The period between the 1850s and 70s was a time of frenetic artistic exploration, with artists and designers seeking out new ideas and aesthetic concepts in response to the wonders from the Far East seen at the Great Exhibitions. There, for the first time, visitors were able to see artworks and design solutions. After centuries of self-isolation Japan emerged as the mysterious land of puritan artistic values and techniques never encountered before. Sir Henry Cole, the first director of the South Kensington Museum (Now V&A) famously prophesised in one of his lectures following the Great Exhibition of 1852 that ‘it was from the East that the most impressive lesson was to be learned’.
This involved anything from the use of Japanese decorative motifs, fascination with reduction of ornamental clutter as well as ‘recycling’ existing Japanese elements as parts of a newly designed object. Furniture incorporating Japanese lacquer was not a 19th century invention and there are multiple pieces dating back to 1600s documented in important European royal collections proudly displaying rare Asian lacquer as a main component.
A rare set of Japanese Nanban Seigan lacquer panels and an oil painting by Pieter Holsteyn I (1585-1662)
mounted within an Aesthetic Movement rosewood cabinet attributed to Thomas Jeckyll (1827-1881).
Estimate £40,000- £60,000
The current cabinet combines two originally unrelated elements: the Japanese Nanban lacquer panels and a Dutch Old Master painting. It was possibly a part of a larger design project commissioned with Thomas Jeckyll (1827-1881), heavily influenced by Japanese furniture design and one of the first propagator of the new Anglo-Japanese style.
Several elements suggest links between the cabinet and well-documented project carried out by Jeckyll for Alexander ('Alecco') Ionides (1810-1890) to provide furniture for his new residence in 1 Holland Park in London, in this new style. Handles used on some of the furniture produced for Ionides appear identical to those featured in the current lot.
Another challenging commission came from Frederick Richards Leyland (1831-1892), a Liverpool-born shipping magnate and collector. He requested a design for a dining room of his home at 49 Princes' Gate in London, which meant to display his vast collection of Chinese porcelain. The project ran through 1873-1876 and due to the selected palette of blue, green and gold as well as the prevalent bird motif became known as the 'Peacock Room'. Jeckyll started to draw out blueprints for the custom-made furniture and display shelves, but tragically fell ill and had to pass the project to James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) who finalised the design and furnished it with his own paintings. The same exotic bird appears both on the Japanese lacquer panels as well as in the Old Master painting featured in the current cabinet, but we do not have enough concrete evidence to believe it was designed for this specific interior. In England at the time only a limited number of people, who could afford such an expensive and rare piece and both Ionides and Leyland fit the profile.
The panels fixed into the front pair of doors and the sides of the present cabinet are its oldest elements. They are in the style known as the Nanban lacquer, made for export markets in the Momoyama period (1568-1600). Nanban is a derogatory term used to describe foreigners (南蛮- Nan Ban – Southern Barbarian), mainly Portuguese visitors who first arrived in Japan in 1543, but later became a blanket term for all foreigners as well as art influenced by those visitors.
Working with the sap of toxicodendron vernicifluum tree has been practised in Japan since Jomon period (4000-3000 BC), the Japanese neolithic, but the arrival of the traders and missionaries in 1540s created a surge in demand for lacquer products from foreigners, unfamiliar with this exotic technique. The laborious and time-consuming production process meant the demand far outstripped the supply, Nanban lacquer was extremely rare even by 17th century standards and considered worthy of royal collections. Portugal had a strong presence in the region and Jesuits increased their missionary effort in the archipelago. It comes as no surprise that Nanban pieces were almost exclusively commissioned by the Portuguese missionaries to house religious implements and relics of saints. In 1635 the Sakoku edict has been introduced by the shogun and the country entered a self-imposed isolation from foreign interference until 1854. This meant severely restricting trade and persecuting missionaries as well as converts to the point of forced denunciations of faith and torture of the Japanese Christians.
