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Finish of Qing Dynasty Style Furniture

The Finishing Touch

Determing what a piece of old Chinese furniture should look like presents a dilemma and sometimes a controversy.

The key point to remember is that these antiques age well. The predominant wood in late Qing furniture is a Chinese elm, either southern or northern, and its deep colors and rich, lively grain grow more beautiful with time and wear. Other woods used in this furniture enjoy the same characteristics, and even the most weathered or abused piece has a rich, warm patina when cleaned up.

As with any antique furniture, the most valuable piece are those in unrestored condition with the fewest blemishes. These pieces are available, but hard to find, and, as one might expect, expensive - although still less than comparable Western antiques.

But much of this furniture, as we discuss in the section on provenance, had a rough time, first at the hands of Mao's Red Guards and later under the stewardship of new owner. Farmers and peasants acquired many important pieces, and they put it to work in their daily lives, leaving it in a condition not true to the culture that originally produced it.Some Western buyers prefer this condition. It fits nicely with the rustic look popular in some American homes, and the furniture often costs less than pieces that have been restored.

There is also cultural value in pieces that have been worn down and worn out. They tell an accurate story of changes in Chinese society. Westerners may or may not approve of Mao's China ans its drive to scour traditional Chinese culture, but it happened, nonetheless, and battered cabinets, chairs, and tables show it.

But the end results may not reflect Western tastes nearly as well as it does Chinese history. The rustic look generally doesn't show up in the pages of Architectural Digest or the room settings of finely decorated homes. There is a lot room between rustic and perfect, and that territory - restoration - makes up the biggest segment of the market. It's goal is decorative pieces that will make it in those settings.

There are several approaches - some aimed at restoring the furniture to its original condition, some designed to suggest a piece's original finish, and some designed to replace it.

The first approach - restoration to original - is quite difficult. The original finishes are like China itself, an onionskin of complexity that defies modernday efforts at repetition. Pieces with a clear, natural wood finish are not so problematic, but those with either solid color or painted scenes can be patched or touched up only in a minor way. Any major effort at reproduction is time consuming, expensive, and often beyong the reach of modern day craftsmen.

Consider the technique that goes into a small red cabinet. Chinese craftsmen were masters of layering different colors to produce a desired tone and depth in the final finish. They might start with black, followed by dark red, followed by a lighter red, followed by a brighter red. In between the coasts of color would be layer of shellac, varnish, and lots of hand rubbing to make the color seamless.

One of the favorite woods of China's rulers was zitan, a rich, dark wood that was extremely hard. The key word, here, is "was" because zitan was cut to extinction during the Ming dynasty. Furniture makers often tried to imitate its color on soft woods by layering red and black lacquer, creating a black that was deeper and warmer than it was intense and opaque. It's not an easy color to match, especially if the work is done outside of China.

So complete restoration becomes difficult, perhaps impossible on many pieces. Large swaths of color might have been worn down to the wood; some of the red or black in the final color may have been worn down to some of the more muted shades or colors of red. A red lacquered cabinet may show specs of the black that constitutes the initial layer of color.

Given the poor condition of most of the furniture, the goal becomes not restoration but a refinishing that preserves and enhances the existing patina.

And that patina can be gorgeous - worn colors, bare woods, mottled appearances, these are what has made furniture from the late Qing dynasty so exciting. If treated well in the refinishing process, they become lively and warm additions to a room filled with Western decor, old or new.

Even then, the refinishing process can be controversial in some circles. Different buyer obviously have different ideas about what looks beautiful in their homes, and antiques dealers in China try to adapt their restorations with different customers in mind, sometimes altering the appearance of a piece entirely to satisfy a particular market. In a very general way, the Western market for Chinese pieces breaks down into two segments - European and American.

Furniture refinished for European buyers - especially on the continent - often has a high gloss. It's the way they like it, and it can be quite beautiful. If done correctly the finish requires a multistep process that uses traditional Chinese lacquer (made from the sap of the lacquer tree) and shellac, another natural product. The correct number of coats, the requisite amount of rubbing and sanding between coasts, is a fantastically difficult and sometimes proprietary process, handed down among generations of furniture makers, and it produces a finish that brings out the patina of the wood and protects it from water, wear, and fading.

Sometimes what's left of the original color will be stripped off completely and the bare wood given a glossy finish of either shellac or lacquer. And sometimes the color remnants are left, producing a finish with mottled coloring and beautiful texture.

This high-gloss finish has lately found an enthusiastic market in America because it creates furniture that blends well in elegant settings. The gloss also underscores the line and shape of the piece itself. It has, however, also generated controverdy because the gloss, to some, creates an appearance of "new."

