fig. 1 
England

In 2004 the National Gallery of Victoria was gifted an early seventeenth-century English painted cabinet (fig. 1). It belongs to a small group of objects that represent some of the earliest known examples of imitations of Asian lacquer produced in England. Constructed from oak and pine, the cabinet takes the form of a small rectangular case with a triangular pediment. It is fitted with eight drawers in the body, surrounding a small central door, with a further drawer in the pediment. The cabinet shuts with a pair of side-hinged, central closing doors. It evidences two quite distinct styles of decoration, apparently executed at different times. The interior surfaces of the cabinet doors and the drawer fronts are decorated with geometric and linear borders, foliate and floral designs, and scenes of figures and animals in abstracted landscapes, all in gold and silver paint on a black ground. The decoration of the interior differs from that of both the pediment, which displays Baroque foliate scrolling designs, and the sides of the cabinet and exteriors of the doors, which bear whimsical landscapes with foliage, scholars’ rocks and robed oriental figures in a style typical of chinoiseries of the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century. Technical examination also reveals the probable use of gold leaf on the doors’ exteriors in place of the gold powder employed in the paint on the interior.1 Information provided by Suzi Shaw, Conservator, Frames and Furniture Conservation, National Gallery of Victoria, suggests the use of gold leaf for the decoration of the exterior of the cabinet, with gold powders used elsewhere.

It is with the decoration of the interior of the Melbourne cabinet that we are here concerned, as this decoration links it with a small group of similar objects held in various public and private collections. All are united by their distinctive style of decoration and all appear to originate from a single workshop in England. The group includes the following works: a cabinet in the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), London (W.9-1936) (fig. 2); a cabinet at Temple Newsam, Leeds (no. 1971.00 34);2 Christopher Gilbert, Furniture at Temple Newsam House and Lotherton Hall, vol. 1, National Art-Collections Fund, Bradford, UK, and London, 1978, p. 47. a cabinet exhibited at the Birmingham Museum of Art, A labama, United States, in 1991;3 Walter R. Brown, The Stuart Legacy: English Art 1603–1714, Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, USA, 1991, p. 63. This cabinet, formerly in the John Fardon collection, was sold at Christies, South Kensington, on 6 July 1994 (337) and again at Christies, South Kensington, on 1 May 1996 (300). and a cabinet in a private collection, formerly with Lucy Johnson Antiques, London.

The group of cabinets is conventionally dated to around 1620 on the basis of a ballot box with very closely related decoration, inscribed 1619, which was made for the East India Company and is now in the collection of the Worshipful Company of Saddlers, London.4 Ralph Edwards, ‘The “master” of the saddlers’ ballot box’, The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, vol. 69, no. 398, 1936,  pp. 232–5. This broad dating receives support from dendrochronological investigation recently carried out on the cabinet formerly with Lucy Johnson Antiques, which suggests a fell date of c. 1605–18 for the timbers employed in the carcass.5 A copy of the report on analysis carried out by Dr Ian Tyres was obtained from Lucy Johnson of  Lucy Johnson Antiques, 26 April 2010. The decoration of the cabinets is also clearly connected to a set of early-seventeenth-century trenchers in the collection of the V&A. The trenchers are decorated with personifications of the twelve wonders of the world, accompanied by satirical verses by the English poet John Davies published in 1608.6 ‘Davies, John (1569–1626) (DNBoo)’, Wikisource, 29 Dec. 2012, <http://en.wikisource.org/w/index.php?title=Davies,_John_(1569-1626)_ (DNB00)&oldid=4211003>, accessed 23 Sep. 2013. The border pattern employed on the trenchers and details of the decoration of the box made to hold them suggest that the same workshop was involved in the decoration of these objects and the extant cabinets.

There has been some discussion of this group of objects over the years since they first came to public attention in the early twentieth century.7 H. Clifford Smith, ‘A Jacobean painted cabinet’, The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, vol. 31, no. 177, 1917, pp. 234–40; Vilhelm Slomann, ‘The Indian period of European furniture 1’, The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, vol. 65, no. 378, 1934, pp. 113–14; Edwards, pp. 232–30; Hans Huth, Lacquer of the West: The History of a Craft and an Industry, 1550–1950, Chicago and London, 1971, pp. 11–12. Huth argues that these English essays in imitation lacquer owe their inspiration to Italian, not Asian, sources. We argue here for a clear connection with Asian productions, including, but not restricted to, the types of imitation lacquer goods originating in the Mughal world, which probably stand behind Venetian lacquerware and reached the Italian trading city via overland trade with cities in Syria and the Levant, where Venetians maintained a presence. They have been identified as examples of the ‘China work ’, which is mentioned in inventories of the early seventeenth century.8 Edwards, p. 232. However, to date there has not appeared in print a detailed attempt to analyse stylistic sources standing behind these early English essays in imitation lacquer. This study will consider the form and decoration of this group of painted cabinets against the background of cabinets and lacquer wares imported into Europe from Asia in the early seventeenth century. It will be argued that the cabinets do not imitate or reproduce any one class of Asian luxury commodity being imported into Europe during the early period of seaborne trade, but rather represent a complex amalgam of diverse sources and influences, including Japanese namban lacquer, cabinets imported from the Indian subcontinent and local English design sources, including pattern books employed for needlework. The cabinets thus provide insight into the manner in which Asia and imported Asian commodities were viewed in Stuart England.

