This remarkable Indo-Portuguese cabinet from Goa has an illustrious and noble provenance; it was in the collection of three European royal houses, Braganza, Saxe-Coburg and Hohenzollern from at least the mid-19th century, and probably earlier. Given its multifaceted and elaborate ornamentation, it seems likely it was a special commission for the Portuguese Royal family. The royal provenance is strengthened by the appearance of a brass inventory plaque with the initials ‘F.R.’, referring to Prince Ferdinand of Saxe Coburg and Gotha, King Consort of Portugal and Regent, who married Maria de Gloria II, Queen of Portugal and the Algarves on 9 April 1836. Furthermore, the cabinet is adorned on the top and sides with lion insignia, symbols of royalty and power. This cabinet was possibly in situ at the Royal residence, the Moorish-style Pena Palace, a castle that Ferdinand had built on the highest peak of the forest-clad mountain of Cintra (M. Bence-Jones, ‘A Castle for a Prince: The Pena Palace, Portugal’, Country Life Annual, 1972, pp. 93-95).
This cabinet is a fne example of Western-form, deriving from a cabinet-on-stand or contador, which successfully complements Mughal-inspired Gujarati and Sindh ornamentation. Goa, the Indian state from where this cabinet originates, was part of the Portuguese Overseas Empire from the 16th century until 1961, when Portugal effectively lost control of the territory to India. 17th and 18th century inventories suggest there was a considerable amount of Indo-Portuguese work made in Goa and other Portuguese cities on the west coast of India, and mutual trade between India and Portugal was extensive.
This cabinet displays the Portuguese fascination for small intricate and concentrated designs that recall textiles, and for ornamentation covering the entire surface, both inspired by Mughal marquetry. It is comparable with writing boxes and table cabinets produced in Gujarat and Sindh during Mughal imperial rule in the 16th and 17th centuries that feature geometric ornamentation with foliate scrolls, for example, a small fall-front cabinet in the Victoria & Albert Museum (317-1866) and a pair of rosewood cabinets inlaid and veneered with ivory, ebony and exotic woods at Charlecote Park, Warwickshire (NT 532996.1, 2). This cabinet is inlaid with polychrome-tinted ivory, including green, a colour particularly associated with Mughal-inspired Gujarati designs.
Further characteristics that identify this cabinet as Indo-Portuguese are the sculptural treatment of the corner caryatid figures, central nagina, and legs conceived as four-winged birds. Zoomorphic-form feet are also found on a 17th century contador in the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon (no. 1312), and on a similarly-dated contador in the Victoria & Albert museum (781&A-1865). These birds have been identifed by scholars as Jatayu, king of the vultures, a central figure in the Ramayana (A. Jafer, Luxury Goods from India, London, 2002, pp. 56-57, no. 21). It has been suggested that the solid ivory components of this cabinet were probably carved by Chinese craftsmen working in Goa, or alternatively were commissioned from the Chinese ivory workshops in Macau, another Portuguese colony.