The compound cabinet is the most majestic piece of furniture in the Chinese cabinetmaker's repertoire. Built in pairs, and consisting of two separable parts, these cabinets define any interior space with their impressive size and stately silhouette. The present pair of cabinets is distinguished by a superior choice of materials, and elegant proportions. Constructed from high-quality huanghuali wood chosen for its golden honey tones, the cabinets' large, flat surfaces show off the natural beauty of the densely grained wood. The upper cabinets make up roughly one-third of the overall height, and this proportion is reflected in the size of the hardware and framing members. This thoughtful design results in a pleasing effect that balances the grandeur of the piece with graceful proportions suggesting a more intimate sort of furniture.
Compound cabinets combine a large square-corner cabinet with a small upper cabinet. Fitted with shelves and oftentimes with drawers, their generous size made them ideal for storing long scrolls, bolts of fabric, garments, and books. The upper cabinets, accessed only via a short ladder, would have contained out-of-season clothing or infrequently used items. Although the upper cabinets are of separate construction, their unfinished undersides suggest that they were an integral part of the design and were never meant to serve as independent pieces of furniture.
Raising storage units onto tall bases has a long history in China. A Southern Song (1127-1279) handscroll illustrating the process of making silk shows a lady opening a cabinet raised on a recessed-leg table, presumably to store the silk that her companions are meticulously folding. (Fig. 1) Another possible precursor to the compound cabinet appears in a Ming dynasty (1368-1644) woodblock print from the novel Jin Ping Mei. In one illustration of a lady's bedchamber, two square corner cabinets supporting wooden chests are shown standing side by side against one wall of her suite. The monumental compound cabinets of the early 17th century are a variation on this configuration. Small cabinets that mirror the construction of the larger supporting elements have replaced the portable chests, with the result that these once disparate elements are now integrated into a single design.
A pair of almost identical huanghuali compound cabinets is illustrated in G. Ecke's Chinese Domestic Furniture, pl. 101, p. 125. Like the present pair, the illustrated cabinets favor rigid geometry, elegant proportions, and highly figured grain patterns over ornamentation. Plain aprons and spandrels, and unadorned foliate baitong hardware highlight this striking preference for form and material over ornament. Related pairs with more elaborate metal hardware and carved elements include a pair from the Museum of Classical Chinese Furniture, sold at Christie's New York, 19 September 1996, lot 30, and a pair in the Metropolitan Museum's Astor Garden Court and Ming Room, where they stand opposite each other. (Fig. 2) It was common practice to place the cabinets on opposing walls, as in the Metropolitan Museum Astor Garden Court, flush with each other, or separated by a smaller piece of furniture, like a pair of ornately carved compound cabinets in the Palace Museum, see W. Yi, et al., Daily Life in the Forbidden City, New York, 1988, p. 133, pl. 184. Perhaps one of the most ornate extant examples is an impressive pair of lacquer and gilt compound cabinets dating to the Wanli period (1573-1619), and in the Palace Museum illustrated in A Treasury of Ming & Qing Dynasty Palace Furniture, vol. 1, p. 293, fig. 336. Although with the Palace example, where surface decoration dominates over form and obscures the natural material, the fundamental design of the compound cabinet is still legible.
The choice of precious huanghuali wood for the present magnificent pair suggests the wealth and status of the owner, who could not only afford such luxurious materials, but also the talents of a highly skilled master cabinetmaker. Their formidable size would certainly have impressed visitors, who could only speculate about the fabulous treasures contained within them.