Tea chest

DATE: 19th century (made)
PLACE: China (made)
MATERIALS AND TECHNIQUES: Laquered and gilt wood, four gilt wood feet, pewter liner, ivory handle

Lacquerwares, such as this tea chest, represent the last flourish in the production of Chinese export lacquer prior to the 20th century. Chinoiserie and Japonisme styles were highly fashionable in the 19th century, largely as a result of the expansion of British diplomatic activity, trade with China in the 1850s and 1860s, and the re-opening of Japan to international trade. The resin extracted from the lacquer tree (toxicodendron vernicifluum) used on lacquerware could not be found in the West and, if shipped on long sea voyages from Asia, would harden beyond use. Lacquer was therefore a mysterious and desirable material, enabling China to export lacquered furniture and objects to Europe on a large scale. These items were decorated with Chinese dignitaries and their attendants, exotic gilt scenes and landscapes, all of which appealed to Western taste. The interior of this chest is fitted with a pewter compartment, which provided a relatively airtight box in which the tea leaves could be stored and stay fresh.