The Black Box

by Marie-Claire Petrowski

The Chinese Lacquered Writing Box appears to be an export lacquer piece, c.1850-1900, from the Bathurst Regional Council.  However, export Lacquer is not made in the same way as traditional Asian lacquer. 

So, what’s the problem?




A box in a box: 3 to be exact! Below the writing table, behind a horizontal panel, lies 3 secret boxes.  The Chinese words for ‘front’, ‘middle’ or ‘back’ are inscribed on the rear of each to indicate correct placement in the larger piece!

The problem

Urushiol , traditional Japanese lacquer from an east Asian lacquer tree, is ‘filtered and purified…applied to a base, usually of wood…coloured…[and] decorated in several ways; by inlaying, painting and incising’ (Kerr 1991, p,21) polymerizing to an extremely hard and durable surface.  Around 15 -30 layers of lacquer are applied!

Domestic Chinese lacquer pieces were of a high quality but export lacquer, by contrast, was produced on mass for European and US markets, to cater to a demanding, short and fast trade season. Corners had to be cut to keep up with demand. This resulted in changes to the ingredients, application, preparation layers and joinery.  These pieces often used animal size and had only 2-4 layers of lacquer in comparison.

The condition

Because of these practices, we are left with an aesthetically beautiful box which is more vulnerable than the original.  This writing box is in poor condition with a surface which appears to have oxidized and is now matte and dull, as well as water drop-like marks causing loss of lacquer. The thin lacquered surface (evidence of its export quality) is missing in parts and heavily cracked, flaking and tenting on the external surfaces. The wooden, paper and clay supports are also missing or damaged. The internal lacquer retains more shine, probably due to less light exposure, however the writing table is very fragile and torn while its function is inhibited as parts have detached.  The top of the box appears to have been rotated as the image faces away with its original hinge/latch position exposed. Lastly, Handles at each side are also missing.

During Treatment

A treatment plan was devised based on the following principle: ‘Polishing of ancient lacquer would not be considered ethical or necessary in a modern…conservation treatment…[and] reversibility should always be a primary consideration’ (Neuman & Martin 1996, p.50/52).

Microscopic pictures from the rear of a loose flake clearly indicate paper fibres with a clay substrate/particles below the lacquer.
Returning this object to its original state would require a very interventive and intensive treatment over many hours.  Without any details of its history or significance the treatment priority was to, ethically and sustainably, remove the dirt as well as providing stability/consolidation of the lacquer and supports to protect it from further damage and deterioration, before anything else could be considered.



Consolidation and stabilization of substrate using starch paste/cellulose powder, paper-pulp/methylcellulose powder/microballoons/water-colour, Modostuc®/watercolour.


Consolidation and stabilization of flaking , loose and cracked lacquer/paper/clay substrate  using Beva371 strips and solution in white spirits (2:1)/heated spatula/weights and PVAc solution (ethanol/acetone)

After Treatment

The treatment of this object is ongoing and requires special care. The infills need monitoring and further smoothing, the base requires attention as does the interior surface and writing table. In the meantime, proper storage is our next step.


Chinese export lacquer often contains a gelatinous substrate and is therefore much more susceptible to moisture and changes in relative humidity (RH) compared to original Asian lacquerware. Wet weather or washing the surface repeatedly makes it powdery while continual ups and downs in weather and RH make the substrate swell and contract as it gets wet and dries, putting much stress on the lacquered layers.

Lacquer also dislikes light, oxygen and air-pollution, which make it age more quickly. This may causing the pigments and surface to become more yellow, faded, brittle, dull and water sensitive.  However, the damage isn’t only skin deep! Extreme temperatures can also force the support to react and move and create even bigger issues (Lithgow et al 2006, p.387/8).

The box in a box

Our box will shrink in the dry and expand around moisture, so storing it in a controlled environment between 15-22°C and 45-65% RH is a must. This is ideally achieved on a shelf protected from dust and in the microclimate of this storage box.

Fingerprints cause microscopic cracking patterns as well so gloves are needed at all times, and further degradation should also be repaired immediately (Webb 2000, p.57 ; Brommelle & Smith 1988, p.75; Lambooy 2005, p.1079).




I would like to thank the staff and student conservators at the GCCMC for their aid support, and to the Bathurst District Historical Society for allowing me to work on the box.


Brommelle, N & Smith, P (Ed.s) 1988. Urishi: Proceedings of the Urushi Study Group June 1027, 1985 Tokyo, The Getty Conservation Institute, California

Lambooy, S 2005, ‘Lacquer on Japanese porcelain: a case study of two Imari vases with urushi lacquer decoration from the collection of the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam’, in 14th Triennial Meeting, The Hague, 12-16 September 2005: preprints, James and James, pp. 1075–1082

Lithgow, K., Lloyd, H, Parry, J, Staniforth, S, Seeley, N, Cronyn, J, & Clarke, P (ed.s) 2006, National Trust Manual of Housekeeping: The care of collections in historic houses open to the public. Elsevier Ltd. Butterworth-Heinemann, London

Neuman, I & Martin, J 1996, ‘Where east meets west: The conservation of a modern, large‐scale, black lacquer sculpture exhibited in a public space,’ in Objects Specialty Group Postprints, Volume 4, pp.42‐61

Webb, M 2000, Lacquer: Technology and Conservation, Reed Educational and Professional Publishing; Butterworth – Heinemann, Oxford, United Kingdom.