The Netherlands Cushion cupboard (Kussenkast)

Through the generous auspices of the Felton Bequest, the National Gallery of Victoria has acquired its first example of Dutch seventeenth-century furniture. The Cushion cupboard (Kussenkast), 1659, is a fine example of the monumental linen cupboard that is often depicted in seventeenth-century Dutch genre paintings. Its name refers to the vertical, ornamental ‘cushions’ on the doors that are such a characteristic feature of these cupboards.

The cupboard would have been used for storing linen and clothing, both of which were costly commodities and tended to constitute the main part of a dowry. As such, expensively crafted cupboards were often acquired at the time of a marriage and may also have been given as gifts. Due to their monumental scale, such linen cupboards were often placed in the front room of a house where, as well as being functional, they were symbolic of a family’s wealth and status in society.

The concept of the monumental kast developed early in the seventeenth century, initially in carved oak and later with decorative veneers in ebony, ivory, tortoiseshell, mother of pearl and tropical hardwoods. The NGV’s kast is made from oak with veneers and solid carved elements in rosewood and ebony. The black-stained bun feet are carved from elm and are thought to be original, a rare survival for a piece of furniture over 350 years old. The form of the kast is typical of those of the third quarter of the seventeenth century, comprising two cushioned doors above a base of two drawers, columns, diagonally placed corners, a heavy projecting mantle and bun feet.

At first glance the cupboard appears deceptively simple but its monumental appearance is enlivened by the subtle use of contrasting timbers and the beautifully carved details that punctuate the solid, rectangular forms. The sophisticated column capitals combine cherub-like faces that merge into winged lion heads and the lion head motif is repeated around the pediment, where the winged lion faces meld into auricular-style mythical creatures. The carved floral garlands down the centre of the cushions are suspended by ribbons secured by a button, a delightful trompe l’oeil conceit. Overall, the kast is a masterly exercise in proportion and volume, highlighted by the cushioned base apron that grounds the cupboard against its imposing pediment and the subtle rosewood banding around the columns, whose horizontal highlights break up the verticality of the central mass.

The NGV’s Kussenkast is of particular importance due to a graphite inscription hidden on the inside of one of the cushions. The inscription reads ‘Peter Peters fecit. Anno 1659. 1 Maij. Bremensis’ (Peter Peters made it. Year 1659. 1 May. Bremen). Peter Peters was a Bremen journeyman working for a Dutch cabinetmaker; he took the opportunity to inscribe his name and the date in a part of the cupboard that would only be seen by someone restoring it at a later date. Such inscriptions are known on French and German furniture of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but they are exceptionally rare on Dutch furniture of the seventeenth century and make the NGV’s kussenkast a particularly significant example of Dutch furniture of the period.

Amanda Dunsmore, Senior Curator, International Decorative Arts & Antiquities, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2016)