We recently added a few interesting Asian antiques to the gallery after a brief trip to Burma that I would like to feature in this blog including an early 20thC lacquer ware container, an antique Burmese sculpture in the form of a Royal Court dancer and three rare opium weights, one dating back to the 1500s. I’ve written about several of the artistic traditions of Burma including opium weights and bronze bells but thought I would provide some background on what is one of the most important crafts in Burma, that of lacquer ware.
The lacquer containers featured below echo a tradition that dates back some 3,000 years. Though it appears that the Burmese originally learned the craft from neighbouring states, Burma (or Myanmar) quickly became the exemplar of this important craft. One of the oldest existing examples of a lacquer object has been dated to 1284AD and was exhibited in Rangoon in 1918. It is said that the art of lacquer making did not reach its zenith until the Kon-baung Dynasty (1752-1885) when a wide variety of lacquer vessels were in production in the city of Bagan, also spelled Pagan. To this day the best specimens of lacquer ware are said to come from Bagan.
Lacquer ware is known as yun in Burma and the process is remarkably demanding both in terms of the skill and the investment of time required to complete a single piece. Lacquerware begins with the construction of the basic object either in bamboo or soft wood; often jackfruit wood. Once the base is made the object is sealed with a layer of paste made from sawdust mixed with lacquer and left in an underground brick cellar to dry and harden for up to 10 days. The object is then polished on a primitive lathe using the dried leaf of the dahat tree, which has an emery-paper like surface. A second layer of sifted sawdust and lacquer is then applied and the object is returned to the cellar. This process is repeated several times with progressively finer coats of lacquer and sawdust, eventually replaced with ash to be mixed with the lacquer until a final coat of the highest quality lacquer is applied offering a deep black lustrous surface.
Lacquer, called thit-si in Burma is a sap from the Melanorrhoea Usitata, a tree that grows wild in Burma, mostly in the Shan States. Naturally black, other colours are achieved using additional pigments such as cinnabar (red) from China, orpiment (yellow) from the Shan states and green by combining the two. Blue comes from Indigo, usually obtained from India. The art of achieving just the right colour, particularly red/orange is a closely guarded secret by those with expert knowledge on the subject and it is said that the secret of the composition is passed down only from father to his most trusted son.
The surface embellishment of lacquer ware turns an everyday object into an artwork and the method used by the Burmese became renowned. The surface of the lacquer is engraved using a sharp iron stylus and the incisions filled with coloured pigment (first red/orange) to begin a design of which there are many.
The object is again left to dry in the cellar and any excess material is removed using paddy husks and water. The engraving is then sealed with resin and the second colour, usually green is added and so on. A complex piece will often have 3-4 colours as seen here and requires a great deal of time to complete, especially when traditional motifs cover the entire object.
Lacquerware takes an incredible variety of forms from simple everyday objects of utility to artworks of religious significance and provides a deep insight into Burmese social life and culture. One of the most ubiquitous items is known as kun-it, a cylindrical box consisting of several shallow trays for holding the ingredients to make a quid of betel to be chewed, which provides a mildly intoxicating effect. Two lovely examples of kun-it offered in the gallery are featured above.
A less common form of lacquer ware is the pyi-daung, a large vessel without trays that is used for carrying rice to the Buddhist temple where monks reside in their quest for enlightenment. This vessel would have taken several months to complete and features decoration referred to as let-taik-let-kya, which typically includes buildings alternating with human and animal figures, in this case dancers and forest dwelling deer.
The tradition of lacquerware making continues in Burma today and Bagan remains the most important centre for this craft. While quality pieces continue to be produced in Burma, there is a certain charisma that emanates from antique lacquerware that harks back to a different time and bears the marks of use in the context of Burmese society. We hope to add further antique lacquerware pieces to the gallery over the coming months of the year.
Hsun-ok & other Antique Lacquer ware Vessels
Antique Opium Weights from Burma
We would also like to the feature three fine opium weights still available from a handful that we recently returned with from Burma. There are noticeably fewer genuine opium weights being offered on each subsequent trip to Burma, especially the rarer styles. The oldest is a 10 tical beast weight also known as to-naya and is dated mid-late 16thC. It is in very good condition. I personally find this styling very charming. The second is another style of weight that is becoming exceedingly difficult to locate and is referred to as a ‘Mon Duck’ or ‘Sleeping Duck’ and is dated early 18thC. The third weight in the series is often referred to as a ‘Golden Hamsa’ and is dated late 17thC by Hartmut Mollat in his essay, ‘A Model Chronology of the Animal Weights of Burma’.
Antique Burmese Woodcarving – Royal Court Dancer
This sculpture of a dancer from Burma was a lovely find and exudes a jubilant mood. In Burma, sculptors using teak wood command a great deal of respect as artisans and this is a fine example of their work. It has been spared any damage – the fingers which are vulnerable have often been broken at the tips with older pieces. There are expected cracks in the paint in places but otherwise the image is in excellent condition and without repairs. It stands 23 inches tall and lends a joyous ambiance to a room.