This striking bureau bookcase represents an important addition to the oeuvre of white-japanned furniture attributed to the celebrated lacquer specialist, Gerhard Dagly.
Hans Huth and Chisaburo Yamada have identified a group of works, from the Berlin workshop of Gerhard Dagly (1657-1715). Dagly, who practised as a decorative artist in Spa before moving to Berlin in the 1680's, was so proficient in gilding and decorative painting and leading in the art of japanning, that in 1688 he was given the post of Kammerkünstler to Frederick William, Elector of Brandenburg. Frederick William's particular enthusiasm for lacquer grew during his youth in Holland where he was introduced to East Asian goods and their European reproductions. On the accession in 1688 of Frederick III, Elector of Brandenburg (after 1701, Frederick I of Prussia) Dagly retained responsibility for interior decoration and furnishings at the court and in 1696 he was appointed Intendant des Ornements, overseeing much of the work at Frederick's three Porzellanzimmer at the Oranienburg and at Charlottenburg, just outside Berlin. Gerard Dagly who once remarked that lacquer had been "invented to delight potentates", supplied mainly the nobility, and such was his fame that in Paris japanned cabinets became known as 'Berlin' cabinets.
'Japanners' mostly used black or red grounds with gilt or polychrome decoration and it was a distinctive feature of Dagly's oeuvre to use a white ground on which the decoration was built up in blue or bright polychrome colours and partially gilt, recreating a porcelain-like appearance. This bureau cabinet, though due to tarnished and slightly discoloured varnishes now appearing slightly yellowish, is a prime example of this remarkable group of white-ground-japanned objects. It can be listed in a group with a similarly decorated harpsichord at Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin, and a cabinet, also dated circa 1710, in the Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum, Braunschweig (both illustrated W. Holzhausen, Lackkunst in Europa, Braunschweig, 1959, ills. 132-3 and 142-3). Huth cites the travelling architect Christoph Pitzler who visited Berlin in September 1694 and noted, after having been to Schloss Oranienburg "...…it is beautifully furnished and is equipped with cabinets and chairs made in Japan, also there are here some made in Berlin by Dagly, one in the manner of porcelain in blue and white" (illustrated, H. Huth, Lacquer of the West, Chicago, 197l, ills. 160-1 and 165). This cabinet, like the Charlottenburg harpsichord, shows the same close imitation of Far Eastern patterns, copying buildings, trees, birds and rocks closely and arranging them well-spaced, leaving wide areas free.
THE TASTE FOR CHINOISERIE
The japanned decoration on this cabinet is a great example of the fashion for chinoiserie, which dates back to the 17th Century, when European travellers brought back tales and engravings of the exotic sights they had seen in the 'Orient'. Contemporary images of Asia engraved and published by emissaries of the Dutch East Indies Company, as well as the presence of Jesuit missionaries in China, provided abundant documentation for European artists. An important source of inspirations were the engravings by the Dutchmen Johan Nieuhof, in 1669, following an ambassadorial visit to the 'Great Tartar Chan' and those by Petrus Schenk (1660-1718), who became court-engraver to Augustus the Strong. The Treatise of Japanning and Varnishing published in Oxford in 1668 by Messrs. Stalker and Parker also provided a series of images appropriate for artists imitating Oriental lacquer. English and Dutch influences in lacquerwork came to Germany in the late seventeenth century through the importation of Chinese and Japanese lacquer as well as their European copies, and found their way to the mainly protestant north German centers of Hamburg, Bremen and Brunswick and the courts of Saxony and Brandenburg/Prussia (Huth, op. cit., pp. 62-63).