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The art of Burmese Lacquered Engraving

Every antique dealer will tell you this: the best thing about the business is the discoveries you make. For us, it isn’t just individual items, we are discovering whole artforms we never knew about. We keep finding amazing things and can’t understand why they aren't more widely known and appreciated.

This wonderful wall hanging came to us about two years ago, at which point we were told it was Indian, painted, and probably from a cabinet. All of that turned out to be wrong which shows how easily skilled artists and craftspeople can be marginalized, their craft itself becoming unintentionally traduced and wrongly attributed to something else.

The decoration isn’t painted, it is engraved, it comes from Burma and would have originally been a four fold screen. Lacquerware production in Burma is an ancient tradition, with known examples dating back to the 13th century. The technique remains unchanged and is handed down through families, largely in the same area; Bagan.

The production is laborious, time consuming and highly skilled. The object is made (usually from Bamboo or Jackfruit wood) then at least seven (count them, seven!) layers of lacquer are applied before any decoration is even considered.

The lacquer itself is a sap taken from the native Melanorrhoea usitata tree. This is initially mixed with sawdust to form a paste, applied then left to dry for ten days. Further layers are added, getting finer along the way, in the end stages being mixed with ash, until the final coats of the finest lacquer are applied, between twelve and twenty of them.

The red elements of the design are added first. The drawing being engraved freehand directly into the lacquer from memory without use of a stencil or predefined pattern of any kind. Several artists are likely to work on a piece (one source states the design is laid down by young male artists then detail is added by young women) and this is evident in our screen with many discrepancies in layout and execution that tell of several different hands at work.

Once the red elements of the design are engraved, the whole object is painted in a pigment derived from Chinese Cinnabar and left to dry. When dry, the whole is rubbed down to remove all the red except where it has filled in the engraved lines.

The piece is then sealed with a resin from the Tama tree. The green elements are engraved into this, the object coated in green pigment, dried and polished as before to leave green and red outlines. The process is repeated for any additional colours.

Even the smallest decorated object is the result of months of painstaking work by several artists. They are still there, these wonderful artists in Bagan and their unique craft deserves better than being wrongly labelled.

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