In Focus: Japanese lacquered travelling case

My love of all things Oriental still continues, so this month’s ‘In Focus’ piece is on the Japanese lacquered cabinet in the Chinese Room. Anyone who knows the house will know that this cabinet used to sit on a rococco gilded stand; this has been taken away for some serious restoration and stabilisation as its condition was deteriorating. The cabinet itself is truly lovely – according to our inventories, it dates back to roughly 1680, meaning it was produced during the early Edo period in Japan.

Lacquerware has been used as a decorative technique in Japan for several thousand years. Lacquer itself is the sap of the lacquer tree, which is then used to coat a wooden base to produce an attractive, shiny, durable finish. The Edo period (1603-1868) saw a resurgence in the cultivation of lacquer trees and interest in the technique, and many consider this to be the peak of Japanese lacquerware production.

Whilst it does look like a cabinet at first glance, it is in fact a travelling case – there are handles on either side, and the interior is entirely made up of drawers, in which you could have stored a variety of personal belongings. As a result, it’s unsurprising that the cabinet also has sturdy hinges and a lock to ensure that belongings could be kept safe.

Our cabinet is made from ebony, which is often used as ornamental wood, mainly because when polished, it develops an attractive mirror shine. The inside of the doors is painted a bright red, with black and gold lacquered peacocks. Peacocks traditionally symbolise love, good-will and kindness, so a relatively generic message. What makes this particular piece unique amongst our Oriental collections is the fact that it was not made for export by the craftsmen who originally made it– in the mid 17th century, Japan was a closed country. It did eventually find itself exported, but how this cabinet found its way out of Japan and into Godinton’s collections is as yet unknown, but I am hopeful that some time in the archives might yield a purchase order or receipt which can further our knowledge.