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The Endymion Cabinet

  • Object:

    Cabinet-on-stand

  • Place of origin:

    Paris (probably, made)

  • Date:

    1630-1650 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Softwood and oak carcase with cedar and mahogany elements, veneered in ebony, with solid elements in ebonized woods; marquetry of brazilwood, ebony, mahogany, purplewood, rosewood, snakewood, tulipwood and possibly other tropical hardwoods, with ivory, green-stained bone and turtleshell; mirror glass; handles of iron or brass; keyhole escutcheons of brass.

  • Museum number:

    1651:1 to 3-1856

  • Gallery location:

    Europe 1600-1815, Room 6, The Lisa and Bernard Selz Gallery, case PL1 []

Cabinets like this one were the height of fashion in France from about 1640 to 1660. They were used to house collections of precious objects and natural rarities, such as unusual shells, but they were also admired as luxury objects in their own right. Ebony was at that time the most fashionable wood for veneering cabinets. It was imported into France at great expense from Africa, Madagascar and India. In France the skilled woodworkers who made cabinets of this kind came to be called ébénistes, after the wood they used most. The outside of this cabinet is carved with scenes taken from the engraved illustrations to a novel first published in Paris in 1624. It is the story of the goddess Diana and her love for the youthful shepherd Endymion.

Physical description

A cabinet in solid ebony and ebony veneers on a case of softwood and oak, on an open stand of ebonized softwood, with spiral-turned legs in ebonized fruitwood (probably pear), the cabinet with two doors, the whole with carved and engraved decoration of scenes from a novel L’Endimion (1624). The cabinet opens to reveal two banks of five drawers, carved with scenes of the Labours of the Months, flanking a pair of doors with a single, longer drawer above and beneath. The internal doors in turn open to reveal a caisson (a nest of small drawers, also sometimes called a prospect when, as here, it is of theatrical form), the surfaces veneered with a variety of tropical hardwoods, ivory, green-stained bone and turtleshell or set with mirror glass. The caisson is set with two visible and six hidden drawers.

Construction
The Cabinet
The case is of softwood and oak, of tenoned construction, stabilised by an interlocking framework of dust boards and drawer dividers. The show surfaces are all veneered in ebony and other exterior faces are painted black. The backboard is composed of three butt-jointed softwood boards running horizontally, with a heavy chamfer on all four edges. Both the inner and outer doors are of cleated construction, in softwood. Elements of the cabinet construction appear to have been modified in the nineteenth century. Some veneers on the sides may have been replaced.

The thick carved plaques of ebony forming the sides of the frieze are simply glued on to the case. The decorative plaques on the front of the drawers are similarly attached to the case. The veneers are probably inset into shallow recessed areas cut into the front of the case, as was customary to create a level surface to which the carved plaques or the ripple moulding could be applied to cover the necessary joins.

The frieze drawers have fronts of oak and sides and bases of cedar. The drawers within the main doors of the cabinet are of cedar, the fronts faced with plaques of carved ebony and edged with ripple mouldings.

The caisson is constructed as a separate box and is inserted, from the back, into the space between the upright dividers before the back is fitted. The smaller drawers within the caisson are of cedar, probably replacements made in the nineteenth century. Most of the drawers within the caisson are fitted with removable trays in mahogany. A smaller, central caisson is removeable from the front, once the cabinet is fully opened and the two panels in the form of aedicules or doors and doorcases are removed, one from each side, to reveal secret drawers. The inner caisson slides forward and can be completely removed. It is in oak, of dovetailed construction, the two slanting mirror panels running in grooves in the top and the bottom, the outer corner at the back each fitted with two vertical boards creating a compartment almost square in plan, containing a stack of five small drawers, in oak, three on each side later replaced in pine. See marks for inscription on top of inner caisson.

The Stand
The stand is of ebonized softwood and ebonized fruitwood (probably pear), with carved ebony plaques on the drawer fronts and the frieze blocks above the legs and ebony veneer on the side of the frieze section. The spiral-turned front legs are built around a turned oak core, with boards of ebonized pearwood facing front and back, and with similar boards set between these on the sides, boxing in the core before the legs were turned and carved.. The undecorated back legs are of ebonized wood (possibly beech) and continue below the base panel to form the back feet of the stand. The front legs are tenoned down into the base panel through a square plinth and a similar plinth is set below, through which the bun feet are tenoned up.

The three drawers of the frieze of the stand are of softwood, with sides and bases of cedar. The top surfaces of the drawer fronts were veneered in softwood before being ebonized. The locks on the right and central drawers have been replaced with English locks, possibly just before or after acquisition by the Museum. The frieze drawers are lined with blue sugar paper, added after the locks were changed.

Decoration (see also The story of Endymion, in 'History')
The Cabinet
Scenes from the story of Endymion are carved on both sides of the two doors that fill the whole front of the cabinet above a narrow plinth and below an entablature with a cushion frieze (formed of the fronts of two drawers).

