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News Student Blog: Chinese export lacquer

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​Left: Detail of a Chinese export lacquered game table with a view of Guangzhou (image courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum). Right: PSP doctoral candidate Maria João Petisca sampling a set of nesting tables at the Peabody Essex Museum with Catherine Matsen, Associate Scientist at the Winterthur Museum, October 2014.

My work with Chinese export lacquer started around 2004, and my curiosity about it has never stopped growing. I continue to want to know more about the objects, how were they made and their circulation between China and other countries. Some professional projects I have joined exposed me to the benefits of archival research to understand the history of the objects as well as to the most recent contributions that scientific analyses bring to complement those documents and characterize the pieces.

As a conservator, I have realized that Chinese export lacquer tended to be somewhat neglected and overlooked when defining conservation priorities. From my professional work experience, I believe that the less the public knows about art objects, the less they will care for them. Studying them, and most importantly sharing that knowledge and calling attention to the pieces, is key for preservation efforts.

The Preservation Studies Doctoral Program at the University of Delaware allows me to combine two tools that I want to apply in a systematic way to the study of Chinese export lacquer: documentary research and analytical methods. My 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.

In my first two years of the Preservation Studies program, I worked for the Winterthur Museum as a conservator for an Institute of Museums and Libraries funded project for the study and conservation of Winterthur's Chinese export lacquerware collection. The work developed in that period, both in the study and conservation of the objects as well as all the analytical data acquired, will be extremely beneficial for my dissertation. In that context, I presented a poster entitled "Lacquered Furniture in an Americana Collection" at the 2014 IIC Congress - An Unbroken History: Conserving East Asian Works of Art and Heritage, which took place in Hong Kong.

​Left: PSP doctoral candidate Maria João Petisca studying and sampling a set of nesting tables in the storage area at the National Palace of Ajuda, Lisboa. Right: João separating the different layers in each lacquer cross-section for Pyrolysis-gas chromatography/mass spectrometry with thermally-assisted hydrolysis and methylation (TMAH-Py-GC/MS) analysis, under magnification and UV light (image courtesy of the The J. Paul Getty Trust).

During my first two years, I completed my coursework, passed my exams and presented my dissertation proposal in February 2016. I also studied, sampled, and started the analytical work regarding all objects from US museums included in my dissertation. Following that, I had the opportunity to attend DELPHI -  the Delaware Public Humanities Institute supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the University of Delaware Center for Material Culture Studies. This two-week workshop helped me to develop tools for communication with non-specialist audiences through public speaking and digital media and sharing it with participants from other fields, like art history and fine arts.

During that Summer, I also began sampling pieces that are housed in non-US collections, particularly the ones in Portuguese collections. My study group of objects belongs mainly to US and Portuguese collections but is not exclusive to these two countries. Different institutions and individuals in different countries are contributing to my research either by giving permission for me to sample objects in their collections or by granting access in order to study related pieces. I have had invaluable support from the Winterthur Museum, the Peabody Essex Museum, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the US; from the São Roque Museum, the National Palace of Ajuda, and a private collector, all in Lisbon, as well as Jorge Welsh Works of Art both in Lisbon and in London; also in London: the Victoria & Albert Museum and Ronald Phillips Antiques; the Lacquer Museum in Munster, and the Royal Brighton Pavilion in Brighton.

As I am progressing through my candidacy research has been my focus. For a month and a half, between August and October 2016, with the support of the Phillips Library/Peabody Essex Museum, I was a Frances E. Malamy Fellow and had access to the extensive manuscript collection in Salem, MA. Shipping records were the most important part of my research since these include precious information about merchants, trade, and cargos that circulated between Salem and Guangzhou beginning in 1786 when the ship Grand Turk made the first round-trip between the two port cities. This stay in Salem also allowed me to spend more time studying the Peabody Essex Museum objects that constitute a substantial part of my study group. This visit ended with a presentation about my research to the Asian Export Art Visiting Committee that included a tour of several of the Chinese export art objects in storage at the PEM.

Visit with the Asian Export Art Visiting Committee and Karina Corrigan, The H.A. Crosby Forbes Curator of Asian Export Art, to the storage area of the PEM, September 2016 (image courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum).

During 2017, some of my time has been dedicated to research trips to study in depth some objects, in some cases to sample, and to visit different libraries. On May 2017, and with the support of an FAIC/True Vue International Professional Development Scholarship, I spent a week in Amsterdam learning more about the analysis of Asian and European lacquers in the Recent Advances in Characterizing Asian Lacquer or RADICAL workshop. This workshop was organized by the Getty Conservation Institute, and I had the opportunity to work together as a team with a scientist to learn about recent analytical procedures for acquiring detailed compositional information about Asian and European lacquers and their additives. Working and learning from experts in the field about analytical methods used in Asian lacquer and data interpretation is fundamental for the future development and interpretation of my analysis and results.

Just recently, I received a Research grant from the Center for Material Culture Studies at the University of Delaware allowing me to travel to the UK in June. I visited the Royal Brighton Pavilion to look at a specific dressing table, one of the rarest forms of Chinese export lacquered furniture. The rest of my week was spent in London where I had the opportunity to see objects at the Victoria & Albert Museum, Jorge Welsh Works of Art, and Ronald Philips Ltd., and also to do some library research. Chinese export lacquer pieces are spread among various collections in different countries that traded with China during the 18th and 19th centuries, making my task of studying them in depth and correlating them quite challenging. The support I have been receiving from different institutions to access objects and archives is fundamental for a successful completion of this project. I will leave for China in October 2017, to spend a month between Guangzhou, Macao, and Hong Kong, thanks to a grant received from the Fundação Oriente in Lisbon. This will give me the opportunity to visit collections in Chinese museums and understand how these objects are perceived and exhibited in the area where they were made. It is a first time for me in the city of Guangzhou and a unique opportunity I am most thrilled to have. It is truly rewarding to think and develop a study project in one's mind and effectively have the mentorship, means, and support to develop it seriously. This is what the Preservation Studies program, with all the resources and study fields it involves, is allowing me to do.

— PSP doctoral candidate Maria João Petisca

More information about João's doctoral work and dissertation research can be found on her PSP page here.

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Third-year PSP doctoral student Maria João Petisca shares how she came to be interested in Chinese export lacquer and how her investigations of these complex materials continues through UD's Preservation Studies Program.

​Third-year PSP doctoral student Maria João Petisca shares how she came to be interested in Chinese export lacquer and how her investigations of these complex materials continues through UD's Preservation Studies Program.

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  • The Department of Art Conservation
  • 303 Old College
  • University of Delaware
  • Newark, DE 19716, USA
  • Phone: 302-831-3489