manufacturers was a Mr. Hartill, whose house and shop stood, until a few years ago, midway between the Bull's Head, on the Wolverhampton Road, and Priestfield. This worthy invented several improved methods of ornamentation, which both facilitated the processes, and cheapened the cost.

An arm chair, japanned on wood with a papier mache back panel and cane seat, with pearl decoration, 1850-60.

Photo copyright Wolverhampton City Council 2001.

The trade went into decline from about the middle of the 19th century.  In part this seems to have been due to changes in taste and fashion but largely it was caused by the introduction of electroplating.  The trade was not helped by the introduction of new materials, especially aluminium and then plastics.  But some japanning continued in both towns well into the 20th century, the products by then consisting mostly of very utilitarian objects, very thinly japanned and that mainly for the purpose of protecting the metal; decoration would be minimal.  A typical example of such work would be the ubiquitous cash box, made out of tin plate and lacquered in black with a few gold and or red lines.

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