Lacquer (urushi), mother-of-pearl (raden), shagreen (rayskin denticles), gold and silver powder (hiramaki-e), softwood, gilt copper
63.5 x 131.5 x 59.2 cm
Place of origin
JapanOrder this image
Chirk Castle, Wrexham (Accredited Museum)
It is not known how this magnificent Japanese chest came to be displayed at a castle in Wales. It was probably acquired by Sir Thomas Myddelton I (1550–1631) in the late 16th or early 17th century to furnish Chirk Castle near Wrexham. Myddelton, a member of the Elizabethan court and a founder of the East India Company, became Lord Mayor of London in 1613. He made his fortune by investing in the exploits and plundering missions of the Elizabethan seafarers, including Sir Francis Drake (c.1540–96) and Sir Walter Ralegh (1554–1618). It is possible that this chest was a prize from the state-sponsored seizures of Spanish ships around the time of the Armada hostilities in 1588 and the 1590s. The lacquerware chest is a wonder of artistic ingenuity and was made using techniques that would have been unfamiliar to European craftspeople. Such decorative trunks and boxes – known as Nanban chests – were produced mainly for export to the European market, where they became highly prized. This one is inlaid with mother-of-pearl, sprinkled metal powder and, amazingly, particles of skin from ray fish.
A Nanban lacquer and shagreen domed chest, Japanese, circa 1600. The domed chest decorated with lacquer, mother-of-pearl, shagreen and gold and silver powder in a design of shaped cartouche-like reserves depicting landscapes, and animals, the ends also with ‘mon’ (circular family emblems) all against a speckled ground and within mother-of-pearl lines and diaper-work borders. The underside of the lid with a pair of tigers amidst bamboo. Mounted with gilt copper corner clasps, hasps and lockplates and carry handles. Raised on NT 1170737.2, a later japanned softwood stand, possibly 18th century, English.
Welsh-born Sir Thomas Myddleton I (1550-1631) made his fortune as a merchant and speculator. Profits from financing the piratical exploits of Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir John Hawkins enabled him to purchase the Chirk estate in 1595, around the time this chest was made. Member of the Grocers’ Company, Member of Parliament for the City of London, Lord Mayor of London and founder member of the East India Company, he was in the thick of London’s trading networks, and thus it is assumed that it was he who acquired this chest. How and when the chest was brought to Wales, we don’t yet know. Japanese lacquerware was highly prized in Europe at the time, having first emerged following the arrival of the Portuguese in Japan in 1543. Nanban lacquer was a response to this heightened demand and was made specifically for the Western market, combining traditional Japanese techniques with Western forms, usually domed chests or coffers and cabinets. Lacquer – hard, lustrous and highly decorative – had no counterpart in Europe at the time. Nanban lacquer was heightened by the use of mother-of-pearl (a technique which derived from other Portuguese colonial territories, such as Gujarat, India) and sprinkled gold and silver powder. Remarkably, the ground is made of shagreen: a lacquered surface into which myriad miniscule ray-skin denticles have been fixed. This rare and luxurious object was a powerful status symbol for Myddleton and his descendants. A recent (June-September 2018) exhibition – Kizuna - at the National Museum of Wales described it as the first known object from Japan to come to Wales.
Listed as being in the Long Gallery at Chirk Castle in the c. 1910 inventory (and there called ‘King Charles's Box’); accepted in lieu of tax by HM Goverrnment and allocated to the National Trust for display at Chirk Castle, 1999.