Writing cabinet

Late 16th to early 17th century
Black lacquered wood, decorated with gold and mother-of-pearl; gilded copper fittings
58 x 88 x 46.5 cm

A rare, large Namban fall-front writing cabinet modelled after an Iberian prototype, called contador in Portuguese and bargueño or vargueño in Spanish. Fitted in the interior with sixteen drawers of different sizes and shapes, for the safekeeping of important documents and letters, jewellery and small precious objects, these contadores or bargueños rank among the most prestigious pieces of storage furniture in sixteenth-century Europe. The hinged front drops down to form a surface for writing, while the many drawers, some with individual locks, give access to what was kept in the cabinet’s multiple compartments. This type of luxurious furniture was prevalent in the interior furnishings of European noble and patrician households and fall-front cabinets of this type were a basic requirement of European officials, merchants and traders living in Asia. Large contadores and smaller writing cabinets and boxes made in Asia with exotic and expensive materials such as tortoiseshell, ivory and delicate lacquer decorated in gold were much admired and avidly sought after in Europe due not only to their appealing design but also to their technical perfection.

The decoration of the present cabinet in lacquered wood (urushi) painted in gold (maki-e) with mother-of-pearl inlay (raden), features a landscape on the exterior side of the fall-front; a mountainous scene with buildings and rocks surrounded by luxuriant trees – namely Hinoki cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa) which was used for the present piece of furniture – and large phoenixes. The overall floral decoration of the sides of the cabinet (and inner side of the fall-front) and of the drawer fronts is in gold lacquer (maki-e) and mother-of-pearl inlay (raden), featuring deer among camellia or tsubaki (Camellia japonica), birds amidst tachibana orange trees (Citrus tachibana), Buddhist lions among Japanese maple or momiji (Acer palmatum) and Japanese cherry trees or sakura (Prunus serrulata), is framed by diverse narrow bands of mother-of-pearl inlay and large borders featuring the well-known endless pearl pattern (shippōtsunagi). The gilded copper ornamental metal fittings (kazarikanagu) comprise a large lock plate on the front (aimeita), two fiddlehead fern-shaped (warabi-te) loose-ring side handles, and corner braces (fuchi-kanagu). One of the most distinctive aspects of the present cabinet is the decoration on the front of the central drawer, which is a reuse of a contemporary Namban Christian lectern (featuring the monogram "IHS" used as an emblem by Jesuit missionaries) in lacquered wood (urushi), painted in gold (maki-e). Given the pristine state of conservation of the drawer front it is likely that this large cabinet, which was given possibly to a Christian church by a high-ranking European, was fitted with this lacquered Jesuit insignia in ancient times, therefore adding spiritual meaning to the overall exotic aspect of this unique cabinet. Large cabinets such as the present one are rare, and mention should be made of one (64.3 x 89.2 x 52.6 cm) which in 1990 formed part of the collection of José Lico, Lisbon.

The refined gold decoration applied to this unique fall-front cabinet called maki-e, literally "sprinkled picture", was common in Momoyama (1568-1600) and early Edo Japan. During this period, a special lacquerware made for export, which mixed mother-of-pearl inlay with hiramaki-e, was called nanban makie or nanban shitsugei. Nanban, also spelled Namban, or Nanban-jin (literally, "Southern Barbarian") is a Japanese term derived from Chinese that refers to the Portuguese and Spanish merchants, missionaries and sailors who arrived in Japan in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Namban has also become synonymous with the types of lacquerware and other products that were commissioned in Japan for the home market or for export and reflected Western taste and were modelled after European prototypes such as the present large cabinet. Namban-style products, which were made strictly for export only, commonly combine Japanese techniques, materials and motifs with European styles and shapes. This unusually large Namban fall-front cabinet was used for storage and made to European specifications following the Portuguese demand for mother-of-pearl objects such as those made in Gujarat.

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