Gateway Object: Breastplate

Japan Black Breastplate for coffin
original 1892 plans for the Newman Brothers’ manufactory


The original 1892 plans for the Newman Brothers’ manufactory clearly show a ‘Blacking Shop’. Newman Brothers were manufacturing ‘Japan Black’ furniture between 1894 and the 1920s. After the 1920s the taste for black fittings was waning.

This breastplate does not appear in any surviving Newman Brothers’ catalogues, so it may not have been manufactured at the factory. There are many examples of products in our collection that do not feature in surviving catalogues but we know (through research into Registered Design Numbers) are Newman Brothers’ fittings.

It is an example of General furniture opposed to a Registered design. Newman Brothers described the black finish as ‘Improved Black’, but also offered a range of black finishes (see below).


Sometimes the terms ‘blacking’ and ‘japanning’ are used interchangeably, but these are actually different processes. Japanning is the process of applying a black lacquer to furniture. The lacquer is applied in layers and each layer is heat dried before another is applied. This process was originally used on wooden furniture such as cabinets for decoration and was later used on metal objects too. Japanning was used both for decoration and protection. It was a durable varnish that made Iron rust proof so it could carry water.

Japan Black is the name given to the lacquer used on Iron and Steel. The “Japan” part of the name arises from the West the associating lacquered objects with East Asia at the time this lacquer was developed. “Black” comes from the black colour it gives to finished products. In place of natural, clear resins the Japan Black process used bitumen as a hardener in the varnish which gave a black finish.

However, when used as a verb japan means “to finish in Japan Black.” Thus japanning and japanned are terms describing the process and its products. However, Newman Brothers never described the process as japanning in their catalogues. Instead, they listed their black range of products under the following terms: ‘White and Black, Improved Black, Improved Black and Gold Enamelled and ‘Gold or any Fancy Colours’, Gilt or Gilt and Black.

The second image on this page is an image from our original architect’s drawings showing the location of the Blacking Shop.

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