Miniature coffer

Japanese, late 16th or early 17th century
Lacquerware in the nanban style with inlaid shell and copper fittings

There are a few examples in Denys Eyre Bower’s collection of what is known as nanban or ‘southern barbarian’ lacquerware. Usually in the form of a coffer or cabinet, they were made in Japan for Portuguese buyers from around the 1570s until 1639 when the Portuguese were expelled from Japan. The Portuguese arrived in Japan for the first time in 1543 when one of their ships landed at the island of Tanegashima in the South. They were the first Western country to arrive in Japan, and they brought with them matchlock guns and Christianity. Formal trade out of the port of Nagasaki was established and in 1549 the Jesuit priest Francis Xavier (1506 – 52) established the first Christian missionary in Japan.

Japanese six-fold screen depicting the arrival of a Portuguese ship, 1600 – 1630, ink, colours, and gold leaf on paper, V&A Museum, accession number 803-1892


The Japanese were fascinated by these Western visitors. There are many depictions of the Portuguese in artworks, particularly on folding screens made to decorate the home. The most foreign aspects of their appearance were exaggerated, such as their balloon-shaped trousers, large hats, and long noses. The Portuguese were in turn fascinated by Japanese lacquerware because of its hard-wearing and durable quality, and also for its shining surface with gold decoration. They began to order Japanese lacquerware to suit Portuguese taste that they could then export and sell at high prices. These wares were known as nanban wares, after the Chinese term for foreigner - ‘southern barbarian’. Nanban was used to refer to foreigners from any country, and anything associated with them.

Nanban lacquerware produced in Japan for the Society of Jesus, 16th century, Kyushu National Museum, by ColBase: 国立博物館所蔵品統合検索システム (Integrated Collections Database of the National Museums, Japan), CC BY 4.0

Nanban lacquerware was quite different from the type made for use by Japanese customers. Although it looks very elaborate and detailed, it was less time-consuming as it only required one layer of thick black lacquer, with inlaid pieces of cut shell and gold details painted over the top. The shell pieces could be cut into specific shapes or just inlaid as randomly-sized pieces. The popular style of lacquer made for the Japanese market is known as maki-e or sprinkled pictures, and consisted of many thin layers of lacquer painted onto a base. Gold and silver powders were sprinkled onto the final layer of wet lacquer to make intricate designs. It was very luxurious and expensive with a huge variety of designs, shapes, and patterns.

An example of maki-e from the collection of Denys Eyre Bower at Chiddingstone Castle, object number 01.1374

Nanban lacquerware tended to be decorated in a similar way, with cut shell, geometric, floral, and scrolling motifs and occasionally birds and other animals. The floral and animal designs were usually contained within borders of cut shell or geometric patterns. These were designed to imitate the metal bands that would normally cover European coffers. Our object of the Month is is one of the most common forms for nanban lacquerware, the coffer. This shape was known as ‘kamaboko’ in Japan – they did not have anything similar in shape so they named it after ‘fish sausage’, a popular dish.

‘Kamaboko’ or sausage made from fish paste

The shapes in which nanban lacquerwares were made were chosen by the Portuguese because they were commonly used in Europe and likely to be popular on the market. Prior to the Portuguese arrival in Japan, the use of inlaid shell or mother-of-pearl was not as popular. It was the Portuguese were favoured this style of decoration.

Nanban coffer, lacquer, shell, copper-gilt fittings, late 16th – early 17th century, Japan, V&A Museum, accession no. FE.33-1983

Nanban lacquerware is likely to have been inspired by Indo-Portuguese furniture made in Gujarat in the late 16th or early 17th century. It is likely that Portuguese buyers brought items of furniture or chests that they had commissioned to be made in India, and asked the Japanese lacquer artists to imitate the style.

Cabinet on a stand, wood, ivory, lacquer, with brass mounts, Sind or Gujarat, late 16th – early 17th century, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Inv. 1312 Mov


This object is just one of the many objects that form part of Denys Eyre Bower’s five impressive collections which include Ancient Egyptian, Japanese, Buddhist, Stuart and Jacobite, and Books. For more information on these objects, review our Object of the Month series, visit the Historic House and Collections or contact our Curator, Naomi Collick by email or by calling 01892 870347.

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