Writing Cabinet

Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka)
2nd half of the 16th century
Teak; iron fittings
50.5 x 78 x 44 cm

A large Ceylonese fall front writing cabinet finely carved in low-relief and made for export in the second half of the sixteenth century. All of the exterior sides of the writing cabinet share the same carpet-like decorative scheme consisting of a recessed central field and a wide border; the fields and borders are separated by narrow pearled friezes while the edges of the cabinet are carved with rope-like friezes. The top and front have a tripartite central field, while the sides have square-shaped ones. The overall decoration, of both central fields and wide borders consists of similarly intricate floral scrolls; arabesques in interlacing patterns, which although comparable to typically Ceylonese scrolls, betray their European origin on closer inspection. The two main types of border frieze, with complex interlacing scrolls, seems to derive from contemporary needlework models such as fol. 7 of Hermann Gülfferich’s Modelbuch new, aller Art, Nehens und Stickens, a highly illustrated work published in Frankfurt am Main between 1542-1554. The grotteschi alla candelabra (grotesque design set in symmetry) seen on the square-shaped panels on the front, namely the two on the sides of the central panel, with birds and vegetal scrolls terminating in dragon heads, must derive from similar printed sources; while the central one is modelled after designs such as the circular arabesque on fol. 33 of Gülfferich’s Modelbuch. The same may be said of the square panels on top, the central one being close to the double-headed eagle motif on fol. 2 of Gülfferich’s Modelbuch. The square panels on the sides feature interlacing vegetal scrolls stemming from a flower vase, similarly a European decorative motif which must have been copied from similar woodcuts. The horror vacui of the vegetal decoration and its granular appearance are, nonetheless, quintessentially Ceylonese and may be found in mid-seventeenth century ivory carvings also made on the island with a more local aesthetic. This exceptional writing cabinet opens up to reveal six drawers set in three tiers. The fronts are similarly decorated in recessed central fields – flat, with only a carved polylobate medallion in the centre – and narrow borders with carved vegetal scrolls; while the structure between drawers is also carved with similar scrolls. The interior of the fall front is decorated with a flat central field, with the centre carved with a circular medallion of arabesques, and the wide borders carved with interlacing vegetal scrolls. The iron fittings, with simple chased decoration, comprise a square lock plate on the front with a flat latch connecting the fall-front with the top, three forked hinges, the pullers of the interior drawers, and the scissor-shaped pierced pullers of the retractable supports onto which the fall front rests when open.

Portable cabinets of this type were luxury containers for documents, money, and smaller precious objects such as jewellery. While simple in construction, their impact depended on the richness of their decoration and the exotic character of the materials used, namely precious tropical hardwoods. Such cabinets were produced in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) on commission from both Portuguese and Dutch high officials and merchants. While the shape and function are clearly European, the subject and style of the elaborate carved wood decoration are, in general, characteristic of Ceylonese luxury arts. Pieces similar in construction and decorative repertoire are to be found in public and private collections in limited numbers. A similar fall front writing cabinet (51.4 x 80 x 45.3 cm) of this production, with brass fittings, has recently been published, although the European origin of its decoration passed unnoticed. The exceptional character of this writing cabinet, from the Museu do Caramulo, Tondela (inv. FAL 265) in Portugal, is further highlighted by the presence of a Portuguese coat of arms. Objects of the same production, materials and decoration include a large travelling chest with a flat lid (56 x 120 x 46 cm) in a private collection in Lisbon, and at least two table tops, one, very large, in a private collection in Lisbon, and another that has recently been exhibited.

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