Irina Bobrova

Nizhny Tagil is an industrial heart of Ural. It is known for all the things to do with metal smelting, engineering, production of military goods and innovation. But not only! It is also a birthplace to one of the most famous Russian craft of lacquered serving trays. Originally everything from hammering out the tray to the last touches of the painter’s brush was done by the foundry plant’s workers who at the same time were attached to their peasant community and because of that had the status of serfs. As a result the craft absorbed some most beautiful traditions of the Ural folk art. In the 19th century all across the country these trays just like the famous Tula samovars became a symbol of the nation deeply in love with the habit of drinking tea…

Nizhny Tagil is a Ural town that lies 146 kilometers north from Yekaterinburg. It is an industrial giant. In the past its cast iron and copper of the top quality were exported to all corners of the world, let alone Russia. Nowadays this town is known abroad for its regularly held international exhibition called “Russian Expo Arms”. Its visitors get to see the latest and the most advanced examples of arms, military equipment and ammunition. Nizhny Tagil has always been a country’s center of innovation and technological progress. Many talented engineers and scientists have lived, worked and invented the most avant-garde for their times things like the first Russian steam train and the first Russian bicycle. In 2010 Konstantin Novoselov won Noble Prize in physics for groundbreaking experiments regarding the much talked about substance called graphene.

But it is not all about science and very heavy industry. Nizhny Tagil is also known for something that is much softer – the craft of making lacquered serving trays. Its story is a wonderful reflection of the history of the town itself. Just like Yekaterinburg and many other local towns it began with a plant in 1722. Production of cast iron and copper involved practically all the inhabitants in its hard work. Very soon most of the metal produced here was exported to other countries. The town plants took part in many international fairs and exhibitions. To attract even more attention to their product a very clever marketing idea became very much of use. At their stands the manufacturers displayed beautifully painted sparkling serving trays laboriously hammered out of Ural iron.

There were two types of trays. The first one had copies of Renaissance paintings on them. But the second bore various floral designs performed in a traditional for Ural and Siberia technique. Using this technique a painter portraits flowers in an abstract way. His brushstrokes are dashing and the colours are bright. The background can be of different colour: black, green, blue, dark red, tortoiseshell. In a very similar way people in Ural had decorated their wooden houses and house ware made of birch bark for centuries. The painters deserve to be given a special look. They were chosen by the plant management from the local peasants-serfs who simultaneously worked at the plants. They were taught and the course took 4 years! Often famous artists from St.Peterburg were invited to teach. On the other hand it was not unusual for the young and talented to be sent to Europe to perfect their painting skills.

If you ever go to Nizhny Tagil it is almost guaranteed that you will be taken to the house-museum of Hudoyarov family. Male members of many generations of this family glorified the craft and took it on to a whole new level where it became known to all across the country and many abroad. Alexander Hudoyarov is one of the most prominent members of the family. In the 18th century he invented the famous “crystal lacquer”, which instantly was acknowledged as the best of its kind: better then the English one and the Chinese! It was used to finish freshly painted trays.

Unfortunately its compounds are long forgotten now. The recipe of the lacquer was kept secret. No doubt the “crystal lacquer” was a big part of the success of the trays. It was crystal clear. It did not change its colour or the colours of the painting over time. It was impossible to leave a mark on it by a very sharp knife. The surface stayed impeccable if you spilled boiling water over it or even acid! And it was very useful because at the end of the 18th century people began to buy the trays at the shops all over Russia and use them to serve tea. Of course sometimes the trays were so beautiful that their proud owners spared them from domestic use and hanged them on the wooden walls at their houses like pictures.

But most trays served their original purpose. Tea drinking was a very important part of everyday life especially in the rural areas of Russia where life was much slower. Things like samovars, serving trays, homemade jam and dozens of cracknels were what everyone wanted to see on their dining table at times when family relaxed together. The tea drinking habit blossomed throughout the 19th century. In the Ural region at this period of time sales of this refreshing and warming drink were booming. It was a sign that the people who lived here including peasants (they of course, were the majority of the population) were not poor at all. Naturally this tea mania coincided with the popularity of Nizhny Tagil serving trays and fell on the middle of the 19th century.

But things started to change on the doorstep of the 20th century. Life in general got busier. Then the wars, people uprisings, revolutions and the Civil War (1918-1922) transformed it much further. The beautiful Ural craft went through the period of neglect and oblivion. In the Soviet era the government took up a few quite successful measures to restore and revive the craft. However at some point Ural painters were sent for trainings to the second Russian lacquered tray center in Zhostovo. Second because it appeared later than the Ural one. Also in Zhostovo they have a different painting technique: flowers are painted not in an abstract way but in the most natural one. Consequently Ural craft lost some of its authenticity for a brief period of time.

Now modern Ural painters are trying hard to recover the traditional Ural technique. Nizhny Tagil serving trays are a precious part of Ural and Russian in general cultural heritage. Just as much as Pavlovo Posad shawls, Palekh miniatures or Khokhloma tableware, they have become symbols of our country recognized all over the world. The history of Nizhny Tagil trays reflects a very typical for many other crafts of the Ural region feature. They appear and develop at the plants absorbing the centuries-old-traditions and ideology of the local peasants who at the same time worked there as workers. The craft of the Ural lacquered trays is a true folk art. It has to be cherished and preserved for the future generations and everyone who appreciate history and genuine creativity.

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