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Lacquer

Two techniques were used to produce what is commonly known as lacquer in the Islamic lands. In the first, lac, the resin-like substance produced as a protective covering by lac insects, was applied to objects made of wood or metal. It was used until the 14th century for a small number of objects such as the 11th- or 12th-century wooden bowl (diam. 60 mm) decorated with seated musicians that was excavated at Ribat-i Sharaf in northeast Iran (see Kiani, fig. 1 and pls. 3–6). At the same time, the second, and more common, technique, that of protecting painted decoration with a layer of resin varnish, was being applied to utilitarian objects, such as a varnished wooden dish decorated with a jackal (London, V&A), whose style suggests an attribution to 13th- or 14th-century Egypt. In Iran this resin-varnish technique subsequently developed into a high-quality art form applied to papier-mâché objects that had been covered with a thin coat of plaster or gesso.

The handful of varnished bookbindings that survive from the 15th century (Istanbul, Topkapı Pal. Lib.) bear the same non-figural designs as are found on contemporary leather bindings (see Bookbinding). In the 16th century figural subjects drawn from contemporary book illustration (see Illustration, §VI, A), such as picnics, hunts and other scenes of court life, began to appear. They are characterized by plants and trees outlined in gold. The first signed examples were made by Riza at the beginning of the 17th century. These, and bookbindings made 50 years later by his pupil Mu῾in, show that lacquer painting was regarded as a respectable activity in which the foremost painters might engage. Other leading artists at the Safavid court in Isfahan, such as Muhammad zaman and ῾Aliquli jabbadar, painted lacquered objects in the Europeanizing style that came into fashion in the second half of the 17th century.

From the mid-17th century resin varnish began to be applied to a wider range of objects, such as penboxes (see fig.), caskets (see Collectors and collecting, fig. 2) and mirror-cases, which consist of a frame (usually rectangular, but sometimes octagonal or oval) and a cover for the mirror that was either hinged or slotted into the frame. In the 18th century production of these items increased. Figural scenes continued to be depicted, and designs of roses and nightingales became popular and remained so during the subsequent history of Iranian lacquer. The Europeanizing style continued to be used at the court of Karim Khan Zand (r. 1750–79) in Shiraz. Muhammad Sadiq, for example, produced oil paintings, miniatures and lacquer wares, while ῾Ali ashraf worked only in lacquer, specializing in fine flower and bird designs on a black ground.

The 19th century was the heyday of Iranian lacquer. In 1811 Sir William Ouseley (1767–1842) saw piles of penboxes several feet high in the Isfahan bazaar, as well as numerous mirror cases and caskets. Most pieces bore designs with figural subjects executed by anonymous artists, but some were signed by the foremost court artists—Mirza baba, Mihr ῾ali and Sayyid mirza, for example. Towards the end of the reign of the Qajar monarch Fath ῾Ali Shah (r. 1797–1834; see Qajar, §II, A) Najaf ῾Ali of Isfahan (see Isfahani, §I) began to make his name, and he and his family (became the leading lacquer painters of the mid-century. Besides his three sons, Muhammad Kazim, Ja῾far and Ahmad, this group included his younger brother, Muhammad Isma῾il (see Isfahani, §II), who was perhaps the best of them all and who delighted in European subjects with innumerable small figures. A casket done by him in 1865 (Berne, Hist. Mus.) is the most remarkable surviving piece of its kind. Every surface is covered with the finest painting, particularly on the exterior, where hundreds of tiny figures are depicted taking part in scenes from the campaigns against the Afghans and the Turkmen.

Shiraz and Tehran were also important centers in the second half of the 19th century. At Shiraz the leading exponent in the 1850s was Aqa buzurg, an able portrait painter, while at the end of the century the work of the painter Fathallah combined meticulously painted figural medallions with gold scrollwork and sprays of roses. Good work of all kinds was done at Tehran. Figural subjects show the influence of the painter laureate Sani῾ al-Mulk (see Ghaffari, §I), although he himself produced only one or two pieces of painted lacquer. In the 1880s the intricate arabesque designs used in manuscript illumination were executed in lacquer by Razi and his followers. Around the turn of the century, highly Europeanized figural subjects, sometimes of a mildly erotic character, were done by ῾Abd al-Husayn and ῾Abd al-Latif, two painters who shared the title Sani῾-i Humayun. At this time many lacquered objects, particularly doors and caskets, were painted with imitations of Safavid miniatures and were often provided with misleading inscriptions and dates. Inconsistencies and anachronisms in details of costume and other accessories reveal their true date. The revival of miniature painting from the 1920s onwards encouraged the production of a few lacquered objects decorated in a pseudo-Safavid style; although finely executed, they are not particularly original.

