Art curator and historian Monserrat Pis Marcos from The Holburne Museum considers a 17th-century decorated cabinet with a difference, one created with Japanned and silvered wood that was designed to imitate Chinese porcelain.
Following the development of trade routes to the East during the 17th century, lacquer became a coveted luxury item in high demand by European elites. This material was rare and precious because the resin it was made from could only be found in Asia and, once extracted, it could not be transported fast enough to be used in Europe.
Since genuine lacquer objects imported from Japan and China were expensive and relatively scarce, European craftsmen developed various techniques to imitate their finish by using materials more readily available. These various processes are known as japanning and involved paint, pigments and varnishes made of alternative resins, such as shellac. Pieces produced in this manner were also considerably cheaper: if an imported Japanese cabinet cost about £50, one made locally would have sold for less than half that amount.
The Witcombe Cabinet was produced in England by an unknown London workshop. It is the finest and largest of four decorated cabinets with similar characteristics, and it is remarkable for several reasons.
Japanned objects closely resembled their genuine imported counterparts in terms of colour palette, with black and gold being the most popular combination – although blue, red and green grounds were also used. This cabinet, however, was designed to imitate Chinese porcelain or ivory rather than lacquer. Pale backgrounds were used infrequently, and today there are only a handful of surviving examples of English furniture in white or ivory ground. The Chinoiserie decoration that covers the surface of the cabinet – both inside and outside – depicts flower vases, landscapes, figures, birds and insects, and its carefully balanced and harmonious composition attests to the outstanding skill of the artist who produced it.
Japanned objects closely resembled their genuine imported counterparts in terms of colour palette, with black and gold being the most popular combination
The Witcombe Cabinet has survived complete with its original stand and cresting. These elements are made of carved pine and were silvered instead of gilded. This was, again, an uncommon choice. Silvering became fashionable as a result of Louis XIV’s taste for solid silver furniture and it was soon adopted as an elegant high-end finish for the furnishing of Baroque palaces and great houses. The stand was carved in a naturalistic Dutch Baroque style and may have been inspired by the work of Grinling Gibbons (1648–1721), while the cresting seems to draw on designs by Daniel Marot (1661–1752), particularly with regard to the very unusual brackets at the top. The decoration revolves around the theme of ‘Plenty’ and includes putti supporting baskets of grapes and wheat ears, as well as natural elements such as acanthi and roses.
Silvering became fashionable as a result of Louis XIV’s taste for solid silver furniture and it was soon adopted as an elegant high-end finish for the furnishing of Baroque palaces and great houses
The Witcombe Cabinet was made for Sir Michael Hickes (1645–1710) and placed in his residence at Witcombe Park in Gloucestershire, where it remained undisturbed for over 300 years. It was set against a set of tapestries, and Chinese and Japanese porcelain was displayed on the brackets on the cresting. It was removed from its original location when the building was demolished in the late 19th century, and it was transferred to the Holburne Museum in 2005.
The Witcombe Cabinet
Japanned and silvered wood, about 1697
203 x 120 x 60 cm
Accepted by HM Government in Lieu of Inheritance Tax and allocated to the Holburne Museum, 2005
Image credit: © The Holburne Museum