Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Material Study and Dating of Inlaid Mother-of-Pearl Lacquers

Chinese lacquer in the MFA is not as well-researched or published as other areas of its collection. In my presentation, I will give a brief survey of some of our less well-known lacquers and discuss recent material studies carried out on a group of mother-of-pearl inlaid lacquers.

The majority of the MFA's collection is made up of later Qing mother-of-pearl inlaid lacquers. Associated with poorer quality workmanship and export wares, Qing mother-of-pearl inlaid lacquers have never been as popular or seriously studied as lacquer from the earlier periods. Researching the collection has revealed several interesting things. One is that some pieces, originally catalogued as Chinese, may in fact be from the Ryukyu Islands (Okinawa). The remaining group of dishes and boxes, which number 180, appear to have been used by the middle and upper class as everyday utensils. The pieces are fascinating to study as they encompass many different subject matters - famous landmarks, poems and idioms - and also vary in the quality of their workmanship. Furthermore, examining the elemental composition of metal foil inlay has revealed much about later mother-of-pearl inlaid lacquer process and also clarified certain techniques.

Dating these lacquers is challenging. Usually, dating is reliant upon stylistic analysis and comparisons with similar designs on other contemporary media including woodblock prints, paintings, porcelains, and textiles. The MFA has a presentation box with a cyclical date with designs and motifs that also appear on other smaller pieces. If a date for this box can be established using Carbon-14 or radiocarbon dating, then it may be used as a yardstick in which to date other pieces. As the box was made less than 300 years ago, obtaining a deterministic date is impossible, however, preliminary analysis shows that it is most likely to have been made in 1668 or 1788.