- Place of origin:
- Materials and Techniques:
Cypress wood, with shallow relief carving and penwork
Identified visually as Cupressus spp., probably Cupressussempervirens
- Museum number:
- Gallery location:
Medieval & Renaissance, Room 63, The Edwin and Susan Davies Gallery, case FS, shelf SWAL
Medium sized cypress wood chest decorated on the front and sides and interior with intaglio carving and penwork. The interior is fitted with lidded three compartments at the left and right and running along the back.
Design and construction
The body of the chest consists of four dovetailed boards (29mm (1 1/8" thick), showing 5 dovetails. L-shaped metal brackets are nailed at the top of all four corners. The bottom consists of three planks with visible sawmarks which are joined with 5 angled, countersunk nails, forming a single board with concave moulded edges at the front and sides of the chest. Underneath the front and sides battens with a convex moulding has been nailed up (with mitred corners) as a plinth, and this is presumed to be non-original. Each of the main boards is made up from two planks joined by a distinctive clinching method whereby nails have been introduced at a very shallow angle into the thickness of the planks, and the holes plugged (the same method used for the chest bottom, without capping).
The lid consists of a large board (made using 3 planks) the front and side edges ogee-moulded. The lid is fitted with 2 plain cypress cleats, each one held with 3 nails, which are concealed on top under square wooden caps. The lid is attached with 3 modern door hinges in place of the three original ring hinges, traces of which survive (these, two-part hinges were hammered into the back panel then fed through lid and bent over and roughly countersunk into the lid). The lid and front are fitted with an internal lock and lock pin which are clearly modern, with fixings for a previous, smaller lock faintly visible.
At each side is a cast iron bail handle, fixed with split rings through its board with corrosion marks visible inside the chest.
The interior is fitted with three internal compartments, full height on both sides and half-depth along the back, each with a lid with moulded front edge which is held on brass wire 'ring' hinges. The fronts are decorated. When its lid is raised the rear compartment front board can be slid up to reveal a secret, plain shelf below. The left compartment has a false bottom and angled grooves for a hinged, sliding lid (now missing), the metal catch for which survives at the front. A rectangular aperture is cut out at floor level of the chest, presumably to receive a small concealed drawer or cover (now missing). The right compartment is full depth. At both sides of the interior well at the top is a rebate, presumably to support an interior loose board cover or tray (now missing).
The decoration is shallow, intaglio carving with penwork (much of it now only partly legible as a result of oxidisation and darkening of the wood), against cut-away areas with a punched ground. Cypress mouldings affixed with small wooden pegs or trenails frame the chest front and the four main figurative scenes. The sequence of decoration seems to have been as follows:
a) Scribed lines (such as a central, vertical line) define the main areas of each board.
b) The penwork designs were drawn, taking into account the positioning of applied framing.
c) Areas of ground were cut away to about 1-2mm depth.
d) Punchwork was applied to the cutaway areas and blank flat areas.
e) Framing was added where required.
The four main scenes are taken from Marten de Vos series of the Seven Planets (Planetarum Effectus et eorum in signis Zodiaci...) engraved by Jan Sadeler I (Antwerp, c.1585); engravings sized c24.5 x 24.cm. The lid scenes are essentially the same size as the prints (c23.5 x 24.5cm sight size), whereas the two scenes on the chest front are slightly reduced, 18 x 24-25cm.
Front: a central candelabrum with putti among scrolling acanthus supporting a blank cartouche, flanked by labelled scenes of Mercury (left) and Jupiter (right), with flanking sibyll (?) figures under cupola niches. The upper and lower friezes with very regular lattice work.
Sides: left - a woman (left) being serenaded by a lutenist man and dog (right), with a central tree and scrolling borders; right side - a woman (right) being serenaded by a lutenist man and dog (left), with a central tree and scrolling borders
Lid top: a compassed double-circle and the very faded remains of a penwork border of scrolling leaves.
Lid underside – a central candelabrum with two putti among scrolling acanthus supporting a blank cartouche; two moulded compartments with labelled scenes of Luna above ships at sea (left) and Mars above landscape with buildings and two ships(?) (right). The upper frieze with a hybrid sea monster and angel lutenist, the lower frieze with standing birds with outstretched wings. The outer border with scrolling acanthus.
Three compartment lids with lattice design, the left lid with ball borders. The left and right inner walls with climbing, scrolling plants. The rear inner wall with an arcade depicting six male angel musicians.
Backgrounds with a large rhombus punch set diagonally on lid underside; on the compartment lids small rhombus punch set diagonally (very controlled work, good quality); on the upper edges and inner 'face' around the top of the chest on all four sides, and on underside of cleats - a nine point rhombus, roughly spaced.
Condition and alterations
Dark varnish added to outside surfaces. Unfaded wood inside the compartments shows the original warm, orange tone.
Small loss to one framing moulding on underside of lid (right).
Plinth moulding probably added; loss at rear left corner.
Surface loss on left side above handle.
Loss of hinged lid to left compartment.
Rear compartment: sliding front board with replaced section; bottom missing a section.
Loss of a removeable internal board covering the central well.
The lock replaced and the keyhole moved/filled.
The left side compartment missing a door at bottom.
Bruising on the underside of the lid where compartment lids have rubbed against it.
Split in front bottom board.
Place of Origin
Materials and Techniques
Cypress wood, with shallow relief carving and penwork
Identified visually as Cupressus spp., probably Cupressussempervirens
Marks and inscriptions
No. 885 [underline]3220[underlined]
Ink, by hand. On blank cartouche on underside of lid, possibly French 19th century.
