From as early as the 16th Century enlightened connoisseurs in the West were obsessed with the mysterious, exotic products of the East. The popularity of lustrous Chinese and Japanese lacquer wares encouraged Western imitations further popularized by the 1688 publication of Messrs. Stalker and Parker's famous Treatise of Japanning and Varnishing which featured decorative patterns.
The 'very eminent cabinetmaker' John Belchier (d. 1753) is frequently credited with early 18th century japanned furniture of this quality. First trading in 1717 at 'The Sun' in St. Paul's Churchyard, London, his signature appears on a small group of similarly decorated scarlet ground cabinets with mirrored doors. While documentary evidence of Belchier's commissions is scarce, his work at Erddig Castle in Wales includes a cabinet with the same interior arrangement of fittings (M. Drury, 'Early Eighteenth-Century Furniture at Erddig', Apollo, July 1978, p. 52, pl. II). The lavish decoration on the present cabinet, characterized by its deeply-painted knolls and cell-patterned cartouches, compares to a labeled Belchier cabinet which also features virtually identical brasses (see C. Gilbert, ed., Pictorial Dictionary of Marked London Furniture 1700-1840, Leeds, 1996, p. 86). Two further cabinets have recently surfaced which provide an interesting link between Belchier and the probable japanner Daniel Massey, and which correspond to the present cabinet in their prominent display of birds in flight with distinctive outspread tail feathers. The first cabinet bears Massey's signature and painted initials 'DM' and was sold Christie's, London, 3 November 2011, lot 48 (£79,250); the second with similar initials sold from the Estate of Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans, Christie's, New York, 24 October 2013, lot 510 ($100,000).
JAPANNED FURNITURE MADE FOR EXPORT TO THE CONTINENT
Records for the celebrated London maker Giles Grendey (d. 1780) reveal an extensive trade in furniture made for export, particularly to southern Europe, underscoring a fashion for opulent japanned furniture on the continent. This export trade is of particular interest given the present cabinet's history in Italy. Grendey's most famous export commission, including at least two pairs of bureau cabinets, was the enormous scarlet and gilt-japanned suite made for the Duke of Infantado for his castle Lazcano in Northern Spain, now dispersed (see C. Gilbert, 'Furniture by Giles Grendey for the Spanish Trade', Antiques, April, 1971, pp. 544-550). Much of the Lazcano suite was acquired directly by the Venice-based dealer Adolph Loewi in 1930. Count Clayton is likely to have purchased the present cabinet at a similar time when living near Genoa. This spectacular cabinet most likely acquired its ornamental carved cresting and finials when in Italy. A scarlet japanned cabinet with similar gilt embellishments and uncharacteristically elaborate feet was sold Sotheby's London, 7 July 2009, lot 10 (£169,500), where it was surmised that this was a customized requirement of a Continental client or adapted shortly after delivery.
Clayton was granted the title of Count by Pope Pius X, following in the footsteps of his great uncle, Lieutenant General Robert Browne Clayton (d. 1845), who was named by Prince of the Holy Roman Empire by Pope VI. The latter was commemorated in a painting by James Northcote, now at the Victoria and Albert Museum (FA.2400).