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Digitising the Chiddingstone Castle Collection of Japanese Lacquer: a workshop report, part 2

This report explores two workshops that were carried out at Chiddingtsone Castle as part of the Ishibashi Digital Futures initiative. You can read about the first workshop, that took place back October 2022, here.

The aim of this project was to digitise some of the very impressive and varied Japanese lacquer collection at Chiddingstone Castle, which is situated in a small village in Kent. Lacquer’s highly reflective finish and sometimes complex construction can be challenging to capture through photography. As such, our ten-day project digitising objects across June and August this summer was approached as an opportunity to develop some effective photographic techniques.

Rachel: I joined the project while I was completing my Digital Humanities Masters programme at UCL. One of my optional modules was on digitisation and during it I found that I loved the process. Experimenting with different camera settings, setting up the studio space, and exploring different techniques was so absorbing that when I saw the opportunity to work on this project, I knew it would be too good to pass up. But the project also hit a much older passion of mine, Japanese art history, which I studied during my undergraduate degree. During my studies I mainly used images online and in books, so I rarely got the chance to work closely with these objects. Joining this project I was able to reconnect with Japanese art, I had the opportunity work with physical items, and I gained more experience with digitisation. Applying was the only option for me!

Lesley: The focus of my doctoral thesis is Japanese lacquer acquired during the mid-nineteenth century by the South Kensington Museum (now V&A). This project was a great opportunity to work with another collection and with digital photography.

As a pair we were tasked with taking images from a fixed overhead viewpoint. Leading the project, Dr Matsuba Ryoko (Sainsbury Institute Lecturer in Japanese Digital Arts and Humanities) and Yuhan Ji (Sainsbury Institute Ishibashi Foundation Digital Project Officer) took images from various angles to capture different aspects of the same objects. Also present on the project was Emma Kiey (former student, MA Interdisciplinary Japanese studies, UEA) and Naomi Collick (Chiddingstone Castle Curator).

Taking pictures overhead, the camera is fixed to a sliding stand positioned perpendicular to the surface on which the object sits. The sliding stand allows control over the size of the object in frame. A live view from the camera can be seen on a laptop, from which one person advises the other as they centre the object and adjust light settings.

A fixed viewpoint is in some ways very straightforward, especially compared to photographing from more than one angle, which can require adjustments to camera settings for each shot. Overhead, often the only change needed is the camera height and lighting. However, relating to the highly reflective nature of the lacquer, we discovered each object presented its own set of unique challenges. The object and camera sat within a light-proof fabric box, creating a tightly controlled environment. Although the box factors out light and shadow from the wider room, the light sources sitting inside, the camera, and the box itself might appear in the image, reflected on the object’s surface. Often a mysterious blue reflection would appear, only for us to realise it was from the gloves we wore to protect the object when handling it. As well as adjusting both the level and angle of various light sources, we used hand-held reflectors, black card, and tracing paper to enhance, block or soften the light as required. One of the most exciting aspects of working in this way is to see details such as an underlying design or woodgrain emerge as the lighting is adjusted. Responding to a variety of surface decoration and shape brought an immediacy to our makeshift manner of working and when combined with the live view felt a little like painting a picture.

The most challenging type of lacquer technique to photograph was raden (shell inlay). We wanted to capture the striking contrast between the colourful iridescence of the shell and black lacquer. We found that despite exhausting every option available, the shell would only photograph white. Fortunately, this piece was faithfully captured from another angle.

Lacquer box in the form of a handscroll, inlaid shell and gold hiramaki-e on a black lacquer ground, hinged lid. Japan, eighteenth or early nineteenth century. The Denys Eyre Bower Bequest at Chiddingstone Castle, object number 01.1313

Lesley: Lacquer is a practical and decorative technique. Whilst focusing on surface, lacquer design also reflects the relationship between form and function, such as in more complex pieces, showing how an object fits together. Beyond simply framing the objects, our photography encompassed some image composition. Arranging multiple elements within the same frame to indicate how these relate, and more broadly, capturing the logic of the object overall came into play.

In the interests of object preservation, handling within museum collections is minimal. Short of being able to handle lacquer, images are often as close as we might get to experiencing this material. Photography also records a level of detail not possible to appreciate with the naked eye, and in this way represents an unrivalled research resource.

Rachel: When I joined this project, I had limited experience with lacquerware. Now having had the chance to handle these objects I can really appreciate the skill involved in producing these beautiful items. While viewing the item on screen you can see the delicate transition between the density of different speckled gold decoration and then when looking at the actual object you realise that this feature is only a few millimetres in size. It is genuinely awe inspiring that a person is able to craft something so minutely detailed that it can be better seen on screen rather than with the naked eye in some situations.

While learning to digitise these objects I also got the opportunity to learn more about each item. “How can we arrange the lights so that the gold here truly shines as it does in person?”, “where should we place this card to help show the depth of this black lacquer?”, and “how do we make this central figure stand out from the landscape?”, were just some of the questions we were constantly asking ourselves during this process. To bring the item to life on camera we first needed to appreciate each object in person.

Rachel Gatehouse
(Former student MA Digital Humanities, University College London)

Lesley Richardson
(Collaborative doctoral candidate, Royal College of Art/V&A)