On the left-hand door the main scene is of Diana, with her nymphs, espying Endymion and shooting at him with Cupid’s arrows. On the right-hand door the scene is of the young man Hermodan, witnessed by Endymion and the armed band, kneeling and embracing the myrtle into which Diophonie, the girl whom he loves, has been changed. On the left door the top of the frame is carved with a figure of a woman, with bow and arrow in either hand, seated in a chariot drawn by stags. This derives from the illustration showing Sthenobée being drawn in a chariot towards the sacrifice of Endymion, but the disposition of the stags has been altered, and the figure is based on that of Diana in the frontispiece to the novel. On the right door the top of the frame is carved with a figure of Diana bound to a tree with ropes. The spandrels of the doors show individual figures playing musical instruments.

The upper frieze is carved in low relief as a continuous scene between figures of putti carved in high relief, with fruit and vines. In the centre, a moon encircled by a wreath of clouds continues onto each of the drawers. The left drawer is carved with Diana speaking to a nymph and with Diana in a chariot drawn by three horses, with an arc behind her engraved with symbols of the zodiac. On the right drawer, against a starry sky, is a carving of a bird (with the head of a woman, and with a chariot carrying two figures and pulled by two dragon-like monsters), and Ismène offering the magic potion to Endymion. On the sides of the cabinet, the frieze is set with similar, convex panels, carved on each side with a reclining figure bearing a torch and playing a trumpet.

On each side of the cabinet, with various framing elements and ripple mouldings, is a thicker ebony plaques, carved in low relief. The scene on the left shows the figure of Endymion leaning on a staff and talking to the priestess. The scene on the right shows Endymion kneeling before Diana.

The inside surfaces of the main doors bear a ripple-moulded double frame enclosing central octagons carved in low relief. On the left door, Endymion, before he is sacrificed, is crowned with flowers by the weeping Sthenobée. On the right, Endymion is shown kneeling for sacrifice, the priest taking the knife from Sthenobée, and is inscribed with the title L’Endimion. The outer and inner frames are veneered in ebony and incised with tulips and other flowers. The corners of both doors have spandrel panels carved in low relief with individual figures, kneeling or seated, carrying torches or flaming vases. The right-hand door is applied on the leading edge with a brass lock and the left-hand door with bolt mechanisms to secure the door at top and bottom.

The cabinet is fitted with two sliding shelves at the base, veneered on their top surfaces with a grid of rectangular panels in brazilwood and tulipwood against a ground of ebony, and an eight-pointed star in ebony and brazilwood. The front edge of each shelf is set with an oval loop handle in iron. Above these shelves the case is fitted with banks of five drawers to either side of a pair of small doors with two longer drawers, one above and one below the doors. The fronts of all the drawers are set with ebony plaques, carved in low relief and framed with ebonized ripple mouldings. The fronts of the smaller drawers show the Labours of the Months (the engraved source for these as yet evading identification), each with a small brass knob. The two central doors have panels of ebony carved in low-relief, within arches below triangular pediments, depicting (left) Apollo with his lyre and a dragon, and (right) Diana with a hound, her bow and a spear.

Within the central doors is the caisson. The inside surfaces of the doors are each veneered in tropical woods, ivory and green-stained bone to show, in trompe l’oeil, an classical architectural façade with arched doorway below a cupola. The prospect, in ebony, brazilwood and ivory (some engraved with flowers and foliage), shows an arcade of four semi-circular arches. The two central arches are open, and the outer two are set with drawers. Behind the central two arches are recesses (with a black and white, perspective ‘tiled’ floor), created by panels of mirror set diagonally, which flank a narrow pilaster engraved on ivory with the figure of a man. In front of this figure runs a central balustrade on which a small figure, if placed, would be reflected in the mirrors. The floor to the front of the alcove and flanking door cases is veneered with a design of stars and triangles. The ceiling is also of marquetry. The sides of the caisson are set with mirror panels below fan-shaped panels of marquetry. Four apparent drawer fronts above the arcade are veneered with snakewood and brazilwood with green-stained bone, and turned brass knobs. The central two drawer fronts conceal a single drawer.

Below the two outer arches of the arcade are panels veneered as door cases, set between Corinthian columns (veneered in turtleshell and ivory) above a balustrade of ivory and ebony. When the outer drawers in the arcade above are removed, a loose panel below each drawer can be slid out, allowing the ‘door cases’ to be removed, revealing a bank of three secret drawers veneered with snakewood and brazilwood, with small pulls of green silk ribbon (probably 19th century).