The cabinets evidence an intense interest in the materiality of imported Asian exotica. The primarily European content of the pictorial elements found on the cabinets has its origins in a range of print sources arising out of the emblem book tradition. Individual elements are, however, selected from these sources and combined in a seemingly random fashion, with no regard for their original context and meaning. The result is pictorial scenes, the semantic content of which is, on the surface, illegible. It will be suggested that this illegibility is intentional, emulating the illegibility to European viewers of the pictorial and symbolic content of the imported Asian works of art.

Asian lacquer in Europe

Organised trade of Asian lacquer into Europe only began in 1543, when the Portuguese established a presence in Japan.9 Julia Hutt, ‘Asia in Europe: lacquer for the West’, in Anna Jackson and Armin Jaffar (eds), Encounters: The Meeting of Asia and Europe 1500–1800, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2004, p. 236. By the first decades of the seventeenth century, the various European East India Companies were importing Asian lacquer objects on a regular basis.10 The English (founded 1600), Dutch (founded 1602), Danish (founded 1613) and Portuguese (founded 1628) East India Companies were all active in the maritime Asian trade in the early seventeenth century. The English East India Company enjoyed direct trade with Japan for a ten-year period between 1613 and 1623, before the establishment of the Dutch monopoly on the Japanese trade that would last until 1853.11 John Irwin, ‘A Jacobean vogue for oriental lacquer-ware’, The Burlington Magazine, vol. 95, no. 603, 1953, p. 193. However, the English trade was never very successful, and during this period only one major purchase of lacquer was made by the company, in 1613, and this was bought second-hand from Spanish merchants.12 Oliver Impey & Christian Jörg, Japanese Export Lacquer, 1580–1850, Hotei Publishing, Leiden, The Netherlands, 2005, p. 236. Despite the increased regularity of imports into Europe, actual quantities of lacquer goods remained small enough that they continued to be rare and costly.

The earliest European descriptions of Japanese lacquer, which dominated the early import trade, comment on its desirable qualities of glossiness, hardness and impermeability.13 Hutt, p. 236. It was compared to polished leather, the only similar surface that was available in the West at that time. Imported lacquered screens, chests and cabinets were much prized in elite European interiors, but supply fell far short of demand, and a market for European imitations grew steadily during the seventeenth century. The main ingredient of Asian lacquer consisted of sap from trees indigenous to East and South-East Asia – Toxicodendron vernicifluum in China, Japan and Korea; Gluta usitata in Thailand and Burma; and Rhus succedanea in Vietnam – but not available in Europe.14 Martha Boyer, Japanese Export Lacquers from the Seventeenth Century in the National Museum of Denmark, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, 1959, p. 21. The process of making genuine lacquer remained little known in Europe untill 1720, when the Italian Jesuit Filippo Bonanni described it in his Trattato sopra la vernice.15 Filippo Bonanni, Trattato sopra la vernice detta communemente cinese, in risposta data all’ illmo sig. abbate Sebastiano Gualtieri, G.Placho, Rome, 1720; Huth, p. 22. The Portuguese–Japanese dictionary Vocabulario da Lingoa de Iapam, compiled by Jesuit missionaries and published in 1603, contains a number of technical terms relating to the production of Japanese lacquer, suggesting some familiarity on the part of the Portuguese with the materials and techniques of lacquer, but this information does not appear to have been widely disseminated prior to the eighteenth century. See Leonor Leiria, ‘The art of lacquering according to the Namban-Jin written sources’, Bulletin of Portuguese/Japanese Studies, vol. 3, 2001, pp. 9–26.  European craftsmen, therefore, had to substitute varnishes or paint in their attempt to achieve a similar effect.16 Thus imitating the ‘lacquer’ techniques familiar in India, where, in the absence of lacquer trees, substitutes employing shellac varnishes based upon the secretions of the female lac beetle were employed. The European lacquer process was known as ‘japanning’, a term that came to be applied indiscriminately to imitations of Chinese, Japanese and Indian lacquer ware.

The influence of Japanese lacquerwares

The gold and black painted surfaces of the group of English cabinets under consideration suggests that their ultimate prototype is to be found in Japanese lacquer ware. In the early seventeenth century, the lacquer ware of Burma and Vietnam was largely unknown in Europe, and Chinese lacquer ware of the engraved and coloured kuan cai type – known as Bantam ware in England – as well as possessing a distinctive polychrome finish, was considered inferior to Japanese lacquer.17 Hutt, p. 240. From the tenth to the sixteenth centuries, lacquer ware in the form of Buddhist reliquaries, miniature shrines, sutra boxes, offerings to Shinto gods, and furnishings such as toiletry and stationery boxes had been made in Japan for members of the imperial court, temples, shrines and the nobility. During the Momoyama period (1573–1615), at around the same time as the Portuguese were establishing their presence in Japan, a new, ostentatious style of makie – lacquer decorated with sprinkled gold powders – was developed in response to the taste of samurai clientele.18 Meiko Nagashima, Export Lacquer: Reflection of the West in Black and Gold Makie, Kyoto National Museum, Kyoto, Japan, 2008, pp. 32–5. Known as kodai-ji makie, the style is characterised by bold patterns and high contrast between the black and gold sections of the design. It was these wares that were seen by the Europeans trading with Japan in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the period when our group of painted cabinets appears to have been made.

