This superb lacquer-veneered cabinet is a virtual pair to one that was acquired in the 1670s by Elizabeth, Countess of Dysart and Duchess of Lauderdale (d.1698). The Duchess, who registered her admiration for the taste for the 'splendid court' of Louis Quatorze in a letter of 1671, was soon to embark with her second husband John Maitland, Duke of Lauderdale (d. 1682), Charles II's Secretary of State for Scotland, on the lavish aggrandisement of lodgings in the Royal Palaces at Whitehall, London and Holyrood, Edinburgh, as well as the embellishment of their three castles in Scotland and Ham House, Surrey. At the latter they employed French, Dutch and Italian artists and craftsmen to furnish the villa, 'like a Great Prince's', and their cabinet and en suite pier-set of mirror, table and 'gueridon' stands were listed there by 1679. They were recorded in a bedroom apartment as: 'Table, Stands, Cabinet, Looking glass frame, all of Japan', while it was noted four years later that the cabinet had 'a Carved guilt frame' (A. Bowett, English Furniture: 1660-1714, Woodbridge 2002, p.162; pl. 5:30 and p.128; pl. 4:44; and P. Thornton, 'The furnishing and decoration of Ham House', Furniture History, 1980, p.113, figs 104 and 103).
Like the Lauderdale cabinet, the exterior of the present cabinet is veneered in Chinese lacquer that appears to have been taken from one of the contemporary low folding screens, that served as 'chimney-boards', when fires were not in use. This incised and richly polychromed lacquer was later described by Messrs Stalker and Parker in their Treatise on Japanning and Varnishing, 1688, as 'Bantamwork' after the Dutch East India Company's entrepot in Batavia and described as being 'very pretty'. They also recorded that it had recently been fashionable to have 'made new cabinets out of old Skreens'. The lacquer was also named after the Coromandel trading posts of South East India, as well as being called 'cutt-work' or 'cutt Japan' or 'hollow burnt'. In 1692, when the diarist Celia Fiennes visited the bedroom apartments at Chatsworth, Derbyshire she described walls lined or 'wainscoted' with 'Japan', which she described as 'hollow burnt', in the manner of Italian cedar chests. The 'East India' fashion of using 'Contrivances of Japan screens instead of wainscott [oak]' had also been noted back in the 1670s by the diarist John Evelyn.
The Chatsworth room as well as the similar room of 'cut' lacquer at Drayton House, Northamptonshire were probably carried out under the direction of the court cabinet-maker Gerrit Jensen (d. 1715), who provided an invoice for gilding the frame of one of Drayton's lacquer cabinets inlaid with 'mother of pearl'. Amongst the fine 17th century furnishings at Boughton House, Northamptonshire there was even a bed that appears to have been decorated en suite with a lacquer-veneered table and glass, which were probably supplied by Gerrit Jensen (Bowett, ibid. pl. 5:13).
The present cabinet's finely carved Netherlandish stand is designed in the Louis Quatorze Roman fashion to harmonise both with the dragon-wreathed border of the cabinet, as well as with the flower-wreathed drawers and door interiors. Its colourful interior would then have evoked the poets' concept of a Golden Age (ver perpetuum) of everlasting spring, where love never grows cold. So Cupid and his companion can be discovered on the golden stand perched on the garlands that tie the wings of serpent-tailed dragon (draco) monopodia, which provide the stand's truss-scrolled pilasters. These also appear to metamorphosise into Roman foliage, and so can be related in a fashion to the ancient figurative Chinese rocks depicted on the
As well as providing its richly polychromed veneer, this cabinet was
conceived in part as a china-cabinet and intended to be dressed with a floral porcelain garniture; while more vases, framed by the stand, would have been displayed underneath.
There is a record of the Lauderdales making a purchase in Antwerp in 1672 of a related ebony bedroom pier-set of table, stands and mirror from Mistress v. der Huva, but the lacquer cabinet is not documented (see P. Thornton, 'Furniture from the Netherlands at Ham House', Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek, 1980).