Indian Varnish

In the seventeenth-century, highly fashionable imported goods from the East (such as printed fabrics and lacquered furniture) were often collectively referred to as ‘Indian’, no matter whether they originated in China, India, Japan, Korea etc. ‘Indian’ or ‘India’ varnish is what we now know as shellac.

In 1661, the diarist, Samuel Pepys wrote;

Then he [the Duke of York] sent us to his closett, where we saw among other things two very fine chests, covered with gold and Indian varnish, given him by the East Indy Company of Holland.[i]

Eight years later, Pepys sent his coach to the coachmaker to have it silver-leafed and varnished (in imitation of gold) in time for the popular May Day celebrations in Hyde Park.

Coming home this night I did call at the coachmaker’s, and do resolve upon having the standards of my coach gilt with this new sort of varnish, which will come but to 40s.; and, contrary to my expectation, the doing of the biggest coach all over comes not to above 6l., which is [not] very much.[ii]

Up, and by coach to the coachmaker’s […] I to my coach, which is silvered over, but no varnish yet laid on, so I put it in a way of doing; and myself about other business […]

This done, I to my coachmaker’s, and there vexed to see nothing yet done to my coach, at three in the afternoon; but I set it in doing, and stood by it till eight at night, and saw the painter varnish which is pretty to see how every doing it over do make it more and more yellow; and it dries as fast in the sun as it can be laid on almost; and most coaches are, now-a-days done so, and it is very pretty when laid on well, and not pale, as some are, even to shew the silver. Here I did make the workmen drink […][iii]

Jack Plane

[i] Samuel Pepys’ diary, Friday the 20th of April, 1661.

[ii] ibid, Monday the 26th of April, 1669.

[iii] ibid, Friday the 30th of April, 1669.


About Jack Plane

Formerly from the UK, Jack is a retired antiques dealer and self-taught woodworker, now living in Australia.
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4 Responses to Indian Varnish

  1. potomacker says:

    Using India to refer to the subcontinent and all regions farther east predates Pepys. This same convention can be found in Latin authors


  2. Paul Murphy says:

    I happen to be reading Percy MacQuoid’s book, “The History of English Furniture” right now. The book is in four volumes, and I’m reading number two, “The Age of Walnut.” Chapter six, the portion dealing with lacquered furniture, begins in a manner consistent with your theme here.
    A partial quote, “Indian cabinets, as they were called at the time, are to be found occasionally mentioned in inventories…”
    This is right after his description of these articles originating in Japan.
    This isn’t Earth shattering, but just additional literature for your citation, should you desire.


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