Lacquer ware produced by Japanese artists for the European export trade in the so-called namban style favoured by the Portuguese also incorporated mother-of-pearl inlay into the black and gold lacquer surface treatment. This technique, ultimately derived from Korean and Chinese lacquer traditions, gave namban lacquer a distinctive appearance, quite different from work intended for the Japanese market. Characteristic of namban lacquer ware, too, was the manner in which the decoration covered the entire surface of an object. This horror vacui was entirely alien to traditional Japanese aesthetics as they applied to lacquer ware.19 Hutt, p. 237. Namban lacquer also incorporated decorative techniques from India, such as the application of plaques of mother-of-pearl to surfaces, a technique familiar from the cabinet-making traditions of Guju-rat and Sindh, regions where the Portuguese maintained trading stations.20 Armin Jaffer, Luxury Goods from India: The Art of the Indian Cabinetmaker, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2002, p. 22.

Lacquer ware of namban type appears to have been known in England in the early seventeenth century. The record of the sale of Japanese lacquer by the East India Company on 20 December 1614 mentions trunks and cabinets, or contors, gilded and inlaid with mother-of-pearl.21 Impey & Jörg, pp. 236–7. The influence of namban lacquer can be detected in elements of the decoration found on the English painted cabinets; in particular, the introduction of silver into the black and gold palette derived from makie lacquer. The use of silver paint for stylised flower motifs in the scrolled foliate border designs employed on many of the cabinets is highly suggestive of an attempt to reproduce the effect of mother-of-pearl inlay found on lacquer in the namban style. A cabinet in the collection of the V&A, clearly closely related to the group we are considering, in fact employs mother-of-pearl inlay in the decoration, together with silver paint upon a black ground, clearly emulating the appearance of mother-of-pearl inlay.22 V&A, accession number W.37:1 to 15-1927. Moreover, the overall density of ornament across the decorated surfaces of the majority of the cabinets is characteristic of the namban style, although this is also typical of the surface decoration of cabinets produced in India, a point we shall return to.

The formal characteristics of a number of the English cabinets also suggest connections with namban exports from Japan. Furniture executed in namban lacquer included drop-front cabinets containing banks of small drawers, versions of the Portuguese and Spanish scritorio or escritorio, a fifteenth-century furniture type intended for holding papers or personal effects (fig. 3). The reference to contors in the East India Company’s sale of 1614, mentioned previously, presumably refers to this type of object. The English painted cabinets are not, however, of the fall-front variety, but rather of the type with two doors concealing a bank of drawers, a form known in European furniture since at least the fifteenth century and which began to be produced in Japanese export lacquer sometime between 1600 and 1630, becoming common in lacquer of the so-called Transition style in the mid 1630s.23 Monique Riccardi-Cubitt, The Art of the Cabinet, Thames and Hudson, London, 1992, p. 34; Impey and Jörg, pp. 128–9.

Among the earliest known examples of Japanese lacquer made to order for Europeans are works commissioned by the Portuguese Jesuits who had been present in Japan from the mid sixteenth century. A long with pyxes, bookstands and other ecclesiastical paraphernalia, these objects included retables, or portable shrines, with various shaped pediments – including triangular pediments similar to that seen on the Melbourne and Fardon cabinets – and tabernacles, cabinets for holding the host and instruments of the mass, again with the unusual triangular pediment. The triangular pediment is not a form generally found in the European furniture tradition, but further examples of the form are found in cabinets manufactured in India under Portuguese patronage, including a cabinet in the David Collection in Copenhagen, a cabinet in the Távora Sequeira Pinto collection in Portugal (fig. 4), and a cabinet on a stand with a variant trapezoidal pediment in the V&A.24 Jaffer, pp. 30–2; Jorge Flores &d Nuno Vassallo e Silva (eds), Goa and the Great Moghul, Scala, London, 2004, p. 114. It is thus a form that seems to be particularly associated with furniture made in Asia for the Portuguese market.

