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Pedro da Costa Felgueiras, Lacquer & Paint Specialist (Japanner)

November 13, 2020
by the gentle author

Pedro da Costa Felgueiras will tell you that he is a lacquer and paint specialist, or japanner – but I think he is an alchemist. In his secret workshop in a Hoxton backstreet, Pedro has so many old glass jars filled with mysterious coloured substances, all immaculately arranged, and such a diverse array of brushes, that you know everything has its purpose and its method. Yet even as Pedro begins to explain, you realise that he is party to an arcane universe of knowledge which defies the limits of any interview.

Pedro showed me Cochineal, the lush red pigment made from crushed beetles – very expensive at present due to the floods in Asia. Pedro showed me Shellac, which is created by the Kerria lacca beetle as a coating to protect its eggs and, once harvested, is melted down and stretched out in huge transparent sheets like caramel – and is commonly used to make chocolate bars shiny. Pedro showed me Caput Mortuum, a subdued purple first produced by grinding up Egyptian mummies – Whistler was so horrified when he discovered the origin that he buried the paintings in which he used this pigment in his back garden. Pedro showed me his broad Japanese lacquer brush, of the kind made from the hair of pearl divers, selected as the finest and densest fibre. Pedro showed me his fine Japanese lacquer brush made from the tail of a rat, as he delighted to explain, once he had put it in his mouth to wet it.

“I find it very difficult to get excited about new paints,” he confided to me in his hushed yet melodious Portuguese accent, as the epilogue to this catalogue of wonders, “modern colours are brighter, but they will not last, they will flake away in twenty-five years.”

“Sometimes I feel I was born a hundred years after my time.” Pedro mused, “My earliest memories are of Sunday church, and of the gold and coloured marble, which I found quite overwhelming. But everybody else wanted new things – because they were surrounded by old things, they wanted plastic.” Growing up in Queluz just outside Lisbon, it was the Baroque palace covered in statues that cast its spell upon Pedro and when he discovered the statues had been made in Whitechapel, then he knew he had found his spiritual home. “I don’t know why I ended up here,” he admitted, “I had the desire to do something with my life and I would not have been able to do that if I stayed in Portugal.”

“When I first came to Spitalfields I used to walk around and look at the old houses, and now I have ended up working in many of them.” he continued, thinking back, “In London, I was fascinated by the junk markets and I bought things, and I wanted to restore them – it all came from that.” Pedro undertook a B Sc in restoration and was inspired by the work of Margaret Balardi who inducted him into the elaborate culture of japanning. “The first thing she taught me was how to wash my brush,” Pedro recalled with a grin.

“In the eighteenth century when they imported lacquer ware from the East, they started imitating it and used European techniques to do it. At first, they imported the ingredients from Japan but they couldn’t do it here and people died of it because it is poisonous,” Pedro explained, adding that he studied lacquer work in Japan and can do both Eastern and European styles. “I keep everything clean and I don’t touch it,” he assured me.

In the centre of the workshop was a fine eighteenth century lacquered case for a grandfather clock that had been cut down for a cottage when it went out of fashion in the nineteenth century. Pedro was painting the newly-made base and top, using the same paints as the original and adding decoration from an old pattern book. To reveal the finish, he wiped a damp swab across the old japanning and it instantly glowed with its true colour, as it will do again when he applies a new coat of shellac to unify the old and the new.

Using old manuals, Pedro taught himself to mix pigments and blend them with a medium, and now his talent and expertise are in demand at the highest level to work with architects and designers, creating paint that is unique for each commission. In the eighteenth century, every house had a book which recorded the paint colours used in the property and Pedro brought some of these out to show me that he makes for his customers today, with samples of the colours that he contrived to suit. There is a tangible magic to these natural pigments which possess a presence, a depth, a subtlety, and a texture all their own.

“I remember when it was a hobby and now it has become a job.” said Pedro, gazing in satisfaction around his intricately organised workshop,“You have to be diligent without cutting corners. It’s all about time. You grind the pigment by hand and it takes hours. It’s hard work. You can’t expect to paint a room in a week. It takes three days for the paint to dry and it will change colour over time – it’s alive really!”


Pedro paints a lacquer table to a design by Marianna Kennedy.

