By Alesa Lightbourne, Ph.D.

The longer I pondered the tall dark screen, the more amazing it became.

Slender egrets graced a shiny black surface, one arching a noble neck to the sky, another bending delicately to peck a flower bud. Only by stepping closer and reaching out to touch did I discover the surface was not just painted, but painstakingly carved into countless layers of lacquer. My intrigue grew. This was an example of the fabled Coromandel technique, developed in China in the 1600s and prized by Western collectors ever since.

One glance at Coromandel artistry, whether featured on a screen, mirror, tray or box, explains its timeless appeal. Intricate designs are incised into layers of lacquer down to the hardwood base. Then spaces are filled with bright-colored lacquer or pieces of ivory, jade or mother-of-pearl. The result is a multi-dimensional effect, where relief adds drama to the painter's skill. Few craftsmen today use the painstaking traditional technique and various inferior imitations have been attempted.

A unique resource for Coromandel screens and panels is Lawrence & Scott, an importer of Asian designs. "We take great pride in keeping the Coromandel tradition alive by supporting artisans at work today," says Marcia Van Liew, managing director of the Seattle-based firm. "We commission works that honor classic motifs, yet are also suitable for Western décor. Because many of our relationships with artists go back several decades, we can offer custom-made pieces of remarkably high quality."

Although originally a Chinese art form, Coromandel is named for the Indian port near Madras where many early products were shipped to Western markets. The arrival of Coromandel lacquer works in Europe started a vogue for lacquer furniture of all kinds, influencing the work of British and French furniture makers of the period.

While popularity peaked in the 1800s, Coromandel has enjoyed a devoted following for generations.

Meticulous Methods

As many as 40 coats of strained lacquer are necessary when creating a true Coromandel piece. The final coating is typically black when new. Over time the background mellows to a purplish black.

Lawrence & Scott offers a unique option. In addition to the darker traditional backgrounds, screens can be ordered in peuce, a distinguished violet-brown that provides a softer contrast for painted highlights. This pleasing alternative has proved to be extremely popular with Western designers, as it integrates well with Occidental color schemes.

Before adding a second layer of lacquer, the first must be completely even and perfectly dry. Layers are so thin that 30 or more are required for a finish just 1/8" thick. Since lacquer dries best in moist conditions, pieces are placed in special damp chambers after each coating. In the past, in fact, ancients claimed the best way to produce fine lacquerwork was on a boat in the middle of a lake.

To begin a motif, the artist first draws a sketch on thin pieces of paper and glues them to the lacquered surface as a guide for carving. Then the delicate carving process begins. Incisions are shallow and deep, made with great care to avoid exposing the wood beneath. Finally tempera colors are brushed into the sculpted areas to complete the work of art.

Trendy New Design Solution

"Coromandel is experiencing a resurgence in interest, especially among design professionals," Ms. Van Liew notes, "That's because a Coromandel screen or panel is one of the few ways of providing original art on a dramatic scale, and still be affordable. A carved painted screen makes a commanding aesthetic statement, even in a relatively large living room, entry, lobby or restaurant. Yet it costs much less than a similarly sized oil painting or mural."

For a sampling of the firm's current Coromandel offerings, see Brushwork Art Collection.

Alesa Lightbourne, Ph.D., is a freelance writer in the Seattle area.

"Coromandel is experiencing a resurgence in interest among design professionals, being one of the few ways of providing original art on a dramatic scale and still be affordable." Marcia Van Liew