In the hands of a master craftsman, urushi (lacquer), a thick, viscous, ugly and intractable sap, is transformed. This metamorphosis is not accidental – although much of it is secret – but the result of painstaking hours of meticulous human endeavour.

The result can seem magical. Illustrations of Japanese mythology and history, observations of nature and daily life appear suspended in layers of fine gold dust (nashiji), or emerge from three-dimensional forms in lacquer (takamakie and hiramakie), or seem like watercolours on coloured and exotic grounds (togidashi-e and kawarinuri). Often mistaken by the untrained eye for metal work, the finished object gives little hint of the weeks and months of painstaking refining, application, painting and polishing that occurs layer after layer as the final object takes shape.

Japanese lacquer, urushi, is the sap of the tree Rhus vernicifera, a species of sumac. With careful refining, the addition of colours and metallic powders, it is transformed into a material which when dried and polished, obtains a highly polished surface.

The art of lacquering was introduced from China some time during the Ancient Period (to A.D. 552). With the introduction of Buddhism to Japan in about 552 A.D. lacquer art flourished. Emperor Mommu (697 – 707) established a Guild of Lacquer Workers which later became part of the Imperial Household and ordered every landowner to plant lacquer trees in accordance with the size of their landholdings. During this period, lacquer was accepted in lieu of taxes.

Makie, the art of the sprinkled picture, developed over time to reach its zenith in the Momoyama (1573 – 1600) and Edo Periods (1600 – 1868). This technique is uniquely Japanese. From its earliest applications in religion and architecture, lacquer came to be used for a variety of objects and functions, from the most mundane to the most esoteric: water pots and rice bowls to highly revered items associated with the aristocratic pursuits of tea, calligraphy and incense.

Lesley Kehoe Galleries is a leading specialist gallery in lacquer art. The company has significant experience with historical lacquer artworks and long-standing relationships with contemporary lacquer masters and younger emerging artists. We are proud to be the international representative of contemporary master Unryuan Kitamura Tatsuo and have been responsible for placing his works in major public institutions worldwide and in significant private collections. Younger artists are emerging, using lacquer in a variety of ways to create both classically inspired works and contemporary sculptural and abstract forms.


Lesley Kehoe