Spring is most definitely on the horizon when you find yourself tidying up and decluttering in an attempt to let the increasing daylight hours suffuse your home with hope-laden brightness. One task on my decluttering list is to seriously, and I mean seriously, start deleting some of the 17,000 plus photographs clogging up my hard drive.
The process is time-consuming and mostly boring, but every now and then I discover a forgotten encounter. And, one such occasion was a presentation given by Bob Entwistle, Conservator at Christchurch Mansion, about this beautiful and intriguing black and gold japanned cabinet.
The talk was on a Saturday morning in March 2020 just as the world was learning about a formidable, novel virus and a global pandemic heading our way. At the time we weren’t required to wear masks, but we were given latex gloves to handle precious objects and we joked gently as someone stepped back turning away to cough. Whoa – how little we knew then and, strangely, how long ago it all feels now.
Anyway, I digress, back to this magnificent object. Overall, it is about 1.4 metres tall and 45 cm in width. The main cabinet was made in China sometime in the late-seventeenth century or perhaps in the early part of the eighteenth century and is decorated with gold flowers and birds on a black lacquer background. It has European additions possibly from the nineteenth century which I think you can tell from the photographs. The legs of the cabinet have a curved European style. These cabriole legs are also decorated with Western floral motifs.
There are a number of drawers which make up the main body of the piece. This main drawer arrangement can be extracted as a whole section from the carcass and put aside.
Then another ten ‘secret’ drawers can be accessed in the walls of the carcass. During a restoration that was undertaken in 2005 tiny seeds were found hidden in one of these draws.
The cabinet is now on display in the Green Room of Christchurch Mansion and it is a splendid example of chinoiserie that could have been collected by the Fonnereau family living in the mansion during the eighteenth century, but that is not the case. Following the donation in 1894 of an empty Christchurch Mansion by a property syndicate to Ipswich Borough Council the process of buying back furniture and art as well as buying similar pieces to decorate the mansion began. And the lot, ‘Queen Anne lacquer cabinet with black and gold decoration fitted with cabriole legs’, was listed in the country house sale of over 1,500 lots of the furniture and effects of the Brooke family of Ufford Place near Woodbridge, Suffolk. The cabinet was purchased for the Mansion from that 1930 sale for £110 and five shillings. That is about £8,300 in today’s money, but when I looked at recent values for similar antique chinoiserie cabinets they have sold from between £15,000 to £38,000. A good investment for Ipswich not that the Museum Service is going to be putting it up for sale anytime soon.
Interestingly, back in 2015 the cabinet returned to China for six months to be part of the display for an exhibition ‘Georgian Life’ taking place at Nanjing Museum, Nanjing, Jiangsu province, China. Bob Entwistle accompanied the shipment of the museum pieces on loan from Suffolk to Nanjing.
When the cabinet was unpacked at the museum Bob showed his hosts the Chinese classical script found on the woodwork at the back of one of the drawers and he was finally able to learn its meaning. Apparently, somewhat disappointingly, it translates as left and right simply providing functional information for the correct fitting of the drawer into its slot.