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An 18th Century Anglo-Chinese Coromandel Cabinet

This magnificent 18th Century cabinet is constructed in the typical English fashion, incorporating 17th Century Chinese export coromandel panels, and japanned decoration; the rectangular bevelled and gently foxed mirrored doors, enclose a handsome arrangement of large ebonised drawers, again repeated on the lower cabinet section, the whole cabinet displaying English hardware, locks, and escutcheons, on bracket feet. In untouched country house condition, perfectly illustrating the 18th Century English fascination with the mysticism of the Far East.

Originally known as ‘Bantam Work’ in the 17th and 18th Centuries, the term ‘Coromandel’ was more commonly adopted in the 19th century (and is the most used vernacular today), due to fact that most of the pieces now found in European collections were exported via the seaports on the Coromandel coast of India.

This highly regarded and impressive technique was invented and developed during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) in Wenzhou (Zhejiang Province) in South China where it was referred to as ‘Kuan cai’; utilising a distinctive colour palette and ‘incised’ (rather than flat, more typical japanned or lacquer) Chinoiserie decoration, the panels were made largely for export and was highly sought-after in European aristocratic circles.

Most Coromandel lacquer was sent from China in the form of large screens (such as a particularly important early example now housed in the V&A), and upon arrival in Europe, the great 18th Century cabinetmakers began to see the potential for reworking these coromandel screens and refashioning this highly prized material into cabinets, commodes, walling, and other pieces of furniture – as with the present example. The screens or individual panels would have to be carefully cut to size, and then steamed to make them flexible enough to be moulded to fit their new shapes; extraordinary fusions of Eastern lacquer and Western cabinetmaking survive, such as a bombe commode made for the Earl of Bristol at Ickworth in Suffolk. Interestingly, this way of later adapting decoration to fit the parameters of cabinetwork, often created characterful uses of landscape and figurative scenes; it is commonly known that particularly smaller items, can result in a strange flow of subject matter. This was famously described by Stalker and Parker in their 1688 “Treatise on Japanning”;

that in these things so torn and hacked to joint a new fancie, you may observe the finest hodgpog and medly of Men and Trees turned topsie-turvie and instead of marching by land you will find them taking journey through the Air, as if they have found out Doctor Wilkinson’s (sic) way of travelling to the Moon…

Coromandel lacquer was frequently used in the highest form of interior decoration and in 1692, Gerrit Jensen was paid £141 for decorating the renowned ‘Japan Closet’ at Chatsworth, Derbyshire which Celia Fiennes described as ‘wainscoted with hollow burnt Japan (incised lacquer) intersected by mirror glass at each corner’. Jensen’s bill also includes an item:’for frameing, moulding and cutting the Japan for the closet, and joining in into panels and finishing it’, (F.Thompson, A History of Chatsworth, London 1949) . Although the Japan Closet at Chatsworth was dismantled circa 1700, there remains at Chatsworth three chests which are thought to have been made up of fragments of the closet.<p>

There are several extant examples of “cabinets on stands” made using Coromandel lacquer but larger fully constructed cabinets are much, much, rarer. A pair of linen presses veneered in this lacquer were made for Dogmersfield Park and were advertised by M. Harris and Sons in 1934 (reference photo included) The Moss Harris cupboards are described as being: “constructed of oak and encased with old Chinese incised lacquer panels decorated brilliantly in polychrome. Fitted with two long drawers below and two drawers above enclosing sliding trays….The whole of the English work is contemporary and dates from circa 1750 – the Chinese lacquer from somewhat earlier…“. Many visual and constructional links can be taken from this description, in relation to the present cabinet. Additionally, a magnificent pair of tall cabinets, known as the “Bury Hill Cabinets” because of their links to the house of that name near Dorking in Surrey, were sold at Bonhams in 2012. Photograph included for reference, on the last page.

There has been an abiding interest in chinoiserie in Europe since the 15th Century, and whilst by the 18th Century some Chinese export work would have been available to a more ‘mass audience’, due to the flourishing of international trade and the emergence of a more affluent middle class – lacquer, japanning, and Coromandel decoration remained prohibitively expensive and aspirational, especially when combined with the fees charged by a top cabinetmaker to produce a piece like the present cabinet.

Height: 199cm, 6 foot 6 3/4″
Width: 116cm, 45 1/2″
Depth: 52cm, 20 1/2″