Book Reviews

Burmese Lacquerware

by
Sylvia Fraser-Lu

2000. 222 pages, 361 colour plates, 19 black and white plates, 20 line drawings, 23 x 22 cm.

ISBN-10: 974-8304-82-5 Softbound: $45.00
ISBN-13: 978-974-8304-82-3
ISBN-10: 974-8304-83-3 Hardbound: $58.00
ISBN-13: 978-974-8304-83-0

Light on Lacquer

Two recently released books on Burmese lacquerware reflect the considerable expertise of their authors, with lavish illustrations to match.
Book review by Michael Smithies

(The Nation, Bangkok, February 18, 2001)


The number of Burmese lacquerware experts must be fairly limited, so it is extraordinary that two books should come out in Bangkok in the same year on the subject, by authors who clearly know and respect each other.
   Of the two, the prolific Sylvia Fraser-Lu, with books on batik, regional textiles, silverware and other crafts behind her, has a more hands-on approach in the second edition of her book, which first appeared in 1985. She carefully describes the origins of lacquer in Burma, the lacquer process, techniques of lacquer decoration, design motifs, and objects for secular, religious, and ceremonial use. She then details information about current lacquer production centres in Burma, and lacquer collections both in Burma and overseas. The whole comes with two appendices (both in the text numbered “1”), endnotes, a glossary, a bibliography, and a comprehensive index.
   To illustrate her text she has a vast number high-quality coloured plates, and a few line drawings which are rather less impressive. She is particularly good, as one would expect of someone with a large book on Burmese crafts behind her, on the actual techniques and varieties of forms the lacquer works can take.
   It would seem from her remarks that Burma’s limited tourist industry keeps the craft going, and that many centres which flourished 20 years ago are largely in decline. This is to be regretted, as lacquer objects were originally made for daily use as much as for ceremonial or religious purposes, and works made for the tourist trade are rarely of high quality.
    Orchid Press has put the text and illustrations in an almost square book, the format one suspects being dictated by the size of many of the objects shown. There are notably few typos, except when it comes to putting accents over letters, where every one is wrong, and there is a consistently redundant and intrusive comma after giving dimensions and before a parenthesis “24 cm, (National Museum)”, for example. These are small points though, for the book is visually attractive, as well as clear and informative.
    The River Books volume appears to be a local reprint of a catalogue of an exhibition ‘Visions from the Golden Land: Burma and the art of lacquer’ held at the British Museum from April to August last year. It is centered around the collection of Mr and Mrs R. Isaacs, recently made when they served in Burma in the British Council and donated to the museum.
    These two books, covering such a narrow craft field, occasionally repeat information and even items illustrated, but by and large they tend to be complementary, and a potential buyer would be hard put to it to choose one over the other.

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