The Stand
The open stand has a low, undecorated stretcher panel, on undecorated bun feet. The four spiral-turned front legs are each carved in the lower half with a pair of putti holding a swag of flowers above a grotesque mask. On the upper half, the spiral turning is lightly engraved with vine leaves and grapes. In the frieze section, the three drawer fronts are carved in low relief with scenes of Diana and her nymphs hunting. Below each drawer front is a pendant apron panel, faced in ebony carved in low relief, depicting putti with flowers, fruit or palms around a blank auricular cartouche. The drawers show cut-brass keyhole mounts (some missing) but no handles. The blocks between the drawers and above each leg are carved with grotesque masks (between the drawers) and auricular shields (above the legs). The sides of the frieze are plain.

Place of Origin

Paris (probably, made)

Date

1630-1650 (made)

Artist/maker

Unknown

Materials and Techniques

Softwood and oak carcase with cedar and mahogany elements, veneered in ebony, with solid elements in ebonized woods; marquetry of brazilwood, ebony, mahogany, purplewood, rosewood, snakewood, tulipwood and possibly other tropical hardwoods, with ivory, green-stained bone and turtleshell; mirror glass; handles of iron or brass; keyhole escutcheons of brass.

Marks and inscriptions

'L'Endimion'
Inscription; decoration; French; inside left door; inscribed

Dimensions

Height: 1980 mm, Width: 1760 mm, Depth: 612 mm, Width: 3353 mm cabinet with open doors, Width: 2250 mm with one door open

Object history note

Purchased by the Museum in 1856 for £132 from an unknown source.
For a summary account of the cabinet see the entry in Western Furniture 1350 to the Present Day, p.58

This cabinet was one of the earliest pieces of furniture acquired for the Museum. It was bought in 1856 as ‘Dutch. 16th century work’,with no details of earlier provenance. It is exceptional in the quality of its carving, the unity of its decoration and its survival with relatively little alteration. In 1874 John Hungerford Pollen published the cabinet for the first time in Ancient and Modern Furniture and Woodwork, his catalogue of the furniture in the South Kensington Museum. He was undecided about whether it came from France or the Netherlands but wrote enthusiastically of the quality of the carving.

Such cabinets in ebony were the most fashionable type of furniture in France from about 1630 to 1660. Nearly sixty have been recorded in various public and private collections with many more surviving in more fragmentary form. They were largely out of fashion from about 1660 until antiquarian tastes took hold in the 1820s and 1830s, especially in Britain. Some cabinets were restored at this time, others adapted to make inventive reuse of the carved ebony panels.

In 1956 Th. H. Lunsingh Scheurleer identified the source of the carvings on the V&A cabinet as from the engraved illustrations for the novel L’Endimion by the Huguenot writer Jean Ogier de Gombauld (1576–1666), which was published in Paris in 1624, but also he brought to light the importance of such literature at the French court in the first half of the seventeenth century, particularly in the circles of the queen mother, Marie de Medici (1575–1642), and of the queen, Anne of Austria (1601–1666). Illustrations to the novel were commissioned from a number of engravers, most notably Crispin de Passe (c.1564–1637). In the novel, the action is presented almost as a series of tableaux, a succession of masque scenes, and the dénouement, in which the story is found to be a dream, explains in part its strangeness and disjointedness.

Another cabinet, of similar, but not identical form, and of similar date, is also decorated with panels based on events in L'Endimion. This is in the collections of the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. It is illustrated in Tamara Rappe, Masterpieces of European Furniture from the 15th to the early 20th Centuries in the Hermitage Collection (St Petersburg: The State Hermitage Publishers, 2016), pp. 132-141. The shaping of the framing on the outer doors is not the same as on the V&A piece, and the interior of the central prospect is differently decorated (including painting), but it is clearly closely related. The centre of the pull-out slide on that cabinet is inlaid with a large fleur-de-lys in white and green-stained bone, possibly suggesting a royal provenance.

Since 1991 further efforts have been made to establish a chronology for this type of cabinet, but a lack of documentation for most examples makes this difficult. It has been variously suggested that some cabinets were the work of Jean Macé (1602–1672), or Pierre Gole, but no surviving ebony cabinet can be firmly attributed to a particular cabinetmaker on the basis of contemporary documents.

Smaller ebony cabinets of a size to be set on tables had been items of international trade in Europe from the late sixteenth century, originating chiefly from Augsburg, although small cabinets were also made in other centres, such as Dresden and Prague, and were traded throughout Europe. Their reputation was clearly widespread, and cabinets veneered in ebony, with ripple mouldings, were known from the beginning of the seventeenth century in Paris as cabinets d’Allemagne. In the course of the first half of the seventeenth century, craftsmen in the luxury trades, particularly those from the Netherlands and Germany, were encouraged to emigrate to France. Henry IV sought to defend French luxury trades by banning imports, and in 1608 he established craft workshops in the Louvre, imitating the Medici in Florence and drawing major craftsmen from a variety of European centres. These two policies, protectionism and the encouragement of foreign