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Japanned Ware: beautiful as well as functional

10/27/2009

The Black Country is well known for the variety of metal working that has historically gone on in the area.  Much that was made was functional rather than pretty; chains from Cradley Heath, locks from Walsall and Wolverhampton, traps from Willenhall but there are exceptions for example many Wolverhampton made japanned ware items are both functional and very beautiful in their own way.

Japanned ware may not appeal to our modern tastes but for much of the 19th century it was the must-have item for every home.

Black and gold decorated tray

Victorian japanned tea tray, LP180

Initially developed as a cheap alternative to rare and expensive lacquer ware imported from China, Japan and India, it soon became highly desirable in its own right.

Unique in both its method of manufacture and style, japanned ware was only produced in a few locations, the most notable being Wolverhampton. Other centres of manufacture included Birmingham, Pontypool and Usk. It involved the use of specially developed tar-based varnishes applied to a base of metal, wood or papier mâché to create a wide variety of products, from buttons and trays to beds and vases.

Decorative

To modern eyes japanned ware may seem fussy and over decorated but to the Victorians it was the height of artistic design.

Many pieces were highly decorated and the plentiful use of gold leaf, mother of pearl and coloured paints was much loved by the Victorians.

All tastes were catered for. Designs styles included Oriental, Byzantine, German Gothic, Renaissance and Elizabethan. Oriental designs were particularly popular, depicting Asian architecture and dress as well as stylised birds and insects, bringing the allure of the mystic East into the Victorian home.

Decorated oval tray painted with a scene from 'Tristram Shandy'.

Japanned tray decorated by Edward Bird, LP304

Artistic Merit

Many artists employed in the decoration of japanned ware became highly skilled and would often become specialists in a particular type of decoration.

Perhaps the most renowned japanned ware artist was Wolverhampton born artist Edward Bird (Wikipedia) whose designs were held in high regard.  His success as a japanned ware artist was such that he was able to leave his humble roots behind becoming a member of the Royal Academy and Court Painter to Princess Charlotte, King George IV’s daughter.

Queen Victoria Visits Wolverhampton

Queen Victoria visits Wolverhampton, 1866

Paper Arches?

The quality of its japanned ware made Wolverhampton so famous that in 1866, when Queen Victoria visited Wolverhampton, one of three triumphal arches built for the visit consisted entirely of japanned ware.

Many people still have pieces of japanned ware in their family today: tea caddies, music boxes, tea-trays. If you have one, why not post a photograph of it to Flickr and add it to our Japanned ware group or write a comment in the box below?

Sources

Yvonne Jones, Georgian & Victorian Japanned Ware of the West Midlands

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