Russian Lacquer Boxes

Roger and Carmela Arturi Phillips

In Memory of Nicholas Hilliard

Roger and Carmela Arturi Phillips

The Origins of the Portrait Miniature

Roger and Carmela Arturi Phillips

Russian Lacquer Boxes

An interesting journey into the world of Russian lacquer box miniature painting

By Roger and Carmela Arturi Phillips

Russian lacquer boxes and objects are popular as collectors‘ items, but few know their history. Even in Russia itself, many have not heard of this delightful artform. Lacquer miniatures originated in the 18th century as cheap alternatives to ornate precious metals and materials to hold tobacco products.

The only authentic Russian lacquer boxes are those made using the traditional methods by specially trained artists who have attended one of four official schools: Fedoskino, Palekh, Mstera and Kholui. These schools, located in the picturesque small villages of the same names, are located about 30 miles north of Moscow on the banks of the River Ucha.

River Ucha

Already famous for their generations of artisans, with skills handed down by families in the painting of religious icons, students apply to study at one of these traditional schools and undergo a four year basic training, followed by an apprenticeship. Originally, the atists could only be employed by the school, but nowadays they may work independently, if they wish, after training. As each item is handcrafted, every piece is unique. It used to be that the school would issue a certificate or seal proving authenticity, but now that the art form has been infiltrated by fakes and poor copies, one must be certain that the piece carries the true signature of the artist.

Lacquered box from Mstera
Lacquered box made in Palekh
To complete a lacquered miniature takes many months from start to finish. Firstly, artisans make the papier mache in the traditional way, by pressing together sheets of cardboard to form the shape required, and this is then boiled in linseed and baked in an oven. The objects are then assembled and coated with primer. After going through this process and being dried in an oven, the artist is ready to paint it. Some artists prefer to make their own fine brushes and mix their own pigments. Using egg tempera or oils, beautiful bright colours are used, together with gold, and the artist painstakingly embellishes the ornament with the tiny brushstrokes of the miniature technique. One would think that the lacquer miniature artists would soon lose their eyesight with such delicate tasks, but the fact is that their eyesight deteriorates no more than any other person. Just as with the portrait miniaturists at the peak of their skills, they work with their mind as well as their hand and many do not even use a magnifying glass!

When making a box – with or without a hinge, the inside is often the traditional bright red. The outside is frequently painted with a black background. Subject matter for the painting is usually Russian fairy tales or folklore, scenes from old village life, rural scenes or famous architecture. The artist will research the subject they wish to paint before they begin. These artisan Russian villages are themselves part of folklore, with their small populations (under 2000) and large percentage of their residents working as artists.

Village of Fedoskino
In modern times, it is not always easy to earn a living as a Russian Lacquer Miniature artist, and so they often have to turn their hand to other means of income. Lacquer Miniatures are sometimes exhibited at art exhibitions, such as the Royal Miniature Society in London, Washington and Florida Miniature Societies and World Federation of Miniaturists.

Books have been written about this art, with one of the best being

ʼRussian Lacquer Miniatures: A Collector‘s Guideʼ by Cherry Gilchrist

© Text: Roger and Carmela Arturi Phillips

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