The decoration is thought to be inspired by Near Eastern Moresque ornament on lacquer which was exported to England via Venice, rather than by Far Eastern lacquer, and is the earliest recorded example on English furniture.
Provenance : The descendants of GM Thomas Esq of Millcroft, Bitterley, Ludlow, Shropshire. G M Thomas had a well regarded collection of early furniture in the 1920's which included many rare pieces of early furniture of a similar calibre to this cabinet
Directly related to cabinets in the following collections : • V&A museum W.9-1936, English circa1620 • Leeds Museums & Galleries; Temple Newsam, no.1971.00 34 dated c.1620 • National Gallery Victoria, Melbourne, Australia, V&A, W.37-1927 • Private Collection, shown at the Stuart Legacy Exhibition, Birmingham Museum of Art, Alabama USA, • Private Collection ex John Fardon Collection, Sold Christies South Kensington 06/07/1994 lot 337 and again CSK 01/05/1996, lot 300. • Ballot Box dated 1619 made for the East India Company now in the collection of The Worshipful Company of Saddlers • Twelve Wonders of the World, Set of roundels, England, 1600-1630, with the same painted decoration as found on the cabinet borders in white and gold, V&A Musuem W.30 to M-1912. The band of guilloche ornament, on the roundels is also found on the cabinets.
The pedimented upper section, has a lift-up top stained black with applied mouldings on the outside and retaining the original hinges bearing traces of gilding. Opening to reveal a large compartment retaining the original black staining which indicates that it may have been made to accommodate inner boxes. The inside lid is painted to resemble a mitred panel, (possible connection to the panelling at Bolsover Castle) with a large vignette showing a huge, plummed, long tailed bird beside a date palm tree in a leafy landscape with a hill in the background and drifting cloud in the centre. The four sections of the border simulate a mitred panel with a motif that is repeated throughout the cabinet. It is painted in gold and silver in the form of a scrolling leafy stem with flowerheads inside each scroll. This border is found on all the cabinets.
The outside of this upper box retains its original escutcheon and working lock, surrounded by a painted border below which resembles an eye. This is found on the other cabinets that retain their original decoration and the roundels.
The front of the top below is decorated with two vignettes. The left hand side panel is painted with a date palm tree in the foreground of a leafy landscape with a windmill and a European building on the horizon (ref the windmill on the panelling at Bolsover Castle) in leafy landscapes with stylised date palm trees. The vignette opposite is painted with two stylised date palm trees and a European building, probably a church, on the horizon.
The border decoration is a simple scrolling, feathery, leaf motif, again, giving the apprearance of mitred panelling.
The sides are stained black oak.
The front and sides of the main body of the cabinet also are also stained black oak. This plain black exterior sit well with the seventeenth century fashion for ebony cabinets and it is possible that, like the example in the V&A, the cabinet was always plain black on the outside. (the cabinet in the NGV is later decorated on the outside, the cabinet in the USA is so heavily restored it is difficult to say whether the exterior was ever decorated, and the cabinet at Temple Newsum had later overpaint on the exterior which has been restored )
The pair of doors, retain their original escutcheon and iron lock and some original hinges with traces of gilding, the sides retain one original carrying handle the other has been recast from the original.
The interior is fitted with four small upper drawers with removable secret compartments behind. A pair of larger drawers flank a door revealing a cupboard. One large drawers beneath. The drawers are all decorated with very fine red and gold work damasking, which is unique to this cabinet, the others in the group are painted in black and gold. Damasking is imitating Near Eastern ornament and was very popular in Venice in the 16th century. The drawers retain their original wooden knobs and are lined in oak and painted red.
The central cupboard is painted with a vignette with an animal with horns beside a stylised date palm in the leafy landscape with billowing clouds above. The interior bearing traces of black staining which indicate that there was probably an inner, removable nest of drawers. The border decoration features the motif used throughout in the form of a mitred panel. The escutcheon and lock original. (the same animal appears in the central door of the NGV cabinet)
The inside of the right hand side door painted with a large, leafy landscape showing a man in ottoman costume standing underneath a stylised date palm with the horned animal leaping away from him and a winged monster, possibly a dragon, in the foreground and billowing clouds above. The lock is later but looks 18th century, and the hinges appear original. The stylised border decoration is repeated imitating a mitred panel.
