Lacquer pen-case, signed by the artist Ashraf ibn Riza


British Museum

British Museum

This luxury pen-case is made from papier mâché with lacquer painting. Painted butterflies and birds populate the dark green leaves and red and pink flowers, against a cream background. A pen-case would contain reed pens, an inkwell, a pen-knife for cutting a fresh pen-nib, a whetstone to sharpen the knife and scissors to trim paper-edges.

The surface of a papier mâché object is prepared for lacquer painting with a coat of fine gesso or plaster. The decoration is then painted on in watercolours, and sometimes also gilt. Finally, a glossy layer of transparent or slightly golden varnish covers the surface. This is known as 'lacquer' because of its appearance, but it is not true lacquer, produced from tree sap in China.

Painted and varnished wood had been used in Iran since the thirteenth century for luxury household items and decoration of interiors, but the arrival of true lacquer items from China prompted craftsmen to produce imitations. Early examples of Iranian 'lacquer' imitated both the palette and the decorative motifs of Chinese qianjin black lacquer sutra boxes. When a new polychrome style of lacquer decoration arrived from China in the late fifteenth century, Iranian lacquer craftsmen also began to paint in a wider range of colours.

Lacquer had first been used to decorate bookbindings, but from the later Safavid period (seventeenth century) onwards, the use of lacquer broadened from bookbindings to papier mâché mirror-cases, pen boxes, jewellery boxes and even playing cards. Closely-packed birds and flowers were a popular motif. Other popular courtly themes were parties, court assemblies, hunts and battles.

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  • Title: Lacquer pen-case, signed by the artist Ashraf ibn Riza
  • Date Created: 1750/1750
  • Physical Dimensions: Length: 29.00cm
  • External Link: British Museum collection online
  • Technique: gilded; lacquered
  • Subject: bird
  • Registration number: G.508
  • Production place: Made in Iran
  • Place: Found/Acquired Iran
  • Period/culture: Islamic; Qajar dynasty
  • Material: papier m
  • Copyright: Photo: © Trustees of the British Museum
  • Acquisition: From Godman, Frederick Du Cane. Bequeathed by Godman, Edith