This bureau-cabinet demonstrates the success of the Chinese export trade in combining Oriental art with Western forms in appealing 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 good, but also proved a viable market for subsequent Chinese imitators. The popularity of Eastern lacquer, made from the resin of the rhus vernicifera, 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 throughout 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. There, they reached a high point of production and popularity with the Western trade in the early-19th century. 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.
There are many similarities between bureau-cabinets manufactured in Canton and others which probably originate in the Dutch-owned lacquer factory in Nagasaki. As the techiques for export lacquer became more simplified, and as a consequence, more similar, and design elements were shared between the two centers, their attribution cannot often be identified. While the overall form and decoration of this cabinet point to its probable Chinese manufacture, certain details -- such as the design of the inside door panels, the meiji lacquer drawer linings and the Chinese characters to the backs of the drawers conceived in a Japanese fashion -- do not rule out a possible Nagasaki origin. Certainly, there is no question that both types are extremely rare.
The cabinet is particularly magnificent with its elaborate banded oxbow-form scroll base and intricately pierced interior sliding doors in the upper section. A cabinet of comparable grandeur with shaped base and short cabriole legs 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). A pair of bombé-based bureau-cabinets brought back from Canton in 1738 by G. de Brouwer, captain of the Sleswig and sold to King Christian VI of Denmark are now at Fredensborg Castle, Denmark (see T. Clemmensen, 'Some Furniture Made in China in the English Style, Exported from Canton to Denmark 1735, 1737 and 1738', Furniture History, 1985, pp. 174-180, fig. 7). Another with waved base was sold by the Late Mrs. H.W. Lengel, Sotheby's London, 7 March 1958, lot 118. 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). A further cabinet, the property of a New York Estate, was sold in these Rooms, 17 October 1997, lot 445 ($134,500).