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Osterley Park's Chinese Export lacquer armorial dome-topped coffer - circa 1715-20

Category

Furniture

Date

circa 1715 - 1720

Materials

Softwood, lacquer, gilding, gilt brass

Measurements

The coffer 43.5 x 109.3 x 45.7 cm; overall dimensions 88 x 116.8 x 51.4cm

Place of origin

Guangzhou

Order this image

Collection

Osterley Park and House, London (Accredited Museum)

NT 771891.4.1

Summary

A domed lacquered coffer, Chinese Export, probably Guangzhou (Canton), circa 1715-20, raised on NT 771891.4.2, a walnut and walnut-veneered stand, English, circa 1725-40. Part of a larger, very rare, group of armorial Chinese Export furniture, including: ten hall chairs, four [NT 773356.1 - .4] owned by the Earldom of Jersey Trust, six [NT 771891.1.1 -.1.6] owned by the National Trust; a screen [NT 771891.2], a casket [NT 771891.3], a pair of coffers on stands [NT 771891.5.1 & .5.2] and a side table [NT 773362, also the property of the Earldom of Jersey Trust]. Of softwood, stained, and decorated in green, brown and gold lacquer against a black lacquer ground; the mounts of gilded brass. The domed lid centred by the coat of arms granted to Sir Francis Child (1642-1713) in 1700, 'gules, a chevron engrailed ermine between three eagles close each gorged with a ducal coronet or', before a foliate mantling, and topped by the crest of Child, 'on a Rock proper an eagle rising argent holding in the beak an adder proper', on a torse, and surrounded by a scene of pavilions, mountains and trees in a watery landscape. The front decorated with mountains, and mounted with an elaborate escutcheon and hasp, engraved, shaped and edged with scrolls. The escutcheon with scallop shell terminals. The ends each with a bale handle fixed with an engraved oval backplate. The decoration to front, sides and lid within a border of repeated splayed elongated leaves forming a chevron, between the leaves a delicate stalk or sprig of stylised foliage, all within gold lines. The coffer with a highly unusual vestigial 'skirt' at its base, of ovolu profile, also lacquered and decorated in gilt with sprigs of foliage and with hatched reserves at the ends, the hatching rendered with flowerheads of four elongated oval petals. The lacquer refreshed and over-painted in places.

