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Telling the story of 400 years of British royal contact with Japan

Japan [Asia]

Cabinet 1640-90

Wood, black and gold lacquer, gilt bronze | 88.5 x 101.4 x 53.7 cm (whole object) | RCIN 35274

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In 1704–5 Gerrit Jensen, cabinetmaker to the Great Wardrobe, was paid £10 ‘ffor taking the tops backs and inside of the Doores of two large Indian Cabinetts, and the Drawers out & making three shelves and quilting the Inside with crimson Sarsnett.’ He was to use this reclaimed lacquer as tops for two new tables, eventually acquired by Henry Greville (1779–1853), 3rd Earl of Warwick and Gentleman of the Bedchamber to George IV, sometime before 1853. The alterations visible on this cabinet are consistent with the work described in Jensen’s bill. The interior drawers have been replaced by three shelves. The lacquer on top of the cabinet and the inside of the doors has been removed and seems to correspond with the measurements of the lacquer on the Warwick tables. Such alterations were not uncommon at the time; Jensen had cut lacquer into wall panels for the Japan Closet at Chatsworth House in 1692.

According to Jensen’s bill, the cabinets were at St James’s Palace, Queen Anne’s principal residence. After her accession, the queen introduced an ambitious scheme for enlarging and refurbishing the State Apartments there. The relatively small payment of £10 indicates that Jensen probably did not supply the cabinets, but re-worked ones already in the queen’s collection, either purchased by her or inherited as part of Mary II’s collection. The cabinet is recorded in a watercolour of the King’s Writing Closet at Hampton Court Palace, c. 1819, placed there possibly by either George I or George II, who embarked on the completion of Mary II’s apartments, left unfinished after her death in 1694.

During the early 18th century lacquer was an important and luxurious element of furnishing a state apartment: it was usually reserved for the most important of spaces. On account of its expense, fragility and exotic quality it signified luxury and high status.

This lacquer cabinet was certainly brought from Japan, in the cargo of an East Indiaman ship, either as part of the British East India Company, or traded through the Dutch East India Company. At this date, the Japanese restricted international trade through their port at Decima Island [Deshima] in Nagasaki Bay, with the Dutch and Chinese. Its giltwood stand was made to fit as a support for the cabinet and was almost certainly made by Thomas and René Pelletier, cabinet-makers. Alternatively, it may have been supplied in 1703-4 by Gerrit Jensen, cabinet-maker to the Great Wardrobe during Queen Anne's reign. Whilst this cabinet and its stand probably furnished the Gallery at Kensington Palace during the previous reign, it most likely remained in situ as a highly-valued object during subsequent reigns.

Text adapted from The First Georgians: Art and Monarchy 1714 - 1760, London, 2014 and Japan: Courts and Culture (2020)