The influence of Indian cabinets

Cabinets produced in furniture-making centres in India evidence other stylistic affinities with the group of English painted cabinets under consideration. The scritorio form was also commissioned by the Portuguese in Gujarat and Sindh in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, where the wooden body was inlaid with ivory, mother-of-pearl and other woods, and in Sri Lanka, where it was constructed of solid ivory or ivory-panelled wood and the surfaces decorated with intricate carving. It is in these cabinets from India and Sri Lanka that we find important parallels for the disposition of ornamental borders and pictorial vignettes that characterise the decoration of the majority of the English cabinets. While the general density of ornament on the painted cabinets is comparable with that found on namban lacquer examples, it is in the cabinets of South Asian origin that we find the best parallels for the compositional scheme of elaborate foliate borders framing panels of dense pictorial decoration, as is seen, for example, in a teak cabinet with ebony veneer and ivory inlay in a Portuguese private collection.25 Flores & Vassallo e Silva, p. 227. Noteworthy, too, are the examples of seventeenth-century Singhalese ivory cabinets, the doors of which are decorated with a central pictorial panel within a wide, vegetal-scroll border that closely mirrors the borders seen on the doors of four of the English cabinets.26 Jaffer, pp. 54–5. Indeed, the decorative borders on the English cabinets appear to be emulating in paint the mitring of the corners of the doors found on a veneered cabinet, strongly suggesting that a cabinet employing some form of veneered decoration may stand behind the painted border designs (see fig. 5).

Iconographic sources

The interiors of all the English cabinets, including the inside faces of the cabinet doors, the small central doors in the banks of drawers and the inside of the lift top on the Johnson cabinet, are decorated with figural scenes consisting of landscapes populated by human figures and animals. Unlike the ornamental borders found on the cabinets, which appear to be inspired by Asian sources, these figural scenes evidence a preponderance of motifs of European origin. All of the extant figural scenes share a number of characteristics: male and female figures, mainly dressed in costume reminiscent of the early seventeenth century, sited within imaginary landscapes comprising series of floating hillocks, among which are seen townscapes, trees and flowering plants, and a variety of animals. The horizon lines are punctuated with windmills, gibbets or braziers, and the skies filled with stylised clouds, sunbursts or birds.

Not only is the style and palette of the painting remarkably similar across the cabinets, but identical elements also appear in the decoration of several of the cabinets and the clearly related V&A trenchers, supporting the idea that all of these objects originated in a single workshop. Repeated motifs include the windmill, gibbet, leaping stag, snail, flaming beacon, townscapes, a tortoise, a dragon and a Moorish figure.27 The role of professional designers and workshops in the context of seventeenth-century English embroidery is discussed in Andrew Morrall & Melinda Watt (eds), English Embroidery from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1580–1700: ‘Twixt Art and Nature, Bard Graduate Center, New York, 2008, pp. 29–30. Many of these motifs clearly derive from European print sources. Emblem books and sheet prints, along with illustrated travelogues, herbals, garden manuals and bibles, provided important sources of imagery for artists and craftsmen working in a range of media throughout the early modern period. A leaping stag, found on the inside of the right-hand door of both the Melbourne and Johnson cabinets, clearly derives from an etching by Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder, illustrating the fable of the Old Dog from the edition of Aesop’s fables, De Warachthige fabulen der Dieren, published in Bruges in 1567 (figs 6 and 7).28 British Museum, accession number 1868,0612.120. This edition was certainly well known in early seventeenth-century England, where Gheeraerts fled as a religious refugee in 1568. Simplified engraved versions of twelve of the images were published in England by Thomas Johnson in the 1620s as circular prints to be pasted onto trenchers of the type represented by the set of painted trenchers in the V&A.29 On trenchers in general, see Malcolm Jones, The Print in Early Modern England: An Historical Oversight, Yale University Press, New Haven, USA, and London, 2010, pp. 10–13. Similarly, the snail that appears on the inside right-hand door of the Melbourne cabinet is very similar to that found in Gheeraerts’ illustration to the fable of the Eagle and the Snail, which was also included among the twelve engravings intended for use on trenchers.30 Antony Griffiths, The Print in Stuart Britain, British Museum Press, London, 1998, p. 107. A similar snail image appears in the illustration ‘Lente sed Attente’ in G. Withers, Emblems, Henry Taunton, London, 1635. From a different source, the dragon that appears on the inside right-hand door of the Johnson cabinet and the inside left-hand door of the Melbourne cabinet appears related to the dragon in a scene of the expulsion from Paradise in a round trencher print by Crispijn de Passe after Maerten de Vos, dating to 1580–1600 (figs 8 and 9).31 An example is held in the British Museum, accession number 1981, U.887. The same dragon appears to be related to a 1571 Cornelis Cort engraving after Titian, showing Angelica being rescued from a dragon by Ruggiero. British Museum X,1.98 (note the looping of the tail).

