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Chest - The Mazarin Chest

The Mazarin Chest

  • Object:


  • Place of origin:

    Japan (made)

  • Date:

    ca. 1640 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown (maker)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Wood covered in black lacquer with gold and silver hiramakie and takamakie lacquer; inlaid with gold, silver and shibuichi alloy; and mother-of-pearl shell; gilded copper fittings

  • Museum number:

    412:1, 2-1882

  • Gallery location:

    Japan, Room 45, The Toshiba Gallery

The Mazarin Chest is one of the finest pieces of Japanese export lacquer to have survived from the 17th century. Japanese export lacquer was first produced in the late sixteenth century and was quite distinct from domestic wares. It was made in a hybrid style that combined Western forms with techniques and decoration derived from both Japanese and foreign traditions, especially those of China and Korea. During the 1630s, a new style of export lacquer evolved. This was characterised by a small group of objects of exceptionally high quality which showed similarities to lacquer for the home market. It is to this group of export lacquer that the Mazarin Chest belongs.

Although Westerners would have had no knowledge of Japanese literature, the front and sides of the Mazarin Chest are decorated with scenes from the Tale of Genji (Genji monogatari) and The Tale of the Soga Brothers (Soga monogatari). The Tale of Genji is the supreme masterpiece of Japanese prose written in the early eleventh century by a court lady, Murasaki Shikibu. This massive work is divided into fifty-four chapters and its action, based around court life, spans almost three-quarters of a century. It follows the life and loves of Prince Genji and, after his death, the novel continues with the story of his son, Yugiri, and Kaoru, who passes as Genji's son.

The right-hand side of the Mazarin Chest is decorated with a scene from the Tale of the Soga Brothers, a tale of filial piety and revenge. The boar-hunt depicted on the side of the Mazarin Chest refers to the revenge of the Soga brothers on their father's murderer.
The interior and exterior of the lid of the Mazarin Chest are decorated with scenes of palaces, architectural complexes and landscapes. These are framed by distinctive cartouches formed by pairs of confronting phoenixes on the outsider and confronting dragons on the inside. Compared to all other decorative surfaces of the Mazarin Chest, the back is much more sparsely and simply decorated with a tiger among bamboo. This subject is frequently encountered in Japanese painting of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

The Mazarin Chest has a companion piece, which is very similar in subject matter and workmanship, but it is somewhat larger in size. It was purchased at the Hamilton Palace sale by Sir Trevor Lawrence (1831-1913), a well-known collector of Japanese art by whose name it has been commonly known. Between 1941, when it was recorded in the sale of contents of Llantarnam Abbey in Wales, and its remarkable discovery in France in 2013, its whereabouts was unknown. It was sold at auction on 9 June 2013 and bought by the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. There are also two other items of export lacquer that have very close connections with the Mazarin and Lawrence Chests, even though they do not share the same superb techniques of manufacture. One of these was originally another similar chest that was cut up at some later date and partly reworked in the early nineteenth century to form a French Boulle-work cabinet. The 17th century lacquer panels of this bear unmistakable similarities to corresponding parts of the Mazarin and Lawrence Chests, especially in the Genji scenes. The other item is a cabinet from the Charlottenburg Palace, Berlin. The panels of these are also extremely close to the exterior and interior of the lids of the Mazarin and Lawrence Chests.

Despite the difference in technical execution, all these items of export lacquer reveal certain striking and distinctive similarities that suggest they were made at roughly the same time in the same, as yet, unidentified workshop .

Physical description

Flat-topped lacquer chest with a hinged lid. Lacquer decoration depicts various scenes from the Tale of Genji and the Tale of the Soga Brothers, landscapes and palaces and a tiger among bamboo.

Place of Origin

Japan (made)


ca. 1640 (made)


Unknown (maker)

Materials and Techniques

Wood covered in black lacquer with gold and silver hiramakie and takamakie lacquer; inlaid with gold, silver and shibuichi alloy; and mother-of-pearl shell; gilded copper fittings


Height: 56.5 cm, Width: 100.3 cm, Depth: 63.5 cm

Object history note

It is assumed that, like other examples of export lacquer, the Mazarin Chest was either shipped directly to Europe or to an official of the Dutch East India Company serving in the Dutch East Indies. Nothing, however, is known of its early history. The earliest information concerning its provenance derives from the coat of arms of the Mazarin-La Meilleraye family on its French steel key, suggesting that it was once in their possession.

The Mazarin-La Meilleraye family was related to the Mazarin family, descendants of Jules Mazarin (1602-1661), who was born in Rome as Giulio Mazarino. Mazarin became a French statesman and Roman Catholic cardinal, who ruled France as the first minister of the regent Anne of Austria for her five-year-old son, Louis XIV (1638-1715). The first duke of the Mazarin-La Meilleraye family, Armand de la Porte (1631-1713), received the title when he married Cardinal Mazarin's eldest niece, Hortense Mancini (1649-99). It is highly unlikely, however, that he commissioned the chest. Not only is he known to have had little regard for works of art, but he actively defaced some treasured items. It is more likely that the duke acquired the chest from the Mazarin family, since the Cardinal himself is known to have collected lacquer.

Sometime after this, the Mazarin Chest came into the possession of Jacques Leopold, Duc de Bouillon (1746-1802), who had amassed a splendid collection in Paris. In 1800, the chest passed into the ownership of William Beckford (1760-1844), Gothic novelist and eclectic collector. He had a particularly fine collection of Japanese lacquer, much of which came from the Duc de Bouillon. Beckford kept the Mazarin Chest at his home at Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire.

The chest appears in the catalogue of the 1823 Fonthill Abbey sale, after which it moved to Hamilton Palace in Scotland, seat of the dukes of Hamilton. It next appears in the catalogue of the 1882 Hamilton Palace sale, from which it was purchased by the V&A.

Descriptive line

Chest, wood covered in black, gold and silver lacquer, inlaid with gold, silver and shell, and with copper fittings, depicting scenes from the Tale of Genji and The Tale of the Soga Brothers, palaces, landscapes and a tiger among bamboo, Japanese for the export market, ca. 1640

Labels and date

The Mazarin Chest

This extremely high-quality lacquer chest is one of the most important pieces of Japanese export lacquer ever made. It is recorded as having been shipped to Europe by the Dutch East India Company in 1643. Its first owner was the French statesman and Catholic cardinal Jules Mazarin. The scenes on the front and sides allude to episodes from classical Japanese literature. The landscape on the lid features temple buildings and a castle complex.

Probably Kōami workshop
Wood covered in black lacquer with decoration in gold and silver lacquer; silver foil and mother-of-pearl inlay; details in gold, silver and shibuichi alloy; gilded and lacquered metal fittings; French steel key
Museum no. 412-1882 [04/11/2015]

Production Note

Probably Kōami workshop


Gold; Silver; Wood; Lacquer; Shell


Carved; Inlay

Subjects depicted

Hunting; Landscapes; Bamboo; Palaces; Courtiers; Tigers


ELISE; Furniture; Lacquerware; Containers


East Asia Collection

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