Khokhloma Ware

Khokhloma Ware, also sometimes known as Baltic Treen/Ware, Riga Ware/Cups, Skovi Ware/Cups/Kapps (from ‘Muscovy Ware), or Archangel Ware, came from Russia via the Baltic ports such as Riga and Arkhangelsk. It was brought home as souvenirs or bartered for local produce by men working in the Baltic fishing and timber trades. These (originally) brightly coloured exotic objects were a common display item on dressers and mantel-pieces in island homes.

A Khokhloma ware ladel, made from wood and laquered, from the collections at Shetland Museum.
Ladle, Khokhloma Ware. Date: probably 19th century
Carved wooden ladle, painted red and decorated with black floral designs. Found in a barn at West Sandwick, Yell.
Shetland Museum and Archives FPL 2012.2

Mass-produced earthenware did not begin to fill household needs in Scotland until the 19th century. Before this, wooden utensils, such as ‘cogs’ and ‘quaiches’, were widely used for kitchen and table-ware. More exotic ‘treen’ was especially valued, even after metals and ceramics had largely replaced wooden household items. Brightly-decorated lathe-turned wooden utensils, coloured gold and silver with powdered tin and painted in black and red, came from Russia via the Baltic ports especially Riga. They were known variously as Khokhloma Ware, Baltic treen, Baltic bowls, Riga Ware, Riga cups, Archangel ware, and Skovi (Muscovy) Ware or cups (‘kapps’ in Shetland dialect). Although our three examples all come from Shetland, Khokhloma Ware was common in Orkney as well. They included bowls of various sizes, goblets with lids, deep-bowled spoons and barrel-shaped or cylindrical containers.

The making of Khokhloma ware was first mentioned in 1659 in the letter of a boyar called Morozov to his bailiff, ordering a hundred dishes of varying sizes, polished and painted with tin.  By the 18th century, dishes like these were made all over Russia, but the best still came from the original area, a village in the Nizhny Novgorod woodlands, along the river Volga. They were originally made during the winter by peasants, when no outside work was possible. In the early 20th century the technique appeared to be dying out but it was revived by the Soviets and it is still in production.

The objects were most commonly made of birch, the characteristic tree of the Northern Hemisphere, which is fine, straight-grained, almost white in colour and easy to work. The items were lathe-turned or carved, and dried in kilns. They were usually primed with clay mortar, dried again, rubbed with raw linseed oil until glossy, and coated with tin powder (nowadays aluminium is used) resulting in a fine gold or silver colour resembling metal. Floral and geometrical patterns in red and gold were painted over a black background, hardened in a kiln at high temperatures, and finished with coats of clear lacquer. The patterns were possibly inspired by the techniques used for painting religious icons. Older Khokhloma ware easily cracked, crazed, chipped, or dulled through years of use – the goblet displayed here has crackled varnish – but modern versions are more durable. The technique was also used on furniture.

Skovi Kapp. Goblet, Khokhloma Ware. Date: probably 19th century
Small turned wooden goblet, predominantly deep red with black and red designs running around the outer circumference. It is silver inside and has a gold band outside, and is finished with badly crackled lacquer.  
Shetland Museum and Archives FPL 1992.86

Baltic ware vessels were not a formal trade item like fish or wood. It seems to be generally accepted that they were a silent ingredient of the trade in timber and fish, exchanged by seamen and locals. Herring fishermen bartered them with their Baltic counterparts when they met. Alexander Ross, ex-provost of Inverness and President of the Inverness Scientific Society, in an address to the Gaelic Society of Inverness in 1885 mentioned that on the west coast of Scotland, timber planks and Baltic ware dishes were exchanged with the crews of Baltic vessels for fresh vegetables. Hugh Cheape in his 1992 paper repeats this. The Shetland Museum catalogue in its entries on the Khokhloma ware vessels states that: “These were very popular ‘souvenirs’, bought or traded from Baltic seamen, or collected by local seamen who were collecting timber cargoes from the Baltic, being exported through Riga, Latvia. Common in most Shetland homes, and used to keep small items in, such as buttons.” 

Scotland in general and the Northern Isles in particular have had strong, documented links with the Baltic since Norse/medieval times. The Northern Isles were part of Scandinavia until the late 15th century, when they were ceded to the Scottish crown in 1468/9 as a pledge for an unpaid royal dowry. Various Norse sagas, especially the Orkneyingasaga, describe the close contacts between the Isles and Norway. From the 15th to the 17th centuries, there are numerous references to merchants from Shetland trading with the Hanseatic League, the powerful merchant confederation based in the Baltic/North Germany, mainly through their kontor at Bergen. There is less evidence for Hanseatic trade in Orkney, which did not produce the vast quantities of all-important dried cod as Shetland, but there are references to Orkney merchants having contact with the Hanse. Later, young Orcadians are known to have taken employment with Iceland and Greenland fishing boats in the 18th and 19th century.

Timber was a very important commodity traded from the Baltic into Scotland, including Orkney and Shetland. There has been a shortage of timber in Orkney and Shetland from prehistory to modern times. The stone furniture at Neolithic Skara Brae, and the more recent traditional Orkney straw chair, were both responses to this. For centuries timber was imported both as unshaped and shaped pieces of wood such as planks, staves and barrel hoops, and even entire boats. The export of dried cod and later, salt herring depended on wooden boats to catch the fish and wooden barrels to store them in.

Skovi Kapp. Cup, Khokhloma Ware. Date: probably 19th century
Small turned wooden cup, red with black leaf decoration.  Provenance uncertain.  
Shetland Museum and Archives FPL 2011.78

Unfortunately, although the origins and manufacturing techniques of Khokhloma Ware are well-documented, I have not been able to find any references to specific Orkney and Shetland households who owned Khokhloma ware and how they acquired these items. Finding these original sources might make an interesting research project for the future.

Material composed by Alison Turner-Rugg.

New Connections – New Links: Khokhloma ware update

Since the virtual museum was launched in May 2019, our co-curator Alison Turner-Rugg has been working with people in the wider communites of Orkney and Shetland, and with the teams at the Orkney Museum, Kirkwall and Shetland Museum and Archives to research personal and museum collections of these wooden items dispersed throughout the isles. Read about her new findings and the resulting exhibitions for display in Orkney and Shetland during 2020 by clicking here.


Wikipedia, click here.

Stuart King: “Khokhloma Ware: Folk art for the masses”, click here.

Hugh Cheape “Baltic bowls and Riga cups”; Museum Reporter No.23, Jan/Feb 1992.

“Chemical Analysis (using ICP) of Redware pottery sherds from Scalloway Castle, Shetland.” Derek Hall & Torbjorn Brorrson, grey literature report.

“The Northern Isles: Orkney and Shetland” Alexander Fenton 1978, pp111-112.

“Being an Islander: Production and Identity at Quoygrew, Orkney, AD900–1600” James H. Barrett (ed) 2012.

Please cite New Connections Across the Northern Isles (2019) when referencing materials from this virtual museum.

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