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Cabinet

  • Place of origin:

    Augsburg (probably, made)

  • Date:

    ca. 1600 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Softwood, veneered with ebony, rosewood(?) and ivory, the drawers of walnut with engraved ivory

  • Museum number:

    7902:1 to 12-1861

  • Gallery location:

    Europe 1600-1815, Room 5, The Friends of the V&A Gallery, case CA11 []

Small cabinets that could easily fit on tables derive from the Spanish escritorio (writing desk). From about 1560, they were widely produced in Augsburg, Antwerp and Naples, cities that formed part of Spain’s imperial possessions in Europe. Ebony was imported from India and Africa, prized for its black veneer, and considered particularly attractive when decorated with ivory plaques, drawer handles and stringing. Prints of hunting scenes, engraved by artists like Jost Amman (1539–91) of Nuremberg and F. Galle of Antwerp (1537–1612) were very popular and frequently engraved on the ivory or bone plaques that covered the drawer-fronts of these cabinets.

Physical description

Table cabinet with fall front, veneered with tropical hardwoods and ivory; containing 8 drawers around a central cupboard, decorated with hunting scenes in engraved ivory. The fall-front detached for display in Europe 1600-1800 (2015).

Design
Rectangular cabinet with fall front, standing on turned ebonised ball feet (fixed with modern nails) that are probably additions (one missing 2013), the front, sides and top veneered with a simple geometric scheme of rectangles and squares in ebony and rosewood(?) with ivory stringing. The back is ebonised softwood(?), and the bottom undecorated. Glue shadows on the underside suggest that at some point it had a sliding batten along each side. The fall front is fitted on the inside with an iron lock (the key missing) but no escutcheon, and two hinge-like iron strap ornaments (mimicing the interior door hinges), all held with modern slotted screws; these seem likely to be additions but the fall front must have been fitted with a lock originally. The fall front (reattached 2012) has two iron pin hinges inset into the sides at the bottom, which fit into holes in the carcase sides. Small patched areas of veneer on the sides presumably cover holes for handles (now missing).

The interior of the cabinet is fitted with 10 drawers in total: 7 small, full-depth drawers above one long 'triple' drawer, which surround a central recess with two very small drawers (3/4 depth) in front of a secret tray, and fitted with a cupboard door on two strap hinges with 'spear' heads (nailed, original). The door is fitted with a lock and key which apparently supercedes the original fixing - a pin (now missing) dropped into the door top through a hole in the dustboard above. The main drawers are supported within an internal softwood grid of dividers and dustboards fixed into the main boards, which is faced with ivory veneers engraved with lotus leaf [check] and stylised flowers. The interior recess (softwood) has some simple sections of walnut(?) inlay. The two very small drawers inside the central recess are supported on a dustboard faced with ebony, and separated by a divider which slides forward in its groove, drawing with it (by means of a dovetail joint) a secret tray normally concealed behind the two very small drawers. The fronts of these two very small drawers appear to be formed from a single, scratch-moulded piece of ebony with engraved stylized leaves. All the other, larger drawer fronts have mitred and glued ebony mouldings backed with thin strips of softwood(?) fixed with metal pins.

The drawer and cupboard fronts are veneered with ebony and engraved ivory depicting hunt scenes among trees as follows (from top left, running left to right):
top left: two hunters carrying a stag on a pole are met by another hunter with dog
top centre: two hunters (one on horseback) spear a young bear
top right: two hunters (one on horseback, with a horn) run with two dogs; an owl watches from a tree
upper middle left: two hunters bearing birds and a hare on shoulder poles, with dogs follow a donkey with dead stag
central cupboard: a hunter with spear blows a horn, with a running dog; border of lotus leaf and flowers
upper middle right: a hunter fires an arrow from a bow at a fleeing stag, with two dogs
lower middle left: a hunter lunges with a spear at a charging bull
lower middle right: a hunter with sword on horseback chases a stag, with a dog
bottom (left to right): two gazelle chased by two dogs; a hunter on horseback lunges with a spear at a boar; a crouching hunter spears a bear as a hunter with sword approaches on horseback

Construction
The case is constructed of softwood boards, dovetailed; the back (softwood, now with several cross-grain splits) nailed in place; the fall front of walnut 'breadboard' construction. The drawers are made in walnut, dovetailed, with the bases glued (with later nailing); the large drawer bottom appears to have been nailed originally (with later additions). The 7 smaller drawers have bottoms grained front to back, the larger drawer bottom is grained side to side. The two very small drawer bottoms are glued up.

