By the end of the seventeenth century the British East India Company was transporting significant quantities of East Asian goods to England, in part, due to the passage of the Bullion Act of 1663. The Bullion Act allowed East India Company merchants to transport gold bullion to Asia for exchange. Prior to the passage of the Act, merchants could only trade in commodities, and Asians held English and European commodities in relatively low esteem.
Japanese and Chinese lacquered products were highly prized by affluent English consumers for their beauty and durability, but most Asian furniture forms did not suit English living arrangements. Occasionally, merchants shipped English-made furniture to Asia to be lacquered and then transported the finished items back to England. But that arrangement was slow and costly. Eventually, English cabinetmakers developed methods to imitate Asian lacquer, but with very different materials. In England, such wares were referred to as japanned, and several books were written about the art of japanning. John Stalker and George Parker’s A Treatise of Japaning and Varnishing, Being a Complete Discovery of those Arts, published in 1688, was the first.
This English-made secretary is a fine example of the art of japanning as it was practiced in the first half of the eighteenth century. The bright red color of the background imitates Chinese cinnabar lacquer, while the gilded scenes and figures that decorate nearly all surfaces derive from Chinese sources as well as European pattern books.