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Kyoto, Edo period, 1670-1690

Decorated in Japanese relief lacquer work, black lacquer ground decorated in hiramaki-e, takamaki-e, kirigane and nashiji in gold, silver and red, the two hinged doors decorated on the left door with a sitting man and a lying tiger beside him and on the right door a full moon behind a flowering branch, the sides are decorated with bamboos and a bird, the top with a landscape with a pagoda and Mount Fuji in the distance, on the inside of the doors long-tailed birds are depicted and opened the doors reveal ten drawers of different sizes, decorated with a flowering branch within a cartouche and with small gilt-copper mounts in the form of chrysanthemum with a ring attached, the lower drawers to the extreme left and right have engraved metal mounts with keyholes and locks. 


H. 60.5 x W. 61 x D. 46.5 cm


Lacquerware originated in China but after it had come to Japan, in the 6th century or earlier, it became part and parcel of Japanese culture and the Japanese eventually surpassed the lacquer work of their Chinese teachers. The first export lacquer, made specifically to the taste of foreigners, was made during the Momoyama period in the late 16th – early 17th century for the Portuguese Jesuits living in Japan and for export to Portugal. This Namban (southern barbarian) style existed when the propagation of the Christian Faith was still permitted in Japan and lingered on till the final expulsion of the Portuguese in 1639.

The Namban style is characterized by the use of gold and silver powder together with profuse mother-of-pearl inlaying showing dense vine patterns and floral designs, generally including birds and animals all within saw-blade borders.

After the Portuguese were banned from Japan, the Dutch, forced by the Japanese to live on the small artificial island of Deshima in the bay of Nagasaki, were the only Europeans allowed to trade in Japan. The style of the export lacquer ordered by the Dutch changed to a pictorial style of an overall decoration of landscapes without the use of mother-of-pearl and eventually without cartouches and borders.

The present cabinet is a luxurious, expensive object and initially, only the VOC could invest the sums required to buy this type of lacquered cabinet. At the end of the 17th century, however, the Company had to economise on its lacquer orders, notwithstanding the profitable monopoly on its exports. The lacquer trade for the Netherlands dwindled and was given up altogether in the 1690s. Private traders took over, but they rarely could afford large pieces of lacquer and reverted to smaller objects such as tea wares, dishes or small boxes.

For similar examples and a discussion on “Pictorial cabinets without borders on doors” see Oliver Impey and Christiaan Jörg, Japanese Export Lacquer: 1580-1850, 2005, p. 132-134.

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