What is a coromandel screen?

Chinese lacquer screens were shipped to Europe from ports on the Indian Coromandel Coast.  (18th century engraving of Pondicherry - PD)

Chinese lacquer screens were shipped to Europe from ports on the Indian Coromandel Coast. (18th century engraving of Pondicherry - PD-EXP)

A coromandel screen is a Chinese folding screen coated in black or dark lacquer. The dark background is richly decorated with painted scenes from life or literature, or landscapes, and a variety of  trees, flowers, and birds. Wooden panels are coated with pale clay followed by several layers of lacquer. The design is carved into the lacquer before paint is applied to the underlying clay, creating a textured surface with recessed colour. Gold may also be used, and other characteristic touches include a border framing the main design, and calligraphy.

They are called coromandel screens because they used to be gathered into shipments with other Chinese arts and crafts bound for Europe at ports along the Coromandel Coast in south-eastern India, where several European nations had trading stations during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

There is sometimes confusion about the material used for these screens, since the name coromandel was also given to a kind of ebony imported into Europe from Asia during the 19th and early 20th centuries. However, coromandel screens are often made from quite different woods and need not be ebony, although black lacquer may give them the colour of ebony. Softwood is not unusual, like the pine used for a 17th century Ming dynasty screen, now in the Lilly Library at Duke University in North Carolina.

Chinese huali hardwood was used for an antique coromandel screen belonging to the Musée Guimet in Paris. (Huali is a kind of rosewood, from the species Dalbergia.) It seems that when the Encyclopaedia Britannica says that coromandel screens are made of ebony it is out of step with many authorities on antiques, as well as with the Oxford English Dictionary.

The coromandel technique of “incised lacquer” with colours added may sometimes be called “bantam work” after Bantam (Banten) in Java: another colonial European trading post exporting Asian arts and crafts. The decorative style in general is referred to as “coromandel lacquer”, and can be applied to items other than screens, although the Grove Encyclopedia of Decorative Arts says that the large folding screens are the “best examples” of the art.

Twelve panels is not an unusual size for antique screens. A 300-year-old screen of this size fetched $56,000 at auction in September 2008. Two years earlier, a slightly older screen sold for $120,000.

Coromandel lacquer has gone on being appreciated and manufactured. The style was popular with Art Deco designers who used it for screens and other furniture during the 1920s and 1930s. Modern screens in an Art Deco style with the characteristic black lacquered background, patterned with gold or coloured (polychrome) textured designs are easily available.

Note: Coromandel was a European interpretation of the Tamil place-name Cholamandalam.

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1 Comment

  • Linda Imber says:

    I read the above info on the Coromandel Screens but how does one determine an approximate age?? I have one that I’m trying to determine how old it is
    8 panels 16″ wide x 80-1/2″ tall(each panel)
    Lacquered black with a scene on one side and very colorful flowers and birds on the other side..
    Any info would be helpful, thank you.

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