Book cover, 1500 – 1599, Iran. Museum no. 353-1885. ©

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Victoria & Albert Museum, London, 14th October 2017 – 26th April 2018

Lidia Merás


The Victoria & Albert Museum is currently showcasing a selection of Iranian treasures as part of the exhibition Lustrous Surfaces: Lacquer in Asia and Beyond. Highlighting 110 objects located throughout the museum, the display is an exceptional opportunity to look at one of the most sophisticated and versatile applied arts: lacquer.

Precisely because the V&A holds one of the largest collections of Asian lacquerware in the world, this extensive exhibition will impress any visitor with its displays of pieces dating as far back as the 2nd century BCE. Lustrous Surfaces focuses on Asian creations, but also includes European ‘Japanning’, as well as rare pieces from Mexico and Colombia.

Appreciated for centuries for its lightweight, waterproof qualities and glossy surface, what we commonly identify as ‘lacquer´ comprises a number of different techniques. Room 42 displays some Iranian and Afghani examples of a technique known as ‘bookbinder’s lacquer’. Due to a lack of raw materials (such as the sap of trees from the Anacardiaceae family) around 1470 bookbinders began to use a combination of paint, gold and varnish to imitate Chinese lacquer. They applied this decoration directly to the paperboard of book covers, creating bookbinder’s lacquer.

In the book cover pictured above, the visual link with Chinese lacquer is still noticeable in the black background, and the golden designs borrowed from the tianqi lacquer. The scene shows a prince seated under a tree in flower, surrounded by his courtesans enjoying a meal in the countryside. This exquisite piece is paired with another book cover that depicts a hunting scene. The V&A exhibition also includes another striking Persian object in order to illustrate an evolution from the decorative elements seen in the aforementioned book cover. Although Iranian lacquer motifs were initially inspired by Chinese vessels, the design on this particular 1747 mirror case from Isfahan reveals that after 1600 creators would progressively favour for more abstract compositions.

Mostly utilised to make furniture and vessels, lacquer originated in East Asia in prehistoric times and is still manufactured to this day. The original technique has not changed much over time. The tree’s sap is first treated and then painstakingly applied to an object in many thin layers. Lacquer is subsequently exposed to warm, humid conditions, polished to create its characteristic lustre, and finally decorated. 

The variety and refinement of lacquerware on display in Lustrous Surfaces is truly astonishing: sake bowls, box writing sets, cupboards, panelled screens, and all manner of cases. But it is within the context of these numerous everyday items from across the world that the stylish Iranian examples of bookbinder’s lacquer will be better understood. Do not miss this unique opportunity to see these lustrous, extraordinary objects.

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