Cinnabar Lacquerware

By Carrie Springer

Cinnabar is the popular name used to describe Chinese lacquerware of a striking red color known for many centuries. When first produced, the distinctive color was derived from a mineral known as cinnabar that is scientifically described as mercuric sulfide, being meta-cinnabar or massive cinnabar. This mineral is the red mercury you see in older thermometers, and it is highly toxic. Its effects produce a wide range of mental and psychological conditions. When combined with lacquer, mercuric sulfide can leach through to exposed skin in measurable, but arrested, amounts to pose a health risk. The toxicity of mercury and cinnabar appears to have been recognized before 2000 B.C. when the task of mining quicksilver was assigned to slaves and prisoners.

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It is the distinctive color of this moderately rare mineral that has lent its identity of a deep coral red, known as Cinnabar Red, that is closely identified with classic Asian works of art, from pottery to fabric. This mineral is only found in significant quantities near hot springs or volcanic sites in Spain, Serbia, the Hunan Province of China and the United States in California, Oregon, Texas and Arkansas.

Lacquerware is any type of object that is coated with or formed from a distillate of the sap from the lac tree, common to the area now claimed by China's central and southern regions. The lac tree, which is of the sumac family like poison ivy and poison oak, is tapped much like a maple tree to gain its sap. The resulting gum is purified by heating and then made into lacquer by adding a solvent.

There is also a cinnabar tree (common name) that is a very soft and widely used because it is easily carved or molded. It plays no role however, in the production of cinnabar lacquerware. This soft wood is often incorporated into household and decorative items and layered with many coats of lacquer. With deep red pigments added to either the wood or the over-coats of lacquer, this type of wooden piece is also sometimes referred to as cinnabar for its coloring, but it is chiefly a product of Japan, now being reproduced throughout Asia.

Cinnabar lacquerware is known to have existed some 2,300 years, but that date may be extended back to the very early days of China. In 1955, Neolithic remains at Tuanjie Village and Meiyan Township (both in Wujiang County, Jiangsu Province) were unearthed, and a number of lacquer-painted black pottery objects were discovered intact. They are the earliest lacquered articles ever discovered in China and are now kept in the Museum of Nanjing.

Cinnabar lacquerware is almost always comprised solely of lacquer or lacquer built on a metal, wooden or bamboo armature. Later techniques have sometimes incorporated molding the basic shape from a lacquer-based clay before layering. To create lacquerware, from 200 to 500 coats are applied, depending upon the size of the piece. This requires months or even years of effort to establish the base for the traditional ornate carvings that are distinctive of cinnabar lacquerware. Each layer of the lacquer is applied and then dried until the desired thickness is achieved before carving or ornamentation can begin. In some cases, layers of varying colors have been incorporated to great stylistic effect.

Lacquer does not dry like paint. It cures as the liquid medium in which it is dissolved undergoes a process of evaporation, leaving the lacquer to harden as it chemically interacts with humidity in the air. Traditional carvers used dust-free cabinets to store items for curing between the numerous applications to keep it pure.

The vast majority of pieces available on the market today in the United States are mid-18th to mid-19th century. There are some rarer pieces that have found their way into the marketplace that date from the 17th century, but earlier examples that date back to the 15th century are mostly held in private collections of Asian artifacts. Because of the hardy nature of lacquer, there is a good number of surviving pieces of great antiquity. Many examples dating to before the 13th century are held in museums, but because of their photosensitivity, are rarely exhibited.

Because of the complexity of producing items out of cinnabar lacquer, they were rarely designed as utilitarian objects. The use of small trays and platters was common in the ritualized Japanese Tea Ceremony, and flower vases were often used on altars to honor ancestors. These in cinnabar lacquerware were often highly prized heirlooms that were passed on from one generation to the next. Various themes can be found on cinnabar lacquerware that signify traditional meanings. Sacred birds, flowers, dragons and scenes illustrate the spiritual connection between the piece itself and its function.

The value of a piece is determined by the age, the condition and the workmanship. The age must be determined by appraisal or identification of the artist's mark, usually found on the bottom of the piece. To determine the condition, examine the piece under magnification for cracks and fissures. The primary considerations for quality are the preservation of the color and lack of chipping.

Workmanship, however, seems to be the determining factor as to price at auction. The carving must be performed while the lacquer is still soft enough to be cut evenly with a sharp knife. Consequently, the artisan must be a master carver, for the incisions made by the point of the knife should not show, and the corners should be completely rounded out. When carving landscapes, palaces, figures, birds and animals, artisans strive to achieve the effect of a painting. The piece is then finished by drying and polishing.

Today, other pigments such as vermilion and even polymers and synthetics have been used to mass-produce items for export. While these are much safer and may mimic the intricate artistry exhibited in work produced before the latter half of the 20th century, they are easily identified because they lack the character and uniqueness of the older creations.

Cinnabar lacquer pieces should not be allowed to stay wet for any extended period of time. They should be dusted, not washed, and if wet accidentally, they should be dried as quickly as possible. It is advisable to use latex gloves when handling wet cinnabar lacquer, even though most pieces have been sealed with clear lacquer to prevent the transfer of mercury through the skin or onto dust that can be inhaled.

Mercuric sulfide is also photosensitive. To preserve the value and rich coloration of cinnabar lacquer, it should not be displayed under strong artificial light or in direct (or even filtered) sunlight. The pigment will darken considerably and can lose its patina, which with age begins to adopt a look and feel akin to human skin.

Cinnabar lacquerware is certainly beautiful treasures
 

This carved cinnabar lacquer snuff bottle with figural landscape scene sold for $800 + bp last February at IM Chait Auction in Beverly Hills.
(Photo, IM Chait)

Cinnabar vase, late 18th C., displaying fine artistry of flora
and fauna, also highlighting three sages and a servant on a veranda in a mountain setting. Ht. 9.5", valued at $1,052.
(Photo, ineasterndreams.com)

(Right) Early-to mid-20th c. urn
with blue enamel lining on wooden armature, about 14 1/2" in height.

Early 19th c. solid
lacquer decorative plate,
10 1/3", signed by artist.

Qing dynasty (17th-18h century) cinnabar box and cover carved with a scene of children playing outdoors beneath a pine tree. Offered for $4,600; 7 3/4" in diameter. (Photo, Gilles Lorin, Asiantiques.com.)

Mid-to late-18th c. snuff
bottle with carved ivory spoon, about 2" high.

Late 20th c. egg-shaped
decorative piece.

Unless otherwise noted, pictured Cinnabar pieces are from the private collection of
Carrie Springer, photographed
by Norman Hail.
 

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