The inside of the left door is painted with a large landscape with a man in ottoman costume walking in a leafy landscape, with a large rabbit sitting under a stylised date palm laden with fruit, and a European church on a hill on the horizon, and billowing clouds above. The catch original and bearing traces of original gilding and the hinges appear original. The stylised border decoration is repeated imitating a mitred panel.
The cabinet stands on replaced bun feet. The carcass is largely oak with some other English native woods, elm and ash. Wood samples will shortly be taken and sent for analysis. The outside of the cabinet appears to be stained and waxed black although there are traces of gilt in the surface. The interior and pedimented section are gessoed and the ground painted black with the decoration in gold and silver. The red and gold damasking on the drawers, so popular in 16th century Venice, is most likely lacquer not gilding as indicated by the losses around the door knobs where they have been handled, this will however be tested. There is red and black staining on the carcass and secret drawers. Black pigments cannot be dated as the same pigments have been in use since prehistoric times.
The silver and gold appears to be paint rather than leaf but this will shortly be analysed. The cabinet will also be tested by dendronology to attempt to identify the date and source of the timber used.
This cabinet belongs to a small group made in the same workshop and decorated by the same hand, even the metalware is identical.
The Saddler's Company ballot box dated 1619, and the set of painted and inscribed roundels of Jacobean date in the V&A give us an approximate date of 1620.
The shape is thought to have been inspired by small, late-16th century Japanese export cabinets.
The ornament is an amalgam of Near Eastern and European motifs depicting ottoman figures, mythical birds and beast figures, European buildings, scrollwork. The decoration is richly painted in gold and silver. The border motifs and the red and gold arabesques on the interior drawers of this cabinet, resemble Venetian damasking which implies the Near East rather than the Far East . These Near Eastern and Renaissance designs originated in 16th century Venice and were exported to Northern Europe.
These cabinets were intended to be an exotic display of brilliance and luster which, when set against dark oak furniture and wainscoting, must have produced the desired exotic effect of lacquer. Their small size, and secret drawers of various sizes and well-concealed secret compartments must have been intended to hold jewelry and other small valuable objects.
This piece is in the process of being fully researched and I have a great deal of information on the group. For further information contact me
All prices exclude custom clearance fees which, where appropriate, will be charged directly to the client by your receiving courier, importer or government.
The descendants of GM Thomas Esq of Millcroft, Bitterley, Ludlow, Shropshire. G M Thomas had a well regarded collection of early furniture in the 1920's which included many rare pieces of early furniture of a similar calibre to this cabinet
• Dictionary of English Furniture (Ralph Edwards), p 162, figure 1.
• Furniture at Temple Newsam House & Lotherton Hall (Christopher Gilbert), Vol 1 p.47 no. 35
• Lacquer of the West (Hans Huth) pl. 39, p.11.
• The Social History of the Decorative Arts - Furniture 700-1700 (Eric Mercer), figs. 175-6.
• Oak Furniture: The British Tradition (Victor Chinnery), Fig. 2.238 & 2.238a discusses a cabinet with triangular top and similar decoration
• Art & the East India Trade (J Irwin), V&A 1970,
• Her Majesty's Stationery Office (J Hayward) 1964, No 11
• History of the Worshipful Company of Saddlers 2nd Volume, Treasures & Plate
• Burlington Magazine No 31 1917 (H. Clifford-Smith),pp.234-40.
• Chinese Whispers Chinoiserie in Britain Exhibition Catalogue, C2
• Burlington Magazine No 68 May 1936 (Edwards) 'The Master of the Saddler's Ballot Box', Burlington Magazine p. 232-5)
• Burlington Magazine o 65 1934, (Vilhelm Slomann) 'The Indian Period of European Furniture', p.113-4.