The characteristic feature of Nanban lacquer is raden (mother-of-pearl) inlay on a black ground combined with gold dust maki-e ‘sprinkled image’, achieved by sprinkling metal powder over moist lacquer. The usual decorative repertoire includes birds, less often other animals, among a tangle of blossoms and foliage enclosed within borders of geometric patterns. Nanban lacquer pieces are typically restricted to chests, coffers, boxes, missal stands, reliquaries and small portable shrine known as Seigan. Those travel altars would be used by itinerant monks and conceal a religious painting behind a pair of hinged doors. They were typically the size of a large manuscript and thus easy to transport.
Taking into consideration the size and number of the panels incorporated in our cabinet, it is reasonable to assume they came from such an altar and a considerable effort was made to choose an artwork of the right size to replace the devotional image.
The ultimate choice fell on the work of Pieter Holsteyn, an artist active in early 17th century around Haarlem, specialising in depicting birds. The oil on board painting depicts peacocks, a turkey, exotic birds and domestic fowl in a rustic landscape alongside a dilapidated farmhouse, signed to lower P. Holsteyn fe 1627, framed by a chevron border of Japanese lacquer and mother of pearl. The painting’s composition and the signature and date present on the lower margin indicate that the panel was not reduced to fit the cabinet door but instead carefully selected in terms of size and subject matter, corresponding thematically with the peacock design on the lacquer panels.
Looking at the cabinet as a sum of its parts and considering the value of its respective components, many people recognised the importance of the piece despite the lack of documentation or firm attribution. Charles and Lavinia Handley-Read, Victorian art historians and advisors discovered it in a local dealer’s shop and persuaded Andrew McIntosh Patrick (b. 1934), a former Chairman and Director of the Fine Art Society to buy it for his personal collection. It was displayed and used in his flat above the Fine Art Society and later at his Georgian property at 34 Craven Street, Charing Cross.
It has been featured at an exhibition at The Barbican Art Gallery, London in a show Japan and Britain, An Aesthetic Dialogue, 1850-1930, (17 October - 12 January 1992), the show later toured to Setagaya Art Museum, Tokyo.
More research is needed into the last design project of Thomas Jeckyll to close the matter of attribution, meanwhile the cabinet remains a mysterious peacock among hens and continues to subtly enchant its successive owners.
Japan and Britain, An Aesthetic Dialogue, 1850-1930, edited and with texts by T. Sato and T. Watanabe, 1991, London, cat. 115, pp.'s 28-29 & p.117.
Japan and Britain, An Aesthetic Dialogue, 1850-1930, 1992, Tokyo, fig. 115, p.102.
Nest: A Quarterly of Interiors, No.16, Spring 2002, A Sharp Dresser (or two) by B. Bainbridge.
The World of Interiors, June 2007, Morocco Bound by R. Muir.
Footnote by S. Calloway (Curator, Prints, Victoria and Albert Museum), Christie's, London, 5 November 2007, Japanese Art and Design, lot 146.
Furniture with similar handles and desks featuring lacquer panels are illustrated in J. Tsoumas, A New Road to Modernity: Thomas Jeckyll's Design Innovations or the Reformation of the Mid-Victorian Decorative Arts Through the Japanese Culture, Res Mobilis 5(5):135, January 2016, pp. 144-7, fig 6 & 8.
S.W. Soros and C. Arbuthnott, Thomas Jeckyll, Architect and Designer, 1827-1881), 2003, New York, the furniture for 1 Holland Park designed by Jeckyll are illustrated in fig. 5-1, 5-49, 5-50, 5-51 & 5-54, pp.'s 168, 187 & 188.
A desk in similar style and almost identical handles designed by Thomas Jeckyll in the collection of the V&A, accession no W.13-1972.
A lacquer Seigan housed in the Suntory Museum of Art, Tokyo, another in the Peabody Essex Museum, accession no AE85752.
A related painting by Pieter Holsteyn I, which illustrates a peacock, a turkey and chickens within a landscape sold Sotheby's, Amsterdam, 3 May 1999, lot 188.
 H Cole, Lectures on the Result of the Great Exhibition, London 1852, p.112, quoted by Halen 1990, p.21
 Japan, Courts and Culture, edited by R. Peat, 2020, London, p.84, 85 features a French bureau à cilindre from late 18th century using elements of a Nanban chest.