Some of the design elements seen on the cabinets can be found on other roughly contemporaneous works of art. For example, the figure of a Moor found on the Johnson cabinet shows considerable similarity to an engraving from a series of twelve by de Passe, dated to c. 1640 and showing allegories of the months of the year and the signs of the zodiac. The same engraving is the source for a seventeenth-century stained-glass window in the NGV.32 Crispijn de Passe, Twelve months with couples in costumes from all over the world, Amsterdam, c. 1640, plate 8. Glass panel: England, Months of the year, panel (seventeenth century), painted glass, lead, 32.8 x 41.2 cm, Felton Bequest, 1963, 541A-D5. Of particular interest is the fact that a number of the motifs appearing on the cabinets and related trenchers find direct parallels in examples of seventeenth-century English needlework. Motifs like a gibbet33 V&A cabinet inside left-hand door, Johnson cabinet underside of upper lid; compare Esther and Ahasuerus, cat. 69, cat. 70, in Morrall & Watt, pp. 248–53. and a windmill34 NGV cabinet inside right-hand door, V&A cabinet inside left-hand door, Fardon cabinet inside right-hand door. Compare the Bradford table carpet, V&A, T.134-1928; Scenes from the Life of Abraham, cat. 58, in Morrall & Watt, pp. 226–7; The Return of Jephthah, cat. 66 in Morrall & Watt, pp. 242–3; Esther and Ahasuerus, cat. 69 in Morrall & Watt, pp. 248–9. seen on the horizon in a number of the painted landscapes are also found in seventeenth-century needlework pictures, as are the distant cities and castles seen in the majority of the scenes on the cabinets. Needlework often drew upon religious subjects for inspiration, in particular stories about righteous heroines from the Old Testament who could serve as role models of proper conduct for the young women executing the embroideries.35 Ruth Geuter, ‘Embroidered biblical narratives and their social context’, in Morrall & Watt, pp. 57–9. Among the repertoire of stories commonly translated into needlework was the tale of Esther and A hasuerus (see fig. 10). The story of Esther was a popular subject, as it illustrated the quality of female steadfastness, a trait deemed desirable in a wife. It is in this narrative that we find the likely source of the gibbet motif: it is the gibbet upon which the treacherous Haman is hanged. Images such as the engraving of Esther before King A hasuerus by Gerard de Jode in the Thesaurus Historiarum Sacrarum Veteris Testamenti, published in Antwerp in 1585, may stand behind the depiction of the gibbet found on the V&A and Johnson cabinets.

Another motif on the Melbourne cabinet has its origins in illustrations of biblical stories: the serpent in the tree of knowledge on the inside right-hand door. The Adam and Eve narrative was a popular needlework subject, and the story was illustrated in numerous print sources that circulated widely.36 Andrew Morrall, ‘Regaining Eden: Representations of nature in seventeenth-century English embroidery’, in Morrall & Watt,  pp. 79–97. Of further note in this regard is the appearance of the tree of knowledge motif on the outside of a Singhalese ivory cabinet that we have already suggested exhibits parallels to the English painted cabinets, which seem to imitate the mitred corners of the ivory veneer in painted form (fig. 5).37 The subject had especial resonance in Sri Lanka, where there was a mountain known as Adam’s Peak and where, according to a late-sixteenth-century report by Jan Huygen van Linschoten, the local inhabitants believed Paradise to be located. The prints of Dürer and Cranach were known in Asia in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, thanks to the efforts of Portuguese missionaries. See Jaffer, p. 54.

In contrast with images like the gibbet and the tree of knowledge, the windmill is a motif that has no direct origins in religious sources, but which nevertheless occurs frequently in seventeenth-century embroideries (fig. 7). The painted panels in the Heaven Room at Bolsover Castle, dating from the same period as the cabinets, include a similar image of a windmill.38 David Beevers (ed.), Chinese Whispers: Chinoiserie in Britain 1650–1930, The Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton, UK, 2009,  p. 111. A windmill is also seen in the background of a trencher adorned with a print after Crispijn de Passe of the month of May from a series of Labours of the Months in the collection of the British Museum.39 British Museum, accession no. D, 6.25. The same print depicts a group of merrymakers in a small rowboat. Such imagery could have inspired the rowboat depicted in the inside left-hand door of the Melbourne cabinet. In the seventeenth century the windmill forms an element in the transformation of garden and landscape imagery from images of the Garden of Eden, representing the perfection of God’s creation, to pastoral landscapes which, through the inclusion of built structures, extoll the virtues of industry, property and status contingent upon social order.40 Morrall, p. 90.

The beacon found on the inside right-hand door of the Johnson cabinet and on the V&A trencher box is a motif whose exact source at this point remains untraced (fig. 8). The form of the beacon bears notable similarities to one found on a late-fifteenth-century painted heraldic panel in the British Museum.41 British Museum, accession no. 1922,0511.1. It is possible that an image from the tale of Jonah stands behind the appearance of the motif on the cabinets. An engraving of Jonah and the whale by Jan Sadeler I after Dirk Barensz, dated 1580–92, shows Jonah being cast ashore by the whale, with a lit beacon on the shore in the background.42 British Museum, accession no. D,5.66. Similar images by Antonius Wierix after Maerten de Vos are common, including an example in the 1585 The– saurus Sacrarum Historiarum veteris testamenti published by Gerard de Jode I.43 British Museum, accession no. 1877,0811.1117. Embroideries after these images are known, as demonstrated by a 1613 embroidered book cover by Elizabeth Illing worth in the V&A.44 V&A, accession no. T.134-1929.

