Lacquer as Art and Medicinal Material in Early Modern England


Look up the word ‘lacquer’ in an art dictionary, or on Google, and you usually find the word ‘varnish’; a sticky liquid applied to the surface of objects to form a shiny coating. The word can also refer to the objects coated with varnish themselves, which are sometimes decorated with additional materials like gold and shells to make the surface more visually pleasant, just like the image above. This Asian craftsmanship, associated especially with China and Japan, was highly praised by Europeans after they navigated to Asia at the end of the fifteenth century.[1]

My doctoral research examines lacquer in early modern England from a less conventional perspective: as a medicinal material. My initial motivation to approach lacquer in this seemingly strange way comes from the search for the etymology of lacquer. 

Figure 1. Common lac insect (Kerria lacca)

In the Oxford English Dictionary, the etymons of ‘lacquer’ can be traced to Middle French, Italian, Latin, and they can also be found in Arabic and Sanskrit.[2] The first, also obsolete meaning of lacquer, is ‘lac’. This term refers to the resinous material produced by certain scale insects, especially the Kerria Lacca species.[3] The insect is native in Indian subcontinent and mainland region of Southeast Asia. Its excretion would be dried after being produced on the surface of tree branches (Fig. 2). A main application was to extract red pigment from the material, which constituted another meaning of the word. Lac was also one of the raw materials for making varnish, a use that later became popular in early modern Europe.

I was surprised that lacquer’s early meanings were not about varnish. This led me to consider if it was proper to take it for granted that ‘lacquer’ in early modern period meant the exactly same thing as it does today. Furthermore, how did the meaning(s) of lacquer take shape? Was the formation of the concept a smooth and instant process?

It is easy to forget that, although artists played a crucial role in the making of lacquerware, art only constitutes part of the life of lacquer. From being raw material in its natural condition, being collected, processed, transported to being further utilised, its (or their, because there was more than one type of material identified as lacquer) life path involved various interaction with humans in different fields. Today we tend to think of lacquer as a specific type of craftsmanship, a definition that focuses on one of this material’s life paths.  However, in the late medieval and early modern periods, such a narrowed down, concrete concept was not applied to the word ‘lacquer’ or its variants in European languages. 

In many cases, the word often referred to a foreign plant whose identity and geographical origin was a mystery and under long-term discussion. The formation of the concept was also closely associated with its different uses – including medicine. Therefore, lacquer was connected to a wider material network than simply varnish and the concept of lacquer in early modern period was much broader and more flexible than it is today. 

Figure 2. The Mazarin Cabinet, Victoria & Albert Museum.

It is not hard to imagine lacquer as a medicinal ingredient when it is approached primarily as a plant. Knowledge of making lacquer into medicine can be found in medieval Latin texts that were translated from medical works written by Islamic physicians. Here, the type of plant recognised as lacquer (or lacca in Latin) was the sticky material produced by the scale insects mentioned above. To get the gum, the twigs would be boiled with water which would be purified by filtering. According to recipes, such as the one by the Iranian physician Rhazes (AD 865-925), cleansed lacca can be boiled in water together with lentils and gum tragacanth, which would be given to the patient to drink.[4] Such medicine was expected to speed up the eruption of small pox.

Lacquer was assigned with medical properties, which were derived from humoral theory. The theory was developed by ancient Greek physicians, who thought there were four types of bodily fluids in the human body, whose balance was the key to one’s health. Each fluid is either hot/cold and dry/moist. If one has sickness related to coldness or blockage in the organs, hot medicine could be taken to alleviate the coldness and obstruction. Lacquer was ‘hot’ and could be used to treat illness related to blockage such as small pox. Rhazes mentioned this in his medical writing, which was passed down to the seventeenth-century English medical works and herbals. In widely-circulated work by English herbalist John Gerard (1545-1612), lacquer was described as ‘hot in the second degree’, whose art and medical functions were both mentioned.[5]

The implication of the story of lacquer as medicine is that: this material was not confined to art and it was not merely a by-product of European maritime activities endowed with only a sense of otherness and exoticness. On the contrary, knowledge of lacquer was introduced into Europe as early as the medieval period, and well assimilated into European medical theory. Lacquer was closely connected with a history of science and medicine, not only because the process of making art was related to technology, but also the material itself was embedded with meanings in the system of knowledge. 

Cheng He is a second-year PhD student in the History Department at University of Warwick. Her doctoral research centres on how the concept of ‘lacquer’ took shape in early modern England, by looking at the materiality and ways of use of the material.

[1] For the technique of lacquer art and its reception in early modern Europe, see Oliver Impey and Christiaan Jörg, Japanese Export Lacquer: 1580-1850 (Amsterdam: Hotei, 2005)

[2] ‘lacquer, n.’ OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2021. Consulted 20 May 2021.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Abú Becr Mohammed ibn Zacaríyá ar-Rází (commonly called Rhazes), A Treatise on the Small-Pox and Measles, translated from the Original Arabic by William Alexander Greenhill (Birmingham, Ala.: The Classics of Medicine Library, 1987, first published 1848), p. 106.

[5] John Gerard, The Herball, or, Generall Historie of Plantes (London: Iohn Norton, 1597), pp. 1349-50.

Cover image and Figure 2: Artist Unknown, The Mazarin Chest, c.1640, wood covered in black, gold and silver lacquer, inlaid with gold, silver and shell, and with copper fittings. Victoria & Albert Museum, London, 56.5cm x 100.3cm x 63.5cm. Accession number: 412:1, 2-1882. Image suggested by the author.

Figure 1: Jeffrey W. Lotz, Common lac insect (Kerria lacca), Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Insect Images. Available for educational use and recommended by the author.

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