But remember, appreciating Chinese antiques often requires a new set of filters, a change in perspective. Are we looking at Chinese furniture through Western perceptions of the way it should be? As nearly as we can tell, no one really knows how the furniture was originally finished. And in all likelihood, it was not finished to follow a single group of guidelines. Different regions and different craftsmen made furniture in different styles. And different owners gave their own instructions for design. This may be especially ture of the late Qing dynasty, when an increasingly wealthy merchant class broke away from some of the more rigid traditions in furniture making.

If the Chinese wrote " how to " descriptions or manuals for the finishing process during the late Qing years, they haven't survived. In fact, there is only one surviving manual for Chinese furniture making, and it predates the Qing by centuries. Even it is by no means comprehensive, and judging by furniture produced at the same time, its rules were not followed with any great degree of loyalty.

Any Western descriptions of Chinese furniture have focused almost entirely on the clear finishes of hardwood pieces from the late Ming and early Qing years. There is precious little written about softwood furniture.

However, the clear lacquer and shellac were readily available to 18th and 19th century furniture makers, and the skill needed to achieve a glossy look is not modern. It is old, must be learned, and takes tremendous time.

So it seems reasonable to assume that a highly lacquered gloss may have originally been a question of preference - popular in some Chinese households and not in others. Whether it's any more genuine than a thin coat of clear lacquer, shellac, or even a wax as the final finish is difficult to state with a degree of certainly.

And in some contexts, it just doesn't matter. We know a French dealer who sells late Qing fueniture and she has half the refinishing - including a complete strip down of the color - done in China,then ships the pieces to France for a French polish. The result is a gorgeous, deep, uniform finish that does justice to the design of the cabinets, tables, and chairs.

Similarly, the beautiful Chinese red that grances so much of this furniture has rarely survived the decades in tact. Often applied in different hued layers,it gets worn down to different layers, often to the bare wood, for a richly varied appearance. Clear lacquer can dress it up and preserve it.

We sell some pieces with a high gloss finish and have placed them in anartment on the upper East Side of New York city. Greenwich, Connecticut, and the north shore of Chicago as well as in homes because they can be parked next to a Chippendale high boy and look right at home.

We also sell pieces that have a less " finished " appeareance - with either a thin coat of clear lacquer or wax as the final finish. The mottled, textured appearances remain and keep the pieces interesting, but the patina is closer to the surface, more immediate, less shiny. A piece with this finish would feel just as comfortable next to the Chippendale high boy, but the finishes would compliment each other by contrast rather than similarity.

A word, here, about finished we find uninteresting and which detract from value and appearance. Some restoration shops strip away all color, often in imitation of that elusive standard, the clear, hard-wood finishes of the classical furniture that has mistakenly become associated with the pinnacle of Chinese furniture making. Never mind that they're working with softwoods and that they are obliterating the intent of the furniture maker and his patron. These shops work from a faulty perception of what is important.

So a red wedding cabinet becomes a naturalwood wedding cabinet. A painted, tapered cabinet dons a natural wood finish,etc. Altar tables that were loving and playfully colored a famous Chinese red become and dull, non-Chinese brown. If this is your taste, that's fine. But to us, the process takes the furniture even farther from its original condition and eliminates the patina that beautiful, hard-earned and unique Chinese furniture.

Other restoration shops strip away what's left of the original color and replace it with new color. It happens frequently with red wedding cabinets. Remember what we said about the complexity with which color was applied by the original Chinese craftsmen - multiple layers, multiple rubbing, multiple colors. The new craftsmen don't even try to imitate that complexity and skill. They rub on one or two coats of color and call it a day.

And the results show it. The color looks skin deep and the brush and rubbing marks are readily apparent. The patina is destroyed. The gu is gone.

Another flaw to look for is in the clear lacquer that often becomes a final coat. The Chinese lacquer is wonderful stuff for its ability to both preserve and enhance. It protects wood and paint fromm aging and water, while it brings out the patina. However, as we've noted, the skill required applying it is difficult and, in a cliche of modern times, not one readily learned by impatient, young Chinese craftsmen and women.

They often rush the job. When considering a purchase, you should look for evidence of their impatiece - streaks and drips in the lacquer, both on the exterior finishes and on the interior wood. The inside of a door jamb, for example, might show drips of lacquer that ran off from the exterior. If applied well, the lacquer is not only invisible, but draws out and emboldens the color of the paint underneath. Applied quickly and poorly, it is apparent and often dulls the underlying colors.

That doesn't necessarily mean that a piece is not worth buying. Our philosophy is that if it speaks to you, buy it. Case in point: we recently had in our inventory two pairs of bamboo, yoke back chairs. Their shape was stunning, unlike any we have ever seen, and they were comfortables as well. But the final coat of clear lacquer was apparent, on close inspection, on the wooden seats. We bought them anyway because they were stlii beautiful - a telling comment on the Chinese sense of design - but priced them lower than we normally would have. If you see lacquer streaks in a number of pieces in a dealer's collection, that should give you some hint about the quality of the inventory.

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