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15 Responses leave one →
  1. James Harris permalink
    November 13, 2020

    As you so rightly say the subject and his knowledge “defies the limits of any interview” but it is this expertise which is so fascinating because of its specialism.

  2. November 13, 2020

    This was a beautiful piece – amazing to know about these rare specialists quietly working away with their unique skills. Thank you Gentle Author

  3. Annie S permalink
    November 13, 2020

    Wow, that’s amazing, I didn’t realise so much work went into Japanning.
    A very talented young man – beautiful work!

  4. Jill Wilson permalink
    November 13, 2020

    Wow – fascinating stuff! And great to know that Pedro can make a living out of such exacting and time consuming work.

    Great photos too, but I am now suffering from paint brush envy…

  5. November 13, 2020

    Admirable dedication and splendid work. But perhaps what I led best are the two ans, one for “white beans” (feijao branco) and the other for “grain”. They probably also travelled from Queluz.

  6. Pauline Taylor permalink
    November 13, 2020

    The most telling aspect of this article is that it makes so clear all the dedication, skill and patience that is required to produce good laquer work. I had to laugh at the description of Whistler burying his paintings in which he had used a pigment made from ground up Egyptian mummies, and chocolate bars being coated with shellac made from a product of beetles amused me as well, how many people would give up chocolate bars if they knew that I wonder. Thank you GA, this is a fascinating piece, and it brings back memories of me being lectured and told not to lick my paintbrushes as the paint was poisonous, it never stopped me I am afraid but I have survives to tell the tale!

  7. Richard Smith permalink
    November 13, 2020

    A fascinating blog today GA thank you for introducing us to Pedro da Costa Felgueiras. A true craftsman – what skill and knowledge he has.

  8. paul loften permalink
    November 13, 2020

    Thank you for bringing to us a story of a little known craft and the pride and knowledge of a local craftsman. It is so important to keep these skills alive and in our minds. We live in an era where human skills are rapidly becoming extinct and forgotten. Thank you Pedro for coming to work in Hoxton and sharing your knowledge and skills with us

  9. Linda Granfield permalink
    November 13, 2020

    Thank you for such a fascinating article today. What a magical world it appears to be. What a gifted artist Pedro is!

    I’m guilty of not caring for paintbrushes as carefully as this gentleman does–that will have to be rectified now that I see his method. And what a great use for the ubiquitous IKEA steel rod shelves. The perfect drying spot!

    The photographs have a lovely palate–any chance of sharing more snaps of that wonderful studio, and the clock?

  10. November 13, 2020

    “May the beauty we love, be what we do.” — Rumi

    What a rare look into the world of a unique artisan.

    A gloomy day here in the Hudson Valley just got brighter.

    Thanks for shining a light, GA.
    Down to the studio!

  11. Mary permalink
    November 13, 2020

    As you say GA, Pedro is an alchemist, but thank goodness there are still such people in the 21st century.
    I, too, was alarmed at Pedro licking his brush. When I was young my parents always drummed into me the dangers of licking my paintbrush with the following rhyme,
    Little boy,
    Box of paints,
    Licked his brush
    Joined the saints.

  12. Peter Metaxas permalink
    November 13, 2020

    As I looked at the photos I said out load ‘Oh my!’ .

  13. Saba permalink
    November 13, 2020

    A lifetime dedicated the an exquisite, refined craft. An affirmation of everything important. I shall check my tube of Caput Mortuum oil paint from Sennelier to see if “mummies” is listed.

  14. November 13, 2020

    Thank you for another marvelous blog and what a gorgeous workshop. I was interested in the Whistler story – who was also an alchemist in conjuring his entrancing paintings of the Thames at Chelsea. Do you have the reference to him burying paintings came from?

    Simon Wartnaby
    Honorary Secretary
    Whistler Society

  15. Ros permalink
    November 13, 2020

    How wonderful that you seek out and find such extraordinary specialists and then introduce them to us. I was fascinated by the description of what Pedro does and how he came to be doing it in Hoxton. And oh that pillar box red glowing forth from its alchemy by pestle and mortar! The photographs do justice as to how how Pedro keeps everything so beautifully organised and labelled and looks after his tools so well. What a feast!

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