The images of people depicted on the cabinets appear to derive from a variety of print sources. We have mentioned the Moor and de Passe’s allegories of peoples of the globe and the twelve months of the year. Other figures appear to be inspired by prints of the Labours of the Months, which associate agricultural pursuits with the twelve months of the year. Two men digging, featured on the inside left-hand door of the Temple Newsam cabinet, correspond to a common image for the month of March, in which the characteristic occupation is either digging or pruning vines. Representations of the Labours of the Months were popular since the medieval period in a range of media, although by the second quarter of the seventeenth-century images of the Four Seasons had become more common.45 See J. C. Webster, The Labours of the Months in Antique and Medieval Art to the Twelfth Century, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1938. Both of these image traditions, the Labours of the Months and the Four Seasons, are represented in early seventeenth-century English embroidery.46 Morrall & Watt, cat. 79, pp. 276–77.

This clear connection between the decoration of the painted cabinets and seventeenth-century English needlework is significant. Needlework designs, even when executed by amateur needleworkers, were by and large drawn by professional pattern drawers who employed a stock of designs drafted and adapted from prints and book illustrations.47 Kathleen Staples, ‘Embroidered furnishings: questions of production and usage’, in Morrall & Watt, pp. 23, 29. A popular class of household item executed in needlework in the seventeenth century was a small casket or cabinet covered in embroidered panels.48 See Morrall & Watt, cat. 68, pp. 247–8, for an example of an unfinished set of cabinet panels. The completed embroideries for these cabinets would have been sent to an upholsterer or joiner to be applied to a wooden carcass. It is in this confluence of embroideries, professional needlework draftsmen and joiners creating cabinets out of completed embroideries that the shared design sources between embroiderers and the makers of our painted cabinets becomes a distinct possibility. The connections between the cabinets and the embroideries seem more complex than simply shared reference to commonly available prints. Instead, individual elements extracted from widely circulating print sources are combined to create new compositions in a similar fashion in both groups of objects. This does suggest the possibility that, perhaps in the context of a joiner’s workshop, the same draughtsmen who composed scenes for embroideries were also composing the scenes found on the painted cabinets; indeed, the possibility that needlework draftsmen executed the painting on the cabinets cannot be discounted.

But the composition of the scenes found on the cabinets deserves further comment. The arrangement of motifs across the pictorial field suggests landscape, as is the case in many of the embroideries, with a vague sense of spatial recession being created by the tendency to make objects towards the top of the field noticeably diminutive in scale. While narrative and symbolic concerns appear to underlie the disposition of various motifs across the surface of many of the embroidered objects, no such concerns seem to inform the composition of the scenes on the painted objects, which evidence an apparently random placement of pictorial elements. Although we have suggested possible sources for individual motifs found on the various cabinets, like the gibbet from illustrations of the story of Esther or the tree of knowledge from the story of Adam and Eve, these motifs appear to be used without any particular concern for evoking their original connotations. This phenomenon is of interest. A characteristic of many later European chinoiseries of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries was the borrowing of iconographic elements from genuine Asian-manufactured objects and then employing them in a fashion evidencing a total ignorance of their symbolic meaning in their original context. European craftsmen seem to have believed that Asian art was by its nature illogical. Such an idea is articulated by Robert Sayer in The Ladies Amusement, or, Whole Art of Japanning Made Easy of 1759–60, an English treatise aimed at amateur japanners, in which he argued that ‘with Indian and Chinese Subjects, greater Liberties may be taken, because Luxuriance of Fancy recommends their Productions more than Propriety, for in them is often seen a Butterfly supporting an Elephant, or Things equally absurd’.49 Robert Sayer, The Ladies Amusement, or, Whole Art of Japanning Made Easy, Robert Sayer, London, 1759–60, p. 4. A similar compositional strategy seems to be at play in the painted cabinets. Like later chinoiseries, and despite their use of familiar European elements, the landscapes on the cabinets appear to be intentionally devoid of narrative or symbolic content. When read against the clear interest in the physical characteristics of Asian lacquer and other exotic imported furniture manufactured in workshops in South and South-East Asia, which is other wise apparent in the English cabinets, it is difficult not to see the illegibility of the cabinets’ pictorial content as a feature that the English artists associated with the visual arts of Asia and which they aimed to emulate. Imported Asian objects were, above all, exotic and desirable on account of their intriguing materiality, but in terms of the pictorial content of their decoration, they were devoid of immediate signification. It is this absence of legible pictorial content for which the painted cabinets appear to be striving.

Conclusion

The group of early seventeenth-century English painted cabinets and trenchers under consideration are revealed to be complex objects. The cabinets were clearly made in response to early Asian lacquer imports, but they are not replicas of any known Asian exemplars. Instead they employ the surface aesthetics of Japanese lacquer and a number of formal decorative characteristics of cabinets from workshops on the Indian subcontinent to render exotic a predominantly European furniture form and European pictorial imagery. To a modern viewer these English cabinets seem far more European than Asian in inspiration, particularly in comparison with later eighteenth-century chinoiserie creations. But it would appear that the cabinets were read by seventeenth-century English and later viewers as exotic in character. This is demonstrated by the later decoration added to the exterior of the doors of the Melbourne cabinet, which is in the familiar early-eighteenth-century style of English chinoiserie decoration – the imitation of the visual characteristics of imported Asian lacquer evident in the early-seventeenth-century work allowed these objects still to be read as exotica at the beginning of the eighteenth century.