Full description

Chests or coffers with hinged lids are the most common type of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century lacquered furniture from China and Japan to survive in England, with many both in country house collections and others appearing regularly on the market. At Osterley, there are seven, of which three – NT 771891.4.1, 5.1.1 and 5.1.2 – are distinguished in being part of a rare group of sixteen pieces of armorial Chinese Export lacquer bearing the coat of arms and crest granted to Sir Francis Child (1642-1713) in 1700, who acquired Osterley in 1713. Two of them are a pair, simply decorated in black lacquer with gilt borders. The third is smaller, with an unusual lacquered low plinth or skirt, and is decorated with pictorial green, black and gold lacquer. A coffer sold at Sotheby’s in 1997[1], also bearing the Child arms and of similar measurements, indicates that the latter may also originally have been one of a pair. In 1782, the inventory taken at Osterley listed ‘four Japanned Chests on frames’ in the ‘Passages’ associated with the family’s private rooms, which may be a reference to these two pairs.[2] Despite the ubiquity of lacquered chests and coffers in England, these three examples at Osterley, decorated with the Child coat of arms and crest, are very rare survivors. Most are decorated in a purely pictorial style and there are only a handful of armorial coffers evident either by survival or in references in documents and inventories. Two – significantly, also a pair – bear the arms of Sir Francis Wyndham, Bt. of Trent, Somerset [3] and others are at Houghton, bearing the arms of Walpole, who also commissioned chairs decorated in a similar style.[4] They are also distinguished by their domed lids. Most Chinese Export coffers and chests have flat lids, a development which possibly catered to the English taste for displaying objects on top of them. It is possible that the makers of Chinese Export lacquer were not only decorating their wares to imitate highly prized Japanese lacquer, but were also copying the shape of Japanese furniture. Sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century Japanese coffers, made of ‘nanban’ lacquer, shagreen and mother-of-pearl, had domed lids like those on the coffers at Osterley.[5] No comparable examples of dome-lidded armorial Chinese Export lacquer coffers are known to survive. Lacquered objects decorated with a family’s coat of arms were exclusively the preserve of early 18th century England’s richest men, the millionaires who amassed spectacular fortunes from trade, speculation and investment in emerging markets, and the aristocrats who knew them or were their clients. Made in Guangzhou (Canton) in China, specifically for export, lacquered armorial furniture was only available via the East India Company, the chartered British concern with a monopoly on trade with China. English families commissioned a range of objects bearing their arms [6] – porcelain, textiles and different types of furniture – but remarkably, Osterley is the only place where such a large and diverse group has survived together, in the house of the family for which it was made. The fact of their survival together, protected in law as heirlooms in the house of the family for which they were made, is a measure of their rarity and value, not only when they were made but by subsequent generations, and of the esteem in which they were held. Lacquer is a decorative technique which was perfected by Japanese and Chinese artists, involving the building up of layers – on a timber or other substrate – of the sap of the Rhus vernicflua tree. The lustrous surface which results provides the perfect background for decoration in gilt and colours. By 1720, articles of lacquer for export were being made in Guangzhou and were largely the preserve of the private trade in which East India Company captains, investors and directors were authorised to engage, alongside carrying out the official trade of the Company. Captains, crew members and overseers called ‘supercargoes’ were permitted to reserve a portion of a ships’ tonnage for their own goods, or goods which they had been commissioned to buy. The imperative of saving space on ships bringing lacquered wares back from South-East Asia meant that chests – like screens and chairs – may have been shipped back as flat boards of lacquer which were made up into pieces of furniture in three dimensions on their arrival in England.[7] Otherwise, it is highly probable that they were used as packing space for other goods – such as armorial porcelain or smaller lacquered items – on voyages to England. Families who commissioned goods from China bearing a coat of arms had first to send a tracing of that coat to China. This was not the only means by which the influence of English consumers was brought to bear on the form and decoration of export wares, particularly where furniture was concerned. As early as 1702, when the London Company of ‘Joyners’ petitioned to end – because it threatened their livelihoods – the importation of Asian lacquer, their complaint was not that Chinese furniture was being brought into England, but that Chinese makers were copying English models – sent over to China in the cabins of seamen or as drawings. Amongst the goods imported from China ‘within these Four Years’, they complained, were ‘Four hundred twenty eight Chests’ and ‘Seventy Trunks’.[8] Having domed tops, and being relatively simple, the Osterley coffers (possibly the ‘trunks’ mentioned in the Joyners’ petition) display less of this tendency – the influence of English fashions – than the armorial hall chairs. Certainly, however, in their final form, they are a bi-cultural amalgam. Made from lacquer made by Chinese craftsmen, and decorated with exotic Chinese motifs, almost all surviving examples in England are raised up of the floor on stands of giltwood, japanning or plain timber in the European way. In South-East Asia, coffers usually stood directly on the floor, or on low stands. When exactly these chests were commissioned, and by whom, it is difficult to be sure, as the Child arms they bear were granted in 1700. Francis Child I (d. 1713) and his three sons were all heavily involved in the East India Company. Francis I served as a Director and sat on various committees. His eldest son, Robert (d. 1721), followed suit and was elected Chairman in 1715, the same year he was knighted by George I. Francis Child II (1684-1740) and Samuel Child (1693-1752) both also served as Directors, and Samuel held many East India Company stocks, and co-owned the East India Company chartered ship the Northampton.[9] It is tempting to think that Robert Child commissioned this armorial furniture to commemorate the dual honours of his knighthood and his Chairmanship of the East India Company in 1715. Comparable hall chairs can be dated fairly precisely to 1714-1720: the set bearing the arms of Sir Gregory Page must have been made between the creation of his baronetcy in 1714 and his death in 1720.[10] It is possible, of course, that the armorial lacquer at Osterley was, in fact, the product of several commissions, as the pieces are of varying quality, and their decoration is evidently not the work of the same hand. These three coffers and the set of ten hall chairs, with decoration confined to the arms and a simple border of leafy chevrons and sprigs, are much more restrained than the other pieces, decorated in the pictorial style, and may well have been the product of a distinct commission from a single Cantonese workshop. Megan Wheeler, October 2019 [1] Sotheby’s, 3 July 1997, Lot 16. [2] M. Tomlin, ‘The 1782 Inventory of Osterley Park’ in Furniture History XXII (1986), p. 116. [3] See Christie’s, 13 June 2018, Lot 16. [4] John Cornforth, ‘Houghton Hall, Norfolk – I: A Seat of the Marquess of Cholmondeley’, Country Life CLXXXI, 30 April 1987, pp. 124-9 and Figure 11. [5] NT 435120 (Belton House) and NT 1170737.1 (Chirk Castle). [6] See, for instance, the will of Martha Page (d. 1729), the widow of Sir Gregory Page (d. 1720), which records a ‘square Japan table / with the coat of arms’ as well as ‘1 paire small [mugges] with armes’ (see National Archives, PROB 11/628/300). Two sets of Chinese armorial chairs (not mentioned in Martha Page’s will) also survive bearing the family’s arms. The first set, very similar to the lacquered chairs at Osterley, dates from circa 1714-20 (see A. Bowett, Early Georgian Furniture 1715-40 (2009), pp. 154-5 and Fig. 4:16. The second set, of rosewood inlaid with mother-of-pearl are in the Soane Museum (see H. Dorey, ‘A Catalogue of Furniture in Sir John Soane’s Museum’ in Furniture History XLIV (2008), 47-50.) [7] Kyoungjin Bae, Joints of Utility, Crafts of Knowledge: The Material Culture of the Sino-British Furniture Trade during the Long Eighteenth Century (PhD Thesis, Columbia University, 2016), pp. 56-7. [8] ibid., pp.23-4. [9] Y. Sharma & P. Davies, ‘A jaghire without a crime’: The East India Company and the Indian Ocean material world at Osterley, 1700-1800’ in East India Company at Home, 1757-1857, eds. M. Finn & K. Smith (2018), p. 91. [10] Bowett, Early Georgian Furniture, pp. 154-5.