2 large concentric circles (each of three lines)
incised on exterior of lid, centred
P I P
painted on back in large black letters
Inscribed on lid, as recorded in 2004 but not found 2009
Height: 45.5 cm, Width: 104.5 cm across lid, Depth: 58.5 cm, Height: 97 cm lid raised, Depth: 64 cm approx, with lid raised
Object history note
Bought for £8. 15s. (no other information on register)
Lent to the exhibition Andrea Palladio, 1508-1580 : the portico and the farmyard, (Arts Council, London 1975)
Historical context note
Cypress (Cupressus spp.) grows naturally through the eastern Mediterranean, and has become naturalised in many parts of southern Europe, especially Italy where Cupressus sempervirens L. is the most important variety. The trees are famed for being very long lived, and the timber prized partly for its association with classical antiquity and its durability and resistance to rot. Cypress is used for the doors of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. John Gerard's, Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes (1633) describes cypress as '...hard, sound, well compact, sweet of smell and somewhat yellow, almost like the yellow Saunders, but not altogether so yellow, neither doth it rot nor wax old...shavings of the wood laid among garments preserveth them from the moths: the Rosin killeth Moths, little worms, and magots.' These qualities, including its attractive fragrance, led to cypress chests being used to contain valuable clothes and other textiles.
See Adam Bowett, Woods in British Furniture-Making 1400-1900: An Illustrated Historical Dictionary (2012), pp.282-3
The technique of flat, incised decoration with a cut away, punched background, known as intaglio carving (from the Italian ‘cut in’), is a feature of northern Italian and Alpine woodwork from about 1300. Cypress wood chests of various sizes like this one with inked scenes over intaglio carving have been associated with Tuscany and, more commonly, with the Adige region of NE Italy. The but actually seem to have been made more widely across northern Italy from about 1500-1620. Cypress wood (like cedar to which it is very similar), is moderately hard and smooth textured, highly durable and fragrant, the colour a warm pale brown or light orange.
The distinctive intaglio surface designs were worked using very small chisels, square punches and ink, presumably applied with a metal knib. A wide range of lively scenes are depicted: hunts and battles, Biblical or literary subjects, animals and mythical beasts. Darkening of the wood over time, and fading of the inks mean that the outside decoration is often hard to read, while the unfaded insides have remained much more vivid.
Chests of this class were exported to destinations all over Europe and are frequently mentioned in English inventories of the 16th and early 17th century, usually valued much more highly than native or other imported chests. A cypress chest – whether ‘great’ or ‘small’ - was not unusual in a prosperous English household at this time, placed in the hall, chamber or parlour where they would have been in prominent view.
Cypress(?) wood, with shallow relief carving. Italy 1550-1600
Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)
Peter Thornton, Cassoni, Forzieri, Goffani and Cassette: Terminology and its problems, in Apollo vol. CXX (1984), no.272 pp.246-251, fig. 16.
Andrea Palladio, 1508-1580 : the portico and the farmyard / catalogue by Howard Burns in collaboration with Lynda Fairbairn and Bruce Boucher, London 1975, no. 93
"Cypress chest, Venetian c1530.
This travelling chest is decorated with designs of mythological scenes in inkwork (incised lines are filled with mastic). These ink work chests are typical of Venetian products, which were exported all over Europe. L.F."
London, South Kensington Museum: Ancient and Modern Furniture & Woodwork in the South Kensington Museum, described with an introduction by John Hungerford Pollen (London, 1874), p.141-2
COFFER or Chest. Cypress wood, decorated with classical designs and scroll patterns, drawn with a reed. Venetian. About 1530. H. 17 in., L. 3 ft. 5 in., W. 22 ½. Bought, 8l. 15s
This is but a small example of the kind of work. Much more important chests of this description are to be ‘met with, both as to size and goodness of drawing. It will serve, however, to illustrate a special description of work made in Tuscany in the 16th century. The surface of the wood is formed into panels with very light mouldings, appliqué where required. Sometimes the design is wholly drawn. In this instance we have on the front panels, designed with the (reed) pen and ink, Mercury on one ﬁde, Jupiter on the other; a cavalier serenading his mistress on one end, and a similar composition on the other. Inside the lid are Mars and Luna in cars. The inside is furnished, besides, with receptacles for fans, gloves, or other small articles of dress. On the front of these are ﬁgures of cavaliers and ornaments of branches and leaves. The space within the panel lines not occupied by drawing and answering to ground work, are punched with patterns of different kinds, hammered lightly into the surface in regular diapers. The designs on many of these marriage chests boldly drawn in this manner are too free for exact description.
Labels and date
Cypress chests were particularly prized in England during the 16th-century, although they were expensive. They were sturdily constructed of fragrant, long-lasting wood, making them ideal for storing precious textiles. A range of vivid designs could be worked relatively quickly on the wood, using a combination of shallow carving and drawing in ink, as shown here (photo).
Cypress wood, carved and with penwork
Museum no. 4886-1858 
ITALIAN (probably VENETIAN); early
Cypress-wood decorated with intaglio carving and punched ornament, supplemented by penwork.
Chests of this class were exported to destinations all over Europe and are frequently mentioned in English inventories of the 16th and early 17th century. They came in various sizes and in several qualities. This is a particularly fine specimen.
Museum No.4886-1858 [Pre-2006]
Furniture; Containers; Renaissance (Italian); Medieval and renaissance
Furniture and Woodwork Collection