11084 11084 – A REGENCY JAPANNED SECRETAIRE SET WITH UNIQUE ENGLISH GILT-BRASS MOUNTS COMMEMORATING THE ‘GREAT COMET’ OF 1811 English, Probably Midlands. Circa 1811. Measurements: Height: 46 1/2″ (118 cm); Width: 47 1/4″ (120 cm); Depth, closed: 22 3/4″ (57.7 cm); Depth, open: 41″ (104 cm).

Entirely japanned, with gilt brass mounts. The top with japanned decoration, with molded edge. The front formed of an extending, fall-front secretaire drawer, with two circular beribboned gilt brass drop handles. The fall-front decorated on both sides, inside with sixteen drawers each with original pulls, all elaborately japanned and six pigeonholes. Below, two doors, one with gilt-brass ‘rope’ molding on the inside edge, opening to reveal space with original slats for shelving. The front with elaborate brass mounts including key escutcheons, corner detailing and four hinges on each door. The whole raised on bracket feet. Minor restoration.

The taste for Chinoiserie, which had been prevalent earlier in the eighteenth century, was revitalized in its final decade by George Prince of Wales, the future George IV, whose extraordinary interior schemes at his London residence Carlton House and his seaside home, the Brighton Pavilion, did much to return this taste to prominence.1 This was especially so in the realm of furniture, where the European version of the process of oriental lacquering known as Japanning saw a resurgence in popularity.

As soon as genuine oriental lacquer pieces began to arrive in Europe in the early seventeenth century, Europeans were keen to discover the secret of the sleek, luxurious finish. In the absence of the vital ingredient, the sap of the lac tree or Rhus Vernicifera, which was impossible to grow in Europe, western furniture makers invented new recipes in a process which became known as Japanning. Instead of using a base of tree sap, they used resins applied in layers, dried with heat and then polished to a high level of finish. In 1688 John Stalker and George Parker published the hugely influential A Treatise of Japaning and Varnishing which included recipes, guidance on preparation and ideas for decorative designs.2 And the process was mentioned repeatedly in the most successful furniture pattern book of the 1790s, Thomas Sheraton’s The Cabinet Maker’s and Upholsterer’s Drawing Book first published in 1791.

Makers in England built a specialty in the field and their productions were popular after across Europe, becoming as soughtafter as the oriental lacquered equivalents. Giles Grendey, for example, enjoyed much success exporting his japanned work to Spain and Portugal.3 By the mid to late eighteenth century a particular specialism was apparent in the English midland towns of Birmingham, Wolverhampton and Bilston where papier maché, tinware as well as pieces of  furniture were all japanned. The lightness, durability and heat resistance of japanned tinware and papier maché caused it to become immensely popular and the industry in these areas would grow exponentially during the nineteenth century, by 1866 employing close to 2,000 people in Wolverhampton and Bilston alone.4

The decoration of the present piece suggests it could have been made in the English midlands in one of these centers. Its painted decoration is highly distinctive, and has clear similarities to a japanned tray in the collection of the Wolverhampton Museum made by the prominent maker of Japanned papier maché goods, Henry Clay (1767-1812) of Birmingham (figure 1), who would become Britain’s leading Japanner. In 1772 he signaled his grand ambitions for his company by registering a patent for making “High Varnished Pannels or Roofs for Coaches, and all Sorts of Wheel Carriages and Sedan Chairs, Pannels for Rooms, Doors and Cabbins of Ships, Cabinets, Bookcases, Screens, Chimney Pieces, Tables, Teatrays and Waiters”.5 Three years later he opened a London showroom in Covent Garden, allowing him to attract clients like the Dukes of Northumberland and the Child family of Osterley Park, for whom he would execute the furniture for the famed Etruscan Room in 1776, which survives today.

The present cabinet is not made from Clay’s specialist material, papier maché, and is, therefore, unlikely to be one of his productions, however, expert opinion has suggested that the very close similarity of its decoration to that on the Wolverhampton Museum tray mentioned above could mean that both were decorated by the same artist, who could have been itinerant or freelance, and employed by different workshops in the area.6 A hallmark of this style of painting is the technique known as bronzing, or the use of bronze powder to create charming effects in the varnish.  On the present piece it has been used to create the jagged rock effects, and the steps, which are also prominent on the tray.  It is described in The Artist’s or Young Lady’s Instructor of 1835,

“I begin with the pale gold bronze for the middle and larger parts, and at a little distance, add orange, green or copper bronze … To strengthen and brighten the colours, I add more of each with a little cotton.  Sometimes a pleasing rocky effect is obtained by cutting a piece of writing paper into a waved form, and rubbing the bronze over the edge of it with the cotton.”7 