Provenance

Possibly one of the four 'Japanned Chests on frames' listed in the 'Passages' at Osterley when an inventory was taken there in 1782. By descent as a Child Family heirloom, until purchased from George Child-Villiers, 9th Earl of Jersey (1910-1998) by HM Government in 1949 for the Nation and vested in the Victoria and Albert Museum; transferred to the National Trust in 2002.

References

Tomlin, 1986: Maurice Tomlin. “The 1782 inventory of Osterley Park.” Furniture History 22 (1986): pp.107-134., 116 Cornforth, J (1987): 'Houghton Hall, Norfolk - I: A Seat of the Marquess of Cholmondeley', Country Life CLXXXI, 30 April 1987, 124-9, 124-9, Figure 11 National Archives, PROB 11/628/300 Bowett 2009, Early Georgian Furniture 1715 - 1740 (2009), pp. 154-5 and Fig. 4:16 Dorey, H (2008): 'A Catalogue of Furniture in Sir John Soane's Museum' in Furniture History XLIV (2008), 47-50 Bae, K (2016), Joints of Utility, Crafts of Knowledge: The Material Culture of the Sino-British Furniture Trade during the Long Eighteenth Century (PhD Thesis, Columbia University, 2016), pp. 23-4 and 56-7 Sharma, Y & Davies, P. (2018), 'A jaghire without a crime': The East India Company and the Indian Ocean material world at Osterley, 1700=1800', in East India Company at Home, 1757-1857, eds. M. Finn & K. Smith (2018), p. 91

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