The small chest was designed as a container to hold the seals important to a Chinese, Japanese or Korean litterateur. A frontal removable panel conceals four drawers of square section, each fitted with a small leather pull. The hinged lid with metal lock conceals a removable square tray. The chest is covered with multiple layers of lacquer, red alternating with black, the thick lacquer deeply carved to create a decorative pattern comprised of ruyi “wish-granting” scepter head forms and related elements, known in Japan as guri. “bent circle [whirligig; scroll].”
This ingenious technique was a specialty of Chinese artisans from the Song period (A.D. 960-1279) onward, Metal ware, such as silver bottles and boxes, from datable Song dynasty contexts, represents what was probably the stimulus for the guri lacquer style and the characteristic repeat motif (figs. 1-2). The style was a very conservative one. Technical details, however, suggest roughly when a piece was likely produced. The early style, that is during the Song and Yuan dynasties (A .D. 1279-1368), was produced with multiple colors—yellow or green added to a red and black palette, or yellow serving as the base or ground for alternating red and black, and furthermore this phase of the style was distinguished by the application of a greater number of layers and thinner ones than in later examples when the red might be reduced to no more than two or three layers and the red and black both applied more thickly (figs. 3-4). The color contrasts are therefore subtler in the early pieces and more pronounced in the later. Finally, the way the lacquer is carved can be an indication of its general period of production. In the earlier lacquers sharp V-shaped depressions or troughs and high peaks produce an overall sculptural appearance. This is in contrast to the rounded U-shaped troughs along with a compression or flattening of the upper surfaces in the later lacquers (compare figs. 3 and 4 with the later example in figs. 5 and 6).
The form of the chest was a handy storage facility not only for seals but for whatever else the owner desired to have at hand. Numerous examples of square lacquer storage containers exist today in Japan where the present chest was acquired, albeit in styles other than the guri of the present rare example (figs. 7-8).
Fig. 1: Silver bottle with “ruyi cloud design,” Southern Song period, 12th-13th century A.D., from the tomb of the Dong family at Pengzhou near Chengdu, Sichuan province, after Wenwu, 2000:8, fig. 8, p. 8.
Fig. 2: Silver box with “cloud pattern,” Southern Song period, from the tomb of Xu Jun datable to A.D. 1272, Fuzhou, Fujian province, after Dynastic Renaissance: Art and Culture of the Southern Song: Antiquities, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2010, pl. III:50, p. 173.
Fig. 3: Small lacquered box carved in red, black and yellow lacquer, Southern Song period, from a tomb dated to A.D. 1235 excavated at Chayuanshan, Fujian province, after Dynastic Renaissance: Art and Culture of the Southern Song: Antiquities, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2010, no. II-16, p. 105.
Fig. 4: Foliate tiered box carved in red and yellow lacquer, Southern Song period, from a tomb dated to A.D. 1235 excavated at Chayuanshan, Fujian, after Dynastic Renaissance: Art and Culture of the Southern Song: Antiquities, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2010, no. II-14, p. 101 (top).
Fig. 5: Hexagonal covered box carved in black and red lacquer, Ming dynasty, attributed to the late 14th-early 15th century A.D., after Robert D. Jacobsen, Appreciating China: Gifts from Ruth and Bruce Dayton, Minneapolis, 2002, no. 59, p. 114.
Fig. 6: Covered box carved in red and black layered lacquer, Ming dynasty, attributed to the 16th century A.D., Victoria and Albert Museum, gift of Sir Harry and Lady Garner, after Rose Kerr, ed., Chinese Art and Design: Art Objects in Ritual and Daily Life, Woodstock, 1991, no. 68, p. 159.
Fig. 7: Carved red lacquer seal box, Ming dynasty, attributed to the 16th century A.D., after Tōyō no Shikkōgei, Tokyo, 1977, no. 576.
Fig. 8: Mother-of-pearl decorated lacquer seal box, Yuan dynasty, attributed to the 14th century A.D., Daitoku-ji, Kyoto, Tokyo, after Tōyō no Shikkōgei, Tokyo, 1977, no. 487.