Perhaps most interesting is the implication of the manner in which familiar European design sources are deployed in the creation of the cabinets’ pictorial decoration. Design elements familiar from contemporary English embroidery are compiled to create imaginary landscapes without regard to the narrative or allegorical content that was inherent both in the original sources and in the way those sources were employed in the creation of embroidery schemes. The resulting painted landscapes are images that are full of picturesque detail, but are constructed largely to avoid obvious narrative or symbolic content.50 Of course this is not wholly the case. The Moorish-appearing figure bears associations with the Ottoman world, the immediately familiar and frightening face of the ‘Orient’ in Europe for much of the early modern period. This phenomenon, we would argue, is an intentional act on the part of the artists decorating the cabinets. In so doing, they are attempting to simulate the manner in which genuine imported Asian artefacts were viewed in early-seventeenth-century England. The pictorial elements on imported Chinese porcelains, Japanese lacquer works or Gujarati cabinets would have intrigued English viewers with their picturesque qualities, but any symbolic content of these images would have remained utterly inaccessible. In recreating this sense of illegibility, the English artists who created these cabinets have not indulged in simple, entertaining visual fantasy, but have instead confronted the viewers of their creations with the impenetrable cipher that Asia must have represented to Europeans in the early years of maritime contact with the East.

Carol Cains, Curator, Asian Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2015)

Matthew Martin, Curator, International Decorative Arts and Antiquities, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2015)

Notes

1      Information provided by Suzi Shaw, Conservator, Frames and Furniture Conservation, National Gallery of Victoria, suggests the use of gold leaf for the decoration of the exterior of the cabinet, with gold powders used elsewhere.

2     Christopher Gilbert, Furniture at Temple Newsam House and Lotherton Hall, vol. 1, National Art-Collections Fund, Bradford, UK, and London, 1978, p. 47.

3     Walter R. Brown, The Stuart Legacy: English Art 1603–1714, Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, USA, 1991, p. 63. This  cabinet, formerly in the John Fardon collection, was sold at Christies, South Kensington, on 6 July 1994 (337) and again at Christies, South Kensing- ton, on 1 May 1996 (300).

4     Ralph Edwards, ‘The “master” of the saddlers’ ballot box’, The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, vol. 69, no. 398, 1936,  pp. 232–5.

5     A copy of the report on analysis carried out by Dr Ian Tyres was obtained from Lucy Johnson of  Lucy Johnson Antiques, 26 April 2010.

6     ‘Davies, John (1569–1626) (DNBoo)’, Wikisource, 29 Dec. 2012, <http://en.wikisource.org/w/index.php?title=Davies,_John_(1569-1626)_ (DNB00)&oldid=4211003>, accessed 23 Sep. 2013.

7     H. Clifford Smith, ‘A Jacobean painted cabinet’, The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, vol. 31, no. 177, 1917, pp. 234–40; Vilhelm Slomann, ‘The Indian period of European furniture 1’, The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, vol. 65, no. 378, 1934, pp. 113–14; Edwards, pp. 232–30; Hans Huth, Lacquer of the West: The History of a Craft and an Industry, 1550–1950, Chicago and London, 1971, pp. 11–12. Huth argues that these English essays in imitation lacquer owe their inspiration to Italian, not Asian, sources. We argue here for a clear connection with Asian productions, including, but not restricted to, the types of imitation lacquer goods originating in the Mughal world, which probably stand behind Venetian lacquerware and reached the Italian trading city via overland trade with cities in Syria and the Levant, where Venetians maintained a presence.

8     Edwards, p. 232.

9     Julia Hutt, ‘Asia in Europe: lacquer for the West’, in Anna Jackson and Armin Jaffar (eds), Encounters: The Meeting of Asia and Europe 1500–1800, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2004, p. 236.

10   The English (founded 1600), Dutch (founded 1602), Danish (founded 1613) and Portuguese (founded 1628) East India Companies were all active in the maritime Asian trade in the early seventeenth century.

11   John Irwin, ‘A Jacobean vogue for oriental lacquer-ware’, The Burlington Magazine, vol. 95, no. 603, 1953, p. 193.

12   Oliver Impey & Christian Jörg, Japanese Export Lacquer, 1580–1850, Hotei Publishing, Leiden, The Netherlands, 2005, p. 236.

13   Hutt, p. 236.

14   Martha Boyer, Japanese Export Lacquers from the Seventeenth Century in the National Museum of Denmark, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, 1959, p. 21.

15   Filippo Bonanni, Trattato sopra la vernice detta communemente cinese, in risposta data all’ illmo sig. abbate Sebastiano Gualtieri, G.Placho, Rome, 1720; Huth, p. 22. The Portuguese–Japanese dictionary Vocabulario da Lingoa de Iapam, compiled by Jesuit missionaries and published in 1603, contains a number of technical terms relating to the production of Japanese lacquer, suggesting some familiarity on the part of the Portuguese with the materials and techniques of lacquer, but this information does not appear to have been widely disseminated prior to the eighteenth century. See Leonor Leiria, ‘The art of lacquering according to the Namban-Jin written sources’, Bulletin of Portuguese/Japanese Studies, vol. 3, 2001, pp. 9–26.

