This impressive bureau-cabinet can be confidently attributed to the workshop of Giles Grendey (1693-1780), the celebrated cabinet-maker of St. John's Square, Clerkenwell, London, based on the characteristic decoration, design and mounts which it shares with labeled and documented examples from his workshop. Grendey’s trade in exotic lacquer furniture is well-known and his extensive commission of scarlet and gilt-japanned furniture supplied to the Duke of Infantado’s castle at Lazcano, Spain around 1740 ranks among the most celebrated suites of eighteenth century English furniture.
Grendey ran a substantial business from 1726 when he took on his first apprentices until at least the late 1760s; in 1766 he was appointed Master of the Joiners' Company. Described at his wife's death as a 'great Dealer in the Cabinet way', in 1755 at the time of his daughter's marriage to the Royal cabinet-maker, John Cobb (d. 1778), he was referred to as an 'eminent Timber Merchant'.
Grendey was also deeply involved in the timber and export business, which may have led to his production of japanned furniture for the export trade, notably for the Iberian peninsula where such work was much in demand. The Infantado commission remarkably comprised more than seventy-seven scarlet-japanned items including seat furniture en suite with 'pier-set' card-tables, mirrors and secretaire-cabinets- the 19th century interior photograph of Lazcano gives an idea of the richness of the group. Many of the pieces from this famous suite are now in public collections.
Accounts in the Public Record Office indicate that England exported considerable quantities of furniture to Spain and Portugal in the first half of the eighteenth century. Grendey clearly had a substantial export business as early as 1731, when a fire on his premises resulted in an enormous loss of £1,000 in furniture which he 'had pack'd for Exportation against the next Morning' (R. W. Symonds, 'Giles Grendey and the Export Trade of English Furniture to Spain', Apollo, 1935, pp. 337-342). Recently discovered labeled mirrors in Norway also indicate that Grendey exported goods to Scandinavia.
The overall form of this cabinet is virtually identical to a cabinet bearing Grendey’s trade label (illustrated in R. Edwards and M. Jourdain, Georgian Cabinet-Makers, London, 1955, p. 145, fig. 50). This labeled cabinet is believed to be the example purchased directly from the family at Lazcano by the Spanish Art Gallery, London in the 1930s. It passed subsequently into the collection of the St. Louis Art Museum and was sold in 1950 to Commander Paul-Louis Weiller in Paris.
The dense and exotic decoration on this cabinet also compares to that on other known Grendey pieces. The processional scene on the fall-front with dignitaries on hoseback and attendants bearing banners is virtually identical to the top of a card table also from Lazcano and now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (illustrated in H. Huth, Lacquer of the West, London, 1971, figs. 65-6). The large scale figures to the inside of the doors are similar in character to those on another Lazcano bureau cabinet sold Christie’s, London, 7 July 1988, lot 129. The distinctive cartouche and foliate-cast brass mounts are identical to an example attributed to Grendey from Warwick castle, sold Sotheby’s, New York, 21 January 1984, lot 93.
A lacquered bureau-cabinet with base of bombé form and a matching serpentine commode by Grendey in the Gordon and Ann Getty Residence, San Francisco are illustrated in D. D. Saeks, Ann Getty, Interior Style, New York, 2012, pp. 28-29, 32-33. These pieces had previously been in an Italian collection, demonstrating again the attraction of Grendey’s dazzling lacquer work to foreign clients (sold from the Durazzo-Pallavicini and Negretto-Cambiaso collection, Castello di Arenzano; Christie's, Milan, 5 October 1979, lots 354 and 388).
As a type of furniture, the bureau-cabinet was developed in England at the end of the 17th century, but it soon found favor in many countries in both North and South Europe, with the notable exception of France. The English influence was further felt in Continental Europe after the Treatise on Japanning was published in England in 1668 by Messrs. Stalker and Parker, which provided a series of images appropriate for artists imitating Eastern lacquer. In Dresden, the bureau-cabinet came to be known as an Englischer Schreibschrank and soon became the most important piece in the cabinet-makers oeuvre, although it was likely that many examples were still made in England by Grendey and other cabinet-makers and transported abroad.
This cabinet was in the collections of two distinguished American women. Hester Merwin Ayers (1871-1944), a cousin of Adlai Stevenson, was an artist who traveled the world to sketch and paint in exotic locales. She met her husband in Tahiti in 1939, became best-known for her paintings of Africa, and died in Mexico while visiting friends in Oaxaca. Janet Annenberg Hooker (1904-1997), one of the famous sisters of publishing magnate Walter Annenberg, became a noted philanthropist, supporting among many other causes the redecoration of the White House of the State Department's Diplomatic Reception Rooms. Her major gifts to the Smithsonian were crowned by the Janet Annenberg Hooker Hall of Geology, Gems and Minerals. Mrs. Hooker's residences in Newport, Palm Beach and New York were known for their sophistication and refinement, each furnished with the best Chinese porcelains and French and English decorative arts.