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An extremely rare Chinese export lacquer bureau for the Dutch market
Canton, circa 1737

H. 118 x W. 102.5 x D. 63 cm

Provenance:
- Private collection, The Netherlands
- J.K. Driessen Antiques, Arnhem (Art Fair Breda, 1989)
- Noble collection, Belgium

Literature:
- C.J.A. Jörg, ’De handel van de V.O.C. in Oosters lakwerk in de 18de eeuw’ in: Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek , Jr. 31 (1980), pp. 355-363 (ill.)
- Annigje Hofstede, Nederlandse meubelen van Barok tot Biedermeier, 1700-1830, Waanders, Zwolle 2004, pp. 35-37 (ill.)

This lacquer bureau is one of the four writing desks purchased in Canton in 1737, and as far as is known, this is the only remaining bureau of its type from the period. As the VOC believed that large pieces of import took up too much valuable space in their trading ships, few Chinese furniture pieces were crafted for the Dutch market. Even fewer have survived the test of time.

After 1693, Japanese lacquerware can no longer be found in the VOC books, probably because it had become too costly for import. European fashion and the production of unique imitation lacquer must have also contributed to the halt of its import. The demand, however, remained high. In 1730, the Lords XVII, the directors of the VOC, sent several models of Japanese lacquerware to Batavia with the question if it could be produced for a lower price in China. After 1729, a direct sailing route was used from the Netherlands to Canton, and the trade no longer went through Batavia.

The Middelburg chamber of the VOC auctioned off a large quantity of tea trays made of Chinese lacquer in 1734, which was a great success resulting in more orders. In 1737, two shipments of lacquer trays were ordered: one for Amsterdam and one for Middelburg. Each city received three boxes with the same content. The first shipment box also contained a ‘cabinet’ or ‘writing office’, and in it had been packed a table-top (without a foot element) in the lower drawer, 5 trays in the second drawer, 15 elongated trays; in the third drawer 45 elongated tea trays, 5 sets of 5 pieces of powder boxes and so on. Space was costly, so each drawer was packed with smaller lacquer pieces. The second box had the same contents, and the third one was filled with 500 serving trays and 500 teacups. In 1738, this assortment of lacquer was sold at auction. The pieces of furniture were an exception to the orders, and the purchase lists reveal that cabinets were no longer ordered in the following years.

This writing desk was made after a Dutch example, and it was crafted especially for the Dutch market rather than to the taste of English buyers, as is made clear by its slightly organ-curved front. From 1730, these fall-front bureaus were quite popular in The Netherlands, often featuring diagonally positioned side stiles. This export lacquer bureau is exceptionally well-preserved with its original brass handles and lock escutcheons.

Decorated throughout with gilt landscapes and floral details on a black lacquer background. The drawers, fall front and side panels are richly adorned with images of Chinese pavilions surrounded by pine trees and weeping willows. The desk's interior comprises twelve drawers with floral decor and two standing fluted drawers trimmed with capitals and basements. The centre features a cupboard door with a decoration of a vase filled with flowers, a symbol of peace and tranquillity in China. The interiors of the drawers are finished with gold powder lacquer. All drawers are inscribed with a Chinese character. The desk also contains a storage compartment, which opens with a sliding panel (in French à coulisse, and a keldertje in Dutch). Beneath the fall front are four drawers flanked by fluted and gilded stiles. The Chinese cabinet maker has followed his own interpretation of the claw-and-ball feet motifs, which feature taotie masks above them. This motif of an animal mask dates back thousands of years and can be found on Chinese bronzes from the dawn of civilisation. The bureau’s manner of construction is quite interesting and is carried out in Cypresswood, which differs from the wood used by European craftsmen. The joints of the drawers are not forked as they usually are in Europe but are somewhat rectangular in shape.
 

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