Urushi Conservation at the V&A



June 9, 2020

by Dana Melchar, Senior Furniture Conservator

The Victoria and Albert Museum has a spectacular collection of Japanese lacquer, ranging from a samurai armour to tea caddies. Japanese lacquer, more accurately referred to as urushi, is made from the sap of the lacquer tree, toxidendron vernicifluum, native only to East Asia. The sap is unlike any artist material used outside of Asia; rather than hardening and drying through the familiar process of solvent evaporation, urushi polymerises in a damp environment. Another interesting, and not-to-be-forgotten fact: urushi is an allergen and can cause significant irritation if it comes into direct contact with skin prior to curing.

Urushi is naturally dark brown (Figure 1). Unlike the yellowish, transparent, Western tree resins that can be dyed or pigmented a variety of colours, urushi historically had a limited range of possibilities; typically, either dark brown, black or red. Japanese urushi is often decorated using a technique known as maki-e, literally meaning ‘sprinkled picture’. Metal powders, of varying sizes and shapes, are sprinkled onto a wet urushi surface to create the design which can be flat or have a raised profile. Other materials can be used to decorate urushi, too, including: metal foils, seashell, eggshell, turtle shell and coral. When freshly cured, urushi is a strong material, impervious to damage by most substances. Exposure to light often causes the most damage to urushi and can lead to significant loss of sheen and to the maki-e decoration due to a breakdown of the urushi matrix on a microscopic level.

Figure 1. Raw, filtered urushi (Photography by Dana Melchar © Victoria and Albert Museum, London)
Figure 1. Raw, filtered urushi (Photography by Dana Melchar © Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

In the past and continuing to the present day, Western and Eastern approaches to the care of urushi objects has been very different. This may partially be due to the fact urushi has not been widely available in the West and therefore Western artisans have had little experience working with it. Historically, when urushi objects needed repair, often Western resins were used. Today, conservators and restorers continue to use familiar materials although they may, theoretically, have more possibility for reversibility. In Japan, the traditional materials used in making the object would have been used for treating damage along with other artistic materials available in Asia like cashew lacquer. With the development of the Art Conservation profession, which focusses on using reversible materials on objects, urushi (an irreversible material) was initially seen as an inappropriate material for conservation. In 2004 the V&A’s Mazarin Chest Project (funded by the Toshiba International Foundation, the Getty, and the V&A) brought a Japanese and Western conservator together to tackle the complex challenges of conserving a seventeenth-century urushi chest using a combination of both traditional Japanese materials and Western conservation materials. The 2004 project began to change Western perceptions and created new approaches in urushi conservation (please see related V&A Conservation Journal publications about the Mazarin Chest project). Likewise, conservation principles have developed in Japan so that the focus of both traditions is now looking towards optimal preservation.

Since becoming the lead on conserving Japanese urushi at the V&A a few years ago, Senior Furniture Conservator Dana Melchar has received significant support to gain expertise in treating urushi from the V&A and the Toshiba International Foundation (TIFO). To further her understanding of urushi and Japanese approaches to conservation, an invitation was extended by Kazumi Murose, a Living National Treasure in Japan for maki-e, and Tomoya Murose, president of the Mejiro Institute for Urushi Conservation, to learn more in their Tokyo studio. Together with the President of TIFO, Mr. Keisuke Omori, they devised a two-part training programme over the course of two years for the author, directly relating to the types of treatments required to preserve the V&A’s urushi collection with the objective of enhancing the knowledge of Japanese urushi and practical conservation skills at the V&A (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Discussing practical projects (from left to right): Ms. Melchar, Ms. Sasaoka (interpreter), Mr. Omori (TIFO President), Mr. Tomoya Murose, Mr. Kazumi Murose (Photography by Dana Melchar © Victoria and Albert Museum, London)
Figure 2. Discussing practical projects (from left to right): Ms. Melchar, Ms. Sasaoka (interpreter), Mr. Omori (TIFO President), Mr. Tomoya Murose, Mr. Kazumi Murose (Photography by Dana Melchar © Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

A team of ten conservators and artisans at the Mejiro Institute for Urushi provided instruction on various aspects of urushi conservation and maki-e decoration. The project aimed to increase the author’s practical conservation skills of urushi, especially focussing on cleaning and consolidation of foundation layers, and to further develop her understanding of maki-e techniques. The training consisted of practical conservation treatments, learning maki-e techniques through making, as well as studying and discussing culturally significant urushi objects.

Most days in the studio were divided into practical conservation work and practising maki-e techniques. Treatment focussed on cleaning approaches, consolidating lifting lacquer with urushi, and learning more about the maki-e process by making two sample boards utilizing different maki-e decorative techniques (Figures 3 and 4). In addition to the stated objectives, an opportunity was provided to study objects designated nationally as ‘Important Cultural Properties’ with the team and carry out a joint assessment. This was an insightful exercise of gauging preservation issues important to a Japanese audience and how they overlap with Western conservation ideals.

Figure 3. Ms. Melchar using an urushi clay paste to repair damaged foundation layer (Photography by Dana Melchar © Victoria and Albert Museum, London)
Figure 3. Ms. Melchar using an urushi clay paste to repair damaged foundation layer (Photography by Dana Melchar © Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

An interpreter, Keiko Sato, enabled meaningful conversations to take place with the Japanese team. Besides the professional exchanges, the author enjoyed learning more about Japanese culture from everyone in the studio. Exchanging perspectives on urushi, conservation, as well as philosophies, both professional and personal, illuminated motivations and values creating a sense of connectedness between everyone involved in the project.

As a result of this TIFO funded project, and the relationships at the Mejiro Institute of Urushi Conservation as well as TIFO, valuable experience and insight was gained during the project. Using urushi in conservation treatments and practising with using the material under the supervision of skilled practitioners has increased the author’s urushi skills and understanding, as well as of Japanese art and culture. It has directly informed and influenced practical treatment of objects within the V&A’s collection and future plans for urushi conservation at the V&A.

Figure 4. Ms. Melchar applying a fresh layer of urushi to a sample panel (Photography by Dana Melchar © Victoria and Albert Museum, London)
Figure 4. Ms. Melchar applying a fresh layer of urushi to a sample panel (Photography by Dana Melchar © Victoria and Albert Museum, London)
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