This bureau-cabinet demonstrates the success of the Chinese export trade in combining Oriental art with Western forms, which appealed to the European market during the 18th and 19th centuries. Since as early as the 16th century, Oriental lacquer has been prized in the West for its luminous, hard surface decorated with intricate gold and colored designs, Western scenes or Chinese landscapes. Portuguese exports of Japanese Momoyama-period lacquerware during the 16th century not only introduced the West to the exotic luxury goods, but also proved a viable market for subsequent Chinese imitators. The popularity of Eastern lacquer, made from the resin of the rhus vernicifera, and its consequent shortage of supply, inspired Western copies of the technique and decoration, a practice called 'japanning.' European japanned trays, dressing mirrors as well as larger seat and case furniture were fashionable accessories throughout Europe during this period.
Lacquered furniture was made in such centers as Nanking, Tonking and Canton following Western forms, copied from actual examples sent to China or from printed European designs. While smaller export pieces such as sewing tables, tripod tables, dressing mirrors and tea caddies abound, larger pieces of furniture such as this bureau-cabinet are far rarer for the inherent difficulties and expense of construction and shipping, and so commanded extraordinary attention for their exotic and esoteric decorative appeal. Many larger pieces were actually commissioned, and were emblazoned with the initials or insignia of the patron.
This cabinet is particularly magnificent with its elaborate banded oxbow-form scroll base and intricately pierced interior sliding doors in the upper section. Related examples of comparable grandeur with shaped base include one in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (illustrated in M. Jourdain and R.S. Jenyns, Chinese Export Art in the Eighteenth Century, Norwich, 1967, p. 85, fig. 24); one from the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, sold Christie's London, 14 December 2000, lot 340 (£135,750 including buyer's premium); and another sold Le Goût Steinitz, I, Christie's New York, 19 October 2007 ($301,000 including buyer's premium). More simplified versions of this form include an example from the notable collection assembled by Sir William Plender of Sundridge, Kent, sold Sotheby's London, 7 November 1997, lot 22 (£100,500) (illustrated in R.W. Symonds, Old English Walnut and Lacquer Furniture, 1923, pp. 166-167, pl.XXXIX).