From Iran the technique of applying resin varnish on papier mâché spread to Turkey and India. For the most part, painted lacquer produced there followed Iranian models in technique and design. In Turkey the main center was Edirne, and the designs were almost exclusively floral; no examples earlier than the 18th century survive. In India a few bookbindings from the 17th and 18th centuries have arabesque designs, but the majority of Indian painted lacquer was executed in Kashmir from the 18th century onwards (see also India, §V). The designs are either massed flowers, usually outlined in gold, or figures from Iranian legend, drawn in the rather clumsy style characteristic of Kashmiri book painting.

Bibliography

  • B. W. Robinson: “A Lacquer Mirror-case of 1854,” Iran, v (1967), pp. 1–6
  • B. W. Robinson: “Persian Lacquer in the Bern Historical Museum,” Iran, viii (1970), pp. 47–50
  • M. Y. Kiani, ed.: Robat-e Sharaf (Tehran, 1981), pp. 45–54; Eng. summary, pp. 6–7
  • Lacquerwork in Asia and Beyond: Percival David Foundation Colloquium on Art & Archaeology in Asia, no. 11: London, 22–24 June 1981
  • B. W. Robinson: “Persian Lacquer and the Bern Historical Museum Casket,” Orientations (Oct. 1985), pp. 24–9
  • B. W. Robinson: “Lacquer, Oil Paintings and Later Arts of the Book,” Treasures of Islam (exh. cat., ed. T. Falk; Geneva, Mus. Rath, 1985), pp. 176–205
  • Eastern Lacquer: An Exhibition of 50 Pieces of Persian, Indian and Turkish Lacquer (exh. cat. by B. W. Robinson; London, Bernheimer F.A. Ltd., 1986)
  • B. W. Robinson: “Qajar Lacquer,” Muqarnas, vi (1989), pp. 131–46
  • B. W. Robinson: “Lacquer in the University of Oxford,” Islamic Art in the Ashmolean Museum, ed. J. Allan, Oxford Studies in Islamic Art, x/2 (Oxford, 1995), pp. 45–61
  • E. Baer: “Traditionalism or Forgery: A Note on Persian Lacquer Painting,” Artibus Asiae, lv/3 (1995), pp. 343–79
  • N. D. Khalili, B. W. Robinson and T. Stanley: Lacquer of the Islamic Lands (1996), xxii of The Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art (London, 1992– )
  • L. S. Diba: “The Rose and the Nightingale in Persian Art,” A. Asia, xxvi/6 (1996), pp. 100–12
  • Royal Persian Paintings: The Qajar Epoch 1785–1925 (exh. cat., ed. L. S. Diba with M. Ekhtiar; New York, Brooklyn Mus.; Los Angeles, CA, Armand Hammer Mus. A; London, U. London, SOAS, Brunei Gal.; 1998–9)
  • W. Floor: “Art (Naqqashi) and Artists (Naqqashan) in Qajar Persia,” Muqarnas, xvi (1999), pp. 125–54
  • M. Karim῾zadah Tabrizi: Qalamdan va sayir-i sanayi῾-i rawghni-i Iran [Qalamdan and Persian lacquer-work] (London, 2000)
  • M. Nasseripour and C. Parham: “Lacquerwork,” Splendour of Iran, ed. N. Pourjavady (London, 2001), pp. 118–31
  • The World of Lacquer: 2000 years of History (exh. cat. by P. d. M. Carvalho and J. Hutt; Lisbon, Calouste Gulbenkian Mus., 2001)
  • D. Duda: “Islamische Lackeinbände—ihre künstlerische Entwicklung und ihr Verhältnis zum Buch als Gesamtkunstwerk,” J. Turk. Stud., xxvi/1 (2002), pp. 163–204
  • E. J. Grube: “A Painted Wooden Lid in the al-Sabah Collection in Kuwait,” Cairo to Kabul: Afghan and Islamic Studies Presented to Ralph Pinder-Wilson, ed. W. Ball and L. Harrow (London, 2002), pp. 113–22
  • T. Stanley: “The Rise of the Lacquer Binding,” Hunt for Paradise: Court Arts of Safavid Iran, 1501–1576, ed. J. Thompson and S. R. Canby (Milan, 2003), pp. 184–201
  • E. J. Grube: “Venetian Lacquer and Bookbindings of the 16th century,” Venice and the Islamic World, 828–1797, ed. S. Carboni (New Haven, CT, 2007), pp. 230–43
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