Curator's Choice: The Hidden World of Baroque Cabinets at The Holburne Museum in Bath

By Matthew Winterbottom | 14 November 2012
Matthew Winterbottom, the Curator of Decorative Art at the Holburne Museum in Bath, on four of the cabinets on display in Secret Splendour: The Hidden World of Baroque Cabinets...

An image of an intricate painting of various 17th century figures on the outside of a cabinet
Cabinet on stand: Prodigal son Cabinet. Flemish (Antwerp) (circa 1650). Ebony with painted panels, ivory and snakewood perspective© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Prodigal son Cabinet

"By the 1630s, Antwerp in the Spanish Netherlands had begun to rival Augsburg as the main centre for the production of luxury cabinets.

Rapidly and relatively cheaply made, Antwerp cabinets were exported throughout Europe to an expanding middle class market.

This cabinet is typical of the large numbers of painted cabinets which celebrated the fame of Antwerp as the city of Rubens and other painters.

The plain ebony exterior opens to reveal brightly coloured panel paintings that tell the story of the Prodigal Son.

The story is told from left to right: on the inside of the left‐hand door the son receives his inheritance and is shown on the drawer fronts to the left of the central door riding off to an inn where his dinner develops into a riotous party (painted on the inside of the lifting lid).

The drawers on the right show his descent into miserable poverty, after he wastes his inheritance.

On the central door the family is reunited after the prodigal son returns home to his welcoming father.

The anonymous painters of such panels were paid little for their work and they were usually allowed no more than two weeks to complete a set of painting for a cabinet.

The ebony workers who made the cabinets themselves typically spent about three or four weeks on each."

An image of an ornate black cabinet opened to reveal paintings of various buildings
Cabinet on stand: Endymion Cabine. French (Paris) (circa 1640). Ebony with marquetry of ivory and various woods© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Endymion Cabine

"Like the expensive black silk clothes popular at the Spanish Court, lustrous ebony was the most highly prized of all woods. Imported at great expense from the tropics, it was used to make the finest cabinets.

Such was its importance that the French name for cabinet maker, ébéniste, means one who works with ebony.

During the first half of the 17th century, a number of large cabinets, richly carved with narrative reliefs, were made in Paris, fully exploiting the unique qualities of this special but difficult to work material.

Their sheer size indicates their high status. As in this cabinet, many were carved with scenes taken from illustrations in contemporary French novels that would have appealed to the aristocratic literary circles at the French Court.

This cabinet is carved with the story of Diana and Endymion after a romance by Jean Ogier de Gombauld, which was published in 1624 with illustrations by Crispin de Passe the Younger (1693‐1670).

The rich but sombre exterior would have come alive at night when the reliefs and ripple moulded surfaces would have sparked and danced in flickering candlelight. It opens to reveal a colourful marquetry perspective depicting a fantastic palace."

An image of a small square ornate cabinet with various lush Oriental painted scenes inside
Table cabinet, Castrucci workshop (Prague) (circa 1610). Ebonised and gilded wood, pietra dura, brass© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Castrucci Workshop Cabinet

"Pietra dura (literally “hard stones”) uses highly‐polished brightly coloured marbles and semi-precious stones, cut and fitted together to form images and patterns. The technique was perfected in Florence during the 16th century.

Rudolph II Holy Roman Emperor was the greatest patron of the arts of his time. He invited artists and craftsman from all over Europe to his court at Prague to work for him and to supply rare and costly works of arts for his celebrated collections.

The Castrucci were a Florentine family of pietra dura workers who moved to Prague to work for the Emperor. This cabinet, from the Castrucci workshop, uses distinctive local Bohemian jaspers and marbles that Rudolph was keen to exploit.

The pietra dura panels included scenes of Venice and of Cesky Krumlov in southern Bohemia. They are inspired by paintings by Flemish immigrant artists based in Prague.

Ingeniously hidden behind the pietra dura panels are two sets of secret drawers."

An image of an ornate white cabinet with its doors open to reveal red painted scenes
Cabinet on stand: The Witcombe Cabinet. English (circa 1697). Japanned and silvered wood© The Holburne Museum, Bath
The Witcombe Cabinet

“This exceptionally rare cabinet retains its original silvered wood crest and stand. It belongs to a small group of white ground japanned cabinets of very high quality, made in London at the end of the 17th century.

Imported Oriental lacquer was invariably black and gold. English japanned cabinets were made in a number of colours including red, black, green and white.

White japanning was the rarest and most expensive of all the japanned colours because it required the finest and palest shellacs and resins. When first made, this cabinet would have been a pale ivory white – the shellac has since darkened to a golden yellow hue.

White ground japanning was originally intended to imitate imported expensive Chinese and Japanese porcelain.

The exceptionally fine painted decoration on this cabinet is closely based on such sources rather than Japanese lacquer.

Originally from Witcombe Park, in Gloucestershire, this cabinet was clearly made as a grand display piece.

It almost uniquely retains its original silvered wood crest with brackets to display imported porcelain.”

  • Secret Splendour: The Hidden World of Baroque Cabinets is at the Holburne Museum until January 6 2013. Read our Preview.
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