Japanned furniture: global objects in provincial America

In 1688 John Stalker and George Parker published a lengthy manual entitled A Treatise of Japaning and Varnishing, being a Compleat Discovery of those Arts… that inclu-ded “Above an Hundred distinct Patterns for Japan-work, in Imitation of the Indians, for Tables, Stands, Frames, Cabinets, Boxes, etc.” 5 Like most English and Americans at the time, Stalker and Parker seemed to have an imperfect understanding of Asian geography; they used the terms Japan and India (or Indian) interchangeably even though they distinguished lacquerwork done in Japan from that of China or Indonesia. The authors claimed their text would save purchasers from poor draftsmen, who “impose upon the Gentry such Stuff and Trash,” and would allow the “nobility and gentry” to obtain “whole Setts of Japan-work, whereas otherwise they were forc’t to content themselves with perhaps a Screen, a Dressing-box, or Drinking-bowl.”

These still dramatic and imposing japanned pieces with their elaborate decoration seem not to fit with our picture of early Boston—its stained-wood center-chimney houses, unpaved streets, and crowded wharfs—just emerging from the Puritan era. But by the 1720s this was a town where the well-to-do, and those who could imitate them, might sport scarlet cloaks and powdered wigs. This was the period when the wealthy merchant Andrew Faneuil (1672–1737) built his brick mansion with elegant gardens and a summerhouse like those found in the best English gardens. And future Governor Jonathan Belcher (1682–1757), son of another successful merchant, embarked on a gentleman’s tour of England and the Continent. In Germany young Belcher, like his ambitious English compatriots, waited on the family of George I (r. 1714–1727) at Hanover.6

Not only were colonials adopting a more cosmopolitan lifestyle, but their buildings were undergoing a dramatic transformation as well. Houses of the middling sort and gentry, like Faneuil’s, were enlarged to include a parlor for polite gatherings. The bedstead, a feature of the best room in most seventeenth-century houses, was banished to an upper chamber, and those who could added another bay to their single width houses. On spying a neighbor’s improvements early in the century, the Boston merchant Thomas Banister (1683–1716) wrote to his agent in London that “some curious clear glass” was the “newest Fashion” in town, and of course he wanted some for his own abode.7 Together with larger rooms and high ceilings, such sash windows with multiple panes of glass imported from England—all part of a Georgian attention to space and symmetry—created light-filled rooms.8

In such airier, more spacious rooms larger pieces of japanned furniture—high chests of drawers and tall-case clocks—could show to most advantage; their reflective surfaces and elaborate gilded decoration could take possession of a room and reflect luster back onto their owners. In such an environment, it is not surprising that several japanners flourished in Boston (see Fig. 4).

As the center for American furniture manufacture until 1750, Boston had as many as a dozen japanners at work during the first half of the century. In 1714 the Englishman William Price (1684–1771), who was already an accomplished japanner, arrived in Boston and quickly joined the Anglican King’s Chapel, where the Faneuils and other affluent potential clients worshiped. At about the same time William Randall (w. c. 1715–c. 1735) opened a cab-inet- and framemaking and japanning shop near the Town House, now the Old State House, across the street from the wealthy merchant Charles Apthorp (1698–1758), who helped to finance Randall and his partner, Robert Davis (see Fig. 5). Thomas Johnston (1708–1767) developed a family business catering to Boston’s merchant elite; he and his sons Thomas Jr. (1731–c. 1776), Benjamin, and John (b. c. 1753; active 1773–1789) worked as japanners (John painted portraits as well).9 

The purveyor Robert Jenkins sold “Japan’d Tea Boards and Waiters,” or trays, from his location on the north side of the Town House on King Street—Boston’s leading commercial thoroughfare, which connected the social and political center of town with the commercial wharves and warehouses at the harbor side. The colonial historian Bernard Bailyn observed that even in the late seventeenth century this cosmopolitan thoroughfare was “the exact pivot point of the primary orbit of the Atlantic trade in New England.”10 And, as evidenced by japanned furniture, tea, Chinese porcelain, and the many East India goods possessed by colonial Americans, it also represented a main point of connection to the world beyond the Atlantic.

Much less is known about japanners in other colonial cities. The Redwood Library and Athenaeum in Newport, Rhode Island, owns the japanned tall-case clock shown in Figure 6, the works of which were made by William Claggett about 1728. Although the name of the talented limner who decorated it remains unknown, it is possible that Newport’s resident japanner William Gibbs (d. 1729) may have done the work. Gibbs is best known for the way he adorned the walls of his own house with elaborate panels of japanned decoration.11 In New York in 1759 Gerardus Duyckinck (1695–1746) advertised in the New-York Mercury that he had moved to a new location and was “selling as usual” British and East India goods, powders and varnishes for painting, “japanner’s colours, gums, speckles and frosts of different sorts,” and “a good assortment of pictures and looking glasses,” as well as window glass of all sizes. A skilled japanner himself, Duyckinck also offered “limning, gilding, silvering and lackering done at a reasonable price.”12 In the same year John Long offered “japann’d waiters,” and a luxurious assortment of imported fabrics and accessories from his shop on Wall Street, and in mid-July an auction in New York included “japanned and enamell’d Wares, of Bread Baskets, Waiters, Trays, and Toothpick Cases.”13

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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