Print Sources:
Summary of possible print sources for decoration of cabinet 7902-1861:
From a review of Hollstein it seems that hunting scenes such as are shown on the cabinet were more popular with German than Dutch artists. The style of the decoration on the cupboard is in general closer to the German hunting scenes (especially those by Virgil Solis) than the Dutch ones – for example in the style of dogs.
Somewhat surprisingly, the cupboard does not include any figures with guns or hawks, or any rabbits – all common features of German hunting scenes. Figures blowing hunting horns, whether on horseback or on foot (both appear on the cupboard) are quite rare in both Dutch and German prints, as are mules carrying game on their backs. Some figures, such as the two men carrying between them a stag tied to a pole, don’t appear to feature in any prints in Hollstein. Scenes including bulls are rare in German prints, but relatively frequent in Dutch prints.

Left column:
Scene 1 (numbered from top): I have not found a single example of two men carrying a stag tied to a pole between them.
Scene 2: Men holding dogs on short leashes are relatively rare, with one example being ‘A Stag Hunt’ by Virgil Solis (active 1540-1562) in Hollstein, Vol LXIV, p. 196, No. 525. Images of mules carrying the game on their backs are very rare, with a single example being in the foreground of Mattheus Merian the Elder’s print in Hollstein Vol XXVI, p. 182, 494 Wüthrich nr. 413, illustration 194. The position of the feet of the mule shown on the cabinet is very similar to that of the riderless horse to the right of, Virgil Solis, ‘Three Falconers with Horses’, in Hollstein Vol LXIV, p. 211 No. 540
Scene 3: Scenes showing bulls are rare in German prints, but relatively common in Dutch prints. A bull in a very similar pose to that on the cabinet is shown in Frans Floris’ 1555 print ‘The Hunts’, in Hollstein, Frans Floris Part I, page 24: woodcut, 9/1 right half (fifth part). In the sixth part of the same print, a man on foot is shown behind a tree trunk goading another bull with a spear, perhaps in some way related to the man in the cabinet decoration. A print by Philips Galle (active c. 1557-1612) showing a bull hunt may suggest inspiration for the spear (at a similar angle in the print) although the man holding it is on horseback, unlike the man on the cabinet; found in Hollstein, Philips Galle Part III, p. 150 no. 423/1.
Scene 4: Stag hunt scenes are common in German prints and quite frequently show two deer/stags following each other, although they are usually obviously differentiated as one male and one female by the antlers in the prints. One example is Virgil Solis, ‘Hare Hunt with Firearms, Dogs and a Falcon’, in Hollstein Vol LXIV, p. 189 No. 518, where a hind follows a stag in the back left of the print, pursued by a dog as on the cabinet.

Central column:
Scene 1 (numbered from top): The arrangement of two figures surrounding a bear with spears may relate to the left of the print by Virgil Solis ‘Bear Hunt with Dogs, Hollstein Vol LXIV, p. 168 – No. 497, but the figure of the bear is far closer to the bear shown in the left corner of Mattheus Merian the Elder’s print on p. 181 of Hollstein Vol XXVI, 493 Wüthrich nr. 412, illustration 193 (active c.1617-1650). Men on foot stand to the left of the bear, holding out spears, while in the background to the right a man on horseback approaches with a spear – reflecting the simplified arrangement of the figures in the cabinet scene. The figure to the left on the cabinet bears some resemblance to the man at the far right in Virgil Solis’ ‘Hare Hunt with a Falcon and a Stag Hunt’ in Hollstein Vol LXIV p. 190, No. 519.
Scene 2 (central panel): Figures blowing hunting horns, of which there are two on the cabinet, are rare in the prints. One similar example is Jost Amman (active c. 1556-1591), in Hollstein, Woodcuts Part I, p. 141 No. 144. The dog in the print emerging from behind the man’s leg is similar to that on the left of the cabinet panel, and there is a similar dog actually emerging from behind a tree further to the right in the same print. Dogs shown emerging from behind trees in this way, as on the central panel and in the left column’s scene 4, are quite common in German prints, found also in Virgil Solis – Hollstein Vol LXIV, p. 170, No. 499 ‘Bear Hunt with Dogs’.
Scene 3: It is quite rare to find printed boars that resemble those in the cabinet, and I have not found a similar arrangement to this scene anywhere.

