Conservator behind the scenes

By: Maria João Petsica


Dressing table, brought to Salem for William (Billy) Gray (1750-1825), 13300, c. 1800. Courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum.

Chinese export pieces that feature the black lacquer and gold decoration are commonly designated as Canton lacquer in a clear association with the place from whence they were shipped and believed to be manufactured. Lacquer decoration referred to as Canton lacquer was produced in gold painted decoration or miao-jin.

In this technique, the decorative motif was painted in gold, by means of fine brushes, over several layers of black lacquer. Objects of this kind were brought home by merchants and sea captains to furnish their homes or as gifts to family members and friends. During the eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth centuries, a considerable number of lacquered pieces reached Europe and the US due to the trading activities with China.

The Peabody Essex Museum has several remarkable examples of this production brought back from Canton (today’s Guangzhou) on the ships belonging to private traders and members of the East India Marine Society.

The primary goal of my Ph.D. research is to characterize Chinese export lacquer production from 1700 to 1850 and understand how these objects were created and traded.


Working at the Peabody Essex Museum. Picture by Karina Corrigan, @asianexportart on Instagram.

Due to the generosity of the Malamy Family and the Phillips Library/Peabody Essex Museum, I spent a month and a half in beautiful Salem, MA, as a Frances E. Malamy Fellow, between August and September 2016, to use the resources kept by both the library as well as the museum.

This fellowship allowed me to carry out an in-depth study of some Chinese export lacquer pieces and to trace their history using the archives held at the Phillips Library. The extensive collection of manuscripts from the Phillips Library includes shipping documents that provide invaluable information about merchants, trade, and cargos that circulated between Salem and Canton since Elias Hasket Derby’s Grand Turk established the first voyage between the two port cities in 1786.

My research focused on letters and account books belonging to the supercargoes of different ships that traded in Guangzhou, as is the case of the extraordinarily detailed group of documents belonging to Benjamin Shreve. The supercargo was the man on board who was responsible for all the money from investors and for all the commercial transactions in the different ports where the ships docked.

It was also his responsibility to take note of all cargoes that went in and out of the ships and to keep them in good condition until they reached their final destination.

Shreve, who after 1812 served as supercargo and ship master on several voyages to Guangzhou, documented his business with extreme detail. Documents like these helped me to gather information regarding quantities of lacquer pieces being shipped back to Salem during different time periods. Furthermore, my goal was to investigate specific shapes and particular pieces that would help me to understand the preference for some objects over others, depending on the dates. The notes of the supercargo about the commissioners´ preferences regarding shapes and sizes of lacquer pieces to be brought back to Salem were an invaluable contribution to understanding the consumers’ preferences.


Bill of lading from the Brig Governor Endicott signed by Benjamin Shreve, November 2nd 1820. Box 4, Folder 2, Benjamin Shreve Papers, MH 20, Phillips Library.

Chinese black and gold lacquer production made for export has not been studied in depth. The study of Chinese export lacquer is generally included within global China Trade commodities research and is not considered to be a subject on its own. The letters exchanged between the ships’ owners and the supercargo contain different instructions regarding how to trade in Canton, as in the letter sent by Joseph Peabody and William Ropes to Benjamin Shreve, supercargo of the Brig Canton, on May 8th, 1816:

On your arrival to Canton, as soon as you shall have made the necessary inquiries and informed yourself of prices, you will endeavour to purchase such proportions of each of the articles to compose the Cargo, on the best terms you can, as you should judge most advisable, and board the Brig without any unnecessary delay.


Letter sent by Joseph Peabody and William Ropes, owners of the Brig Canton, to Benjamin Shreve, May 8th 1816. Box 1, Folder 6, Benjamin Shreve Papers, MH 20, Phillips Library.

Some of these letters provide the most useful information in order to understand the role and value of lacquer within the China Trade in comparison with other exported commodities. The supercargoes would report back to the ships’ owners mentioning merchants from which to buy lacquered goods and their levels of reliability. Mention was also made of the prices of different lacquer pieces for a specific year, and in some letters references are found regarding the differences from the lacquer trade and prices in former years.


Sampling the Eccleston screen at the Peabody Essex Museum together with Catherine Matsen, conservation scientist at Winterthur Museum and Affiliated Assistant Professor, University of Delaware. Picture by Stephanie Auffret.

All of this documentary data will be used in combination with the stylistic comparison of the objects in order to create a chronological arrangement of the different objects and their decorative patterns. Furthermore, scientific analysis will be used to identify the materials applied to different pieces and to correlate the objects’ manufacture techniques.

A previous sampling campaign took place in 2015 and several Chinese lacquered objects of the Peabody Essex Museum collection were sampled for analysis. The analytical data will provide specific information on how the lacquer decoration was applied to the wood pieces and identify the materials used.

This will allow us to understand whether the manufacturing techniques changed over time and whether ubiquitous objects present a different constitution from rarer, commissioned pieces. Documentary research, stylistic comparison, and analytical data will be combined to characterize lacquerware manufacture methods in the region of Guangzhou (Canton) and understand 18th- and 19th-century patterns of consumption.

joaoMaria João Petisca has been a furniture conservator since 1998 and has specialized in lacquered furniture since 2002. In 2001, she completed her degree (Licenciatura) in Conservation and Restoration from the Instituto Politécnico de Tomar. In 2009 she finished her MA in Decorative Arts at the Universidade Católica Portuguesa with a thesis on Canton lacquer: a study of export Chinese lacquer screens from the 18th and 19th centuries. She has worked on several projects for the study and conservation of Chinese export lacquerware namely at the former Institute of Museums and Conservation, Lisbon, at the Preservation Society of Newport County, Rhode Island, and at the Winterthur Museum, Delaware.

She is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the Preservation Studies doctoral program, University of Delaware, US, with a research focused on Chinese export lacquer – “Investigations into Chinese Export Lacquerware: Black and Gold, 1700-1850″. Her Ph.D. research is interdisciplinary and combines material and documentary data needed to understand Chinese black and gold lacquer production made for the export market between 1700-1850, from the region of Guangzhou. The group of objects to be studied are pieces coated with black lacquer decorated with gold and with manufacture attributed to South China, namely the area of Guangzhou. Archival research, stylistic comparison, and scientific analysis are combined to investigate how these objects were created and traded.

This post first appeared on Conversant, the blog for the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum. 

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