Japanese Picnic Box
19th century AD

Gallery 26, Ground Floor,
Japanese Decorative Arts Gallery


This 19th century picnic set includes a carrying box, bottles for saké (a fermented alcoholic drink made from rice), tiered boxes, trays and small tray-like plates. Such boxes, although not specifically made for export from Japan, have found their way into European collections via servants working in Japan for the Dutch East India Company.

Materials & Technique

The picnic box is decorated with raised lacquer fans on a nashiji ground, on a wood carcase.

Nashiji, literally ‘pear ground’, is a Japanese term for lacquer built up in layers with each layer being sprinkled with gold or silver foil, so that the gold and silver colour floats within the object. The name comes from the object’s appearance, which looks a bit like the skin of a pear. Lacquer work was a luxury product, demanding time and skill and fetching a very high value.

Oriental lacquer comes from the resin of the lacquer tree, the Rhus vernicifera, which grows in eastern areas of China. It was introduced to Korea and Japan from the 4th century AD. Lacquer resin is tapped from the half-grown tree and collected as a translucent liquid which will quickly thicken and become opaque on contact with the air. It is therefore a good hard varnish for using on wood furniture. The wood surface is first treated with a coating of powdered ash mixed with raw lacquer to fill in any irregularities or joins in the wood. The surface is then covered with an evenly woven textile coated with lacquer mixed with even finer powders until a smooth surface is achieved. This is then burnished, ready to receive the outer coats. There are often some 25 coats!