16   Thus imitating the ‘lacquer’ techniques familiar in India, where, in the absence of lacquer trees, substitutes employing shellac varnishes based upon the secretions of the female lac beetle were employed.

17   Hutt, p. 240.

18   Meiko Nagashima, Export Lacquer: Reflection of the West in Black and Gold Makie, Kyoto National Museum, Kyoto, Japan, 2008, pp. 32–5.

19   Hutt, p. 237.

20   Armin Jaffer, Luxury Goods from India: The Art of the Indian Cabinetmaker, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2002, p. 22.

21   Impey & Jörg, pp. 236–7.

22   V&A, accession number W.37:1 to 15-1927.

23   Monique Riccardi-Cubitt, The Art of the Cabinet, Thames and Hudson, London, 1992, p. 34; Impey and Jörg, pp. 128–9.

24  Jaffer, pp. 30–2; Jorge Flores &d Nuno Vassallo e Silva (eds), Goa and the Great Moghul, Scala, London, 2004, p. 114.

25   Flores & Vassallo e Silva, p. 227.

26   Jaffer, pp. 54–5.

27   The role of professional designers and workshops in the context of seventeenth-century English embroidery is discussed in Andrew Morrall & Melinda Watt (eds), English Embroidery from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1580–1700: ‘Twixt Art and Nature, Bard Graduate Center, New York, 2008, pp. 29–30.

28   British Museum, accession number 1868,0612.120.

29   On trenchers in general, see Malcolm Jones, The Print in Early Modern England: An Historical Oversight, Yale University Press, New Haven, USA, and London, 2010, pp. 10–13.

30   Antony Griffiths, The Print in Stuart Britain, British Museum Press, London, 1998, p. 107. A similar snail image appears in the illustration ‘Lente sed Attente’ in G. Withers, Emblems, Henry Taunton, London, 1635.

31   An example is held in the British Museum, accession number 1981, U.887. The same dragon appears to be related to a 1571 Cornelis Cort engraving after Titian, showing Angelica being rescued from a dragon by Ruggiero. British Museum X,1.98 (note the looping of the tail).

32   Crispijn de Passe, Twelve months with couples in costumes from all over the world, Amsterdam, c. 1640, plate 8. Glass panel: England, Months of the year, panel (seventeenth century), painted glass, lead, 32.8 x 41.2 cm, Felton Bequest, 1963, 541A-D5.

33   V&A cabinet inside left-hand door, Johnson cabinet underside of upper lid; compare Esther and Ahasuerus, cat. 69, cat. 70, in Morrall & Watt, pp. 248–53.

34   NGV cabinet inside right-hand door, V&A cabinet inside left-hand door, Fardon cabinet inside right-hand door. Compare the Bradford table carpet, V&A, T.134-1928; Scenes from the Life of Abraham, cat. 58, in Morrall & Watt, pp. 226–7; The Return of Jephthah, cat. 66 in Morrall & Watt, pp. 242–3; Esther and Ahasuerus, cat. 69 in Morrall & Watt, pp. 248–9.

35   Ruth Geuter, ‘Embroidered biblical narratives and their social context’, in Morrall & Watt, pp. 57–9.

36   Andrew Morrall, ‘Regaining Eden: Representations of nature in seventeenth-century English embroidery’, in Morrall & Watt,  pp. 79–97.

37   The subject had especial resonance in Sri Lanka, where there was a mountain known as Adam’s Peak and where, according to a late-six-teenth-century report by Jan Huygen van Linschoten, the local inhabitants believed Paradise to be located. The prints of Dürer and Cranach were known in Asia in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, thanks to the efforts of Portuguese missionaries. See Jaffer, p. 54.

38   David Beevers (ed.), Chinese Whispers: Chinoiserie in Britain 1650–1930, The Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton, UK, 2009,  p. 111.

39   British Museum, accession no. D, 6.25. The same print depicts a group of merrymakers in a small rowboat. Such imagery could have inspired the rowboat depicted in the inside left-hand door of the Melbourne cabinet.

40   Morrall, p. 90.

41   British Museum, accession no. 1922,0511.1.

42   British Museum, accession no. D,5.66.

43   British Museum, accession no. 1877,0811.1117.

44   V&A, accession no. T.134-1929.

45   See J. C. Webster, The Labours of the Months in Antique and Medieval Art to the Twelfth Century, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1938.

46   Morrall & Watt, cat. 79, pp. 276–77.

47   Kathleen Staples, ‘Embroidered furnishings: questions of production and usage’, in Morrall & Watt, pp. 23, 29.

48   See Morrall & Watt, cat. 68, pp. 247–8, for an example of an unfinished set of cabinet panels.

49   Robert Sayer, The Ladies Amusement, or, Whole Art of Japanning Made Easy, Robert Sayer, London, 1759–60, p. 4.

50   Of course this is not wholly the case. The Moorish-appearing figure bears associations with the Ottoman world, the immediately familiar and frightening face of the ‘Orient’ in Europe for much of the early modern period.