October 27, 2021

Following Living Things and Still Lifes in a Global World: Introducing Cheng He's research

Writing about web page https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/hrc/confs/flt/

In this first blog post relating to the HRC conference on 'Following Living Things and Still Lifes in a Global World', one of the co-organisers, Cheng He, a third year PhD student in History, explains how the theme of the conference links to her own doctoral research.

My thesis on lacquer centres around people’s understanding of this material in early modern England. Today lacquer means a kind of sticky liquid applied to the surface of objects. It forms a shiny and protective layer after dried. The word is often interchangeably used with ‘varnish’. Lacquer can also refer to varnished objects. In museums and stately houses, we can often come across lacquer furniture such as cabinets (Fig. 1), folding screens, or smaller objects including tea caddies, writing boxes, etc. Some of them were made in Asia and brought to Europe through maritime trade since the sixteenth century. Some were locally made to imitate Asian lacquer, whose smooth and reflective surface was highly praised in early modern period.

Japanned cabinet

Japanned cabinet on stand, English, c. 1690, 218 cm x 101.6 cm x 49.5 cm, Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

When I was considering about the specific topic of my doctoral research, my focus was actually on the export lacquerware made in China. I thought it would be interesting to trace how these objects were designed, made and received by European collectors. This topic is still attractive to me, which would be fascinating to pursue. However, when I started to write the research proposal and looked up the word ‘lacquer’ in a dictionary, I was surprised to find that the first meaning of the word was not varnish nor varnished objects. Instead, the word has a long history with different meanings.

Therefore I realised that it was not proper to have a presumption about the definition of lacquer, especially if I wanted to study how this material was perceived by early modern people. I took it for granted that ‘lacquer’ had exactly the same definition as it does today. But the meanings of lacquer in early modern period were not just about a craft but also the plants that produced the raw material for making varnish. Then there was another question: when did the line between craft and raw material, between artificial and natural lacquer become clear in this case? Was it a smooth process?

If the meaning of lacquer was not settled, and when there was more than one type of raw material to be used for making varnish, did people differentiate them and how? In addition, varnish was not a processed material that can only be find in one geographical area, but also in many places all over the world, then did the definition of lacquer change because of the diversity of the raw materials? Was there any hierarchical ranking of these materials? Would this affect how people understood lacquer objects?

Above are some questions that I’ve been working on in my research. I believe lacquer is not the only material that is worth similar questioning. When placed in a different time period, the understanding and definition of a material could be different. This may include a less clear-cut conception between a natural material and objects made of this material. Moreover, if its raw material or related craft can be found in different parts of the world, the understanding of an object could be more complicated. Based on this, we can ask if a material was thought to possess the same identity after being transferred to a different region, processed into other objects and represented in a different form (like a print or painting), since this was associated with its interpretation. In this sense, can we say a still material is ‘living’ because its identity and cultural meanings are constantly changing?

In short, unstable identity and categorisation of a material is one aspect that led to the topic of this conference. When a material and the knowledge of it spread and interacted with each other, the story might be intricate and yet rich. In next blog entry, my colleague Camilo will talk about his research, which shares certain common ground with mine and at the same time provides other elements to the conference topic.

Cheng He (PhD student in History)

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