This remarkable survival is a very rare instance of the transitional stage between what may be broadly termed the 'Iberian' and the 'Dutch' phases of Japanese export lacquer, with the decoration belonging to the former phase and the shape to the latter. The first pieces in the so-called Nanban style, a hybrid Japanese and European look that also incorporated Indian and other Asian elements, were probably made around 1580. During the Namban phase of production many pieces were extensively decorated with shell, as in the present lot, but the so-called 'kiste' or flat-topped chest, a form favoured by the Dutch, did not become widely popular until the 1630s.1 The transitional character of the decoration is evident from the way that the design includes independant panels with figural scenes, that are largely executed in shell. In subsequent decades, such panels would come to play a much more important part in the overall design and would be executed in black and gold lacquer. The decoration of the borders prefigures that of the Mazarin Chest, an exceptionally high-quality chest that can be dated with some certainty to the middle or late 1630s.2
This coffer originally comes from Wollaton Hall, Nottinghamshire, one of the greatest Elizabethan country houses, built by Sir Francis Willoughby in 1580. It was photographed on the North Staircase circa 1922 by Country Life.
1 For an interim report on current research in this field, see Oliver Impey, 'Namban: Japanese Export Lacquer for Portugal', in Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, The World of Lacquer: 2000 Years of History, Lisbon, 2001, pp. 105-113, and for an earlier account (which now needs to be revised in some respects) see the same author's 'Japanese Export Lacquer of the Seventeenth Century', in Watson, William (ed.), Lacquerwork in Asia and Beyond (Colloquies on Art and Archaeology in Asia, No. 11; London, 1982), pp. 124-58.
2 Earle, Joe, 'Genji Meets Yang Guifei: A Group of Japanese Export Lacquers', Transactions of the Oriental Ceramic Society, 47 (1982-3) (45-75), p. 69.