The Western use of metal powders in lacquer designs owes its origin to Japanese makie, which translates to “sprinkled pictures.” Mackie lacquer developed between the ninth and fourteenth centuries and involved sprinkling gold and silver filings on a lacquer ground before it had completely hardened, followed by another thin layer to preserve the design. “By the early fourteenth century a preference for naturalistic effects gave rise to takamakie, or sprinkling over forms that have built up with lacquer and charcoal to achieve an effect of low relief…[such as] richly three-dimensional rocks and mountains.” Alternatively, the same designs could be achieved using hiramakie, a flat or low-raised makie. A late-eighteenth century Chinese screen in the King’s Closet at the Palace of Holyroodhouse employs metallic powder to create a design of buildings and figures within a landscape, the treatment of which is related to the present piece with regard to “stepped,” cloud-like rock formations (figure 2).

The decoration on the present cabinet is most fanciful and extraordinary, with the entirety of the piece being embellished with a series of chinoiserie buildings formed as pagodas and temples of varying sizes and designs. These structures appear as if suspended in the air and they are linked by a most curious system of steps, which in places have a distinctly cloudlike quality. Trees issue from rock formations with roots sometimes visible, as if to amplify the sense that the whole is floating in a black abyss. Aside from the aforementioned tray by Clay, this decorative design has no direct parallels in English lacquer.

The gilded linework that creates the plant forms is exceptionally fine, being sometimes no thicker than a single hair. The laying of gilt in this fashion necessitates applications of size8 that form the desired pattern. Before drying, gold leaf is laid atop the patterns with resultant adhesion, causing the gold to bond to the surface. Needless to say, applying gold to designs so slender demands the steadiest hand and the utmost skill.

A further and most fascinating aspect of the present cabinet’s decoration, however, is the design of its fine mounts which have been applied in a clear antiquarian reference. The multiple clasp hinges hearken back to those found on lacquer cabinets imported from Japan to Europe in the late seventeenth century, but, very unusually they are embellished with remarkable “comet motifs”. It is believed that they were designed to mark the Great Comet of 1811, which held the record as the longest-lasting comet visible to the naked eye during both the night and day (from April 1811 to January 1812) until the late twentieth century. It caught the public imagination more than any other prior comet, and subsequently was presented in satirical and commemorative prints. Similar pieces of memorabilia were produced, such as a tankard made in 1811, which is an especially interesting example; it is decorated with impressions of the comet, several other planets and a twelve-point star atop (figure 3). 1811 was considered to be an excellent wine vintage, which some ascribed to the comet; the wine was thereafter known as comet wine and the bottles were embossed with comet symbols (figure 4). Astronomy certainly was a matter of wide interest in Birmingham, especially among the city’s industrial elite.  Matthew Boulton’s learned Lunar Society, as the name might suggest, had a very active interest in the subject, and counted among their number the leading astronomer of the age, William Herschel.  William’s sister Caroline in particular is remembered for her comet-spotting, discovering eight between 1786 and 1797, many of which have retained her name.9 Despite the popularity of the motif there appears to be no other example of the ‘Great Comet’ having been depicted on the mounts of a piece of furniture.

The proportions of the present piece relate to a secretary and bookcase in Thomas Sheraton’s Drawing Book (1791-94), Plate 28, while aspects of its interior’s design and its folding-down desk mechanism are close to an example of a library table with secretary drawer in the same volume, Plate 12.


  1. See Geoffrey de Bellaigue, “The Furnishings of the Chinese Drawing Room, Carlton House” in The Burlington Magazine, September 1967, pp. 518-528
  2. John Stalker and George Parker, A Treatise of Japaning and Varnishing, London 1688
  3. See R. W. Symonds, ‘English Eighteenth Century Furniture Exports to Spain and Portugal’ in The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, Vol. 78, No. 455 (Feb., 1941), pp. 57-61
  4. The Illustrated London News, Volume 49, December 1868, p. 562
  5. Yvonne Jones, Japanned Papier Maché and Tinware c. 1740-1940, p. 131
  6. We would like to thank the expert on Japanned tinware, Yvonne Jones, for this opinion.
  7. Jones, 75.
  8. Japanner’s gold size, consisting of 1 oz. gum-animi, 1 oz. asphaltum, 1 ½ oz. red lead, 1 ½ oz. lithage o gold, 1 ½ oz umber and 1 lb. linseed-oil. From Samuel Orchart Beeton’s Domestic Recipe Book, Ward Lock & Co., London, 1883. No. 737.
  9. See Roberta J. M. Olson1 and Jay M. Pasachoff, The Comets of Caroline Herschel, 2012, http://arxiv.org/pdf/1212.0809.pdf

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