Right column:
Scene 1: As mentioned in the summary for the central panel, figures blowing hunting horns are quite rare in the prints. The figure on horseback blowing his horn may relate to Virgil Solis’ ‘A Stag Hunt’, Hollstein Vol LXIV, p. 196 No. 525, but here the man faces the same way as his horse, unlike in the cabinet. A closer figure is from a Dutch print, by Peeter van der Borcht active c.1615-1631, in Hollstein, p. 247, No. 207. On the panel, the figure of the man behind him, on one foot with two dogs at his heels, may relate to the figure at the far right of Virgil Solis’ ‘Bear Hunt’, in Hollstein Vol LXIV, p. 171, No. 500; both wear a feathered cap and carry a spear, both stand on one foot and both have dogs around them
Scene 2: Archery is rare in printed scenes of stag hunts; beyond the generic inclusion of stags and hounds I have found nothing specific relating to this composition.
Scene 3: Similar to right column, scene 2, this scene is quite generic. However the specific arrangement of the stag with the hound snapping at it may relate to the stag and hound group at the right of Jost Amman’s print in Hollstein, Woodcuts Part I, p. 141 No. 144.
Scene 4: Figures with spears bending as low as the person on the cabinet in this scene are very rare. The man to the right, emerging from behind a tree on horseback and carrying a spear, relates quite closely to the man to the right in ‘Stag Hunt’ by Virgil Solis, in Hollstein Vol LXIV, p. 191, No. 520, especially his costume and the angle of his spear.

Place of Origin

Augsburg (probably, made)

Date

ca. 1600 (made)

Artist/maker

Unknown

Materials and Techniques

Softwood, veneered with ebony, rosewood(?) and ivory, the drawers of walnut with engraved ivory

Dimensions

Height: 308 mm on turned feet, Width: 490 mm, Depth: 300 mm closed, depth: 64 cm fully open

Object history note

'Casket, German: 16th century. Ebony, inlaid with ivory. In the interior ten drawers and a closet, also inlaid with ivory, representing hunting scenes' - from 1861 registered description.
Bought 10l, 18s. 8d

Historical context note

Early European cabinets made from about 1550 were small and fitted with a fall front (as here) and handles, and intended for practical use when travelling to contain documents and smaller valuables, and used on a table. This cabinet, made slightly later, retains these basic features, but the veneered decoration, decorated interior and plain back suggest that it was intended as a display piece, to contain small valuables or curiosities. In common with many small cabinets, this example has a secret tray, ingeniously concealed within the central recess which was itself originally accessed not with a key but by a concealed pin. The cabinet fall front when open served as a nearly flat surface on which to place cabinet contents for inspection. Unusually the drawer fronts were never fitted with handles, though there is evidence that the drawers were made with handle holes. Unless the engraved decoration were all a later addition, which seems unlikely, it is presumed that the drawers were opened by pulling the edge mouldings.

At some point paired holes on both cabinet sides for handles (now missing) were covered with veneer infill.

Descriptive line

Table cabinet with fall front, veneered with tropical hardwoods and ivory; containing 8 drawers around a central cupboard, decorated with hunting scenes in engraved ivory. Probably southern Germany, ca. 1600.

Materials

Ebony; Ivory; Softwood; Walnut

Techniques

Veneered; Stringing; Engraved; Joining

Subjects depicted

Hounds; Bull; Stags; Donkey; Bear; Wild boar; Hunters

Categories

Furniture

Collection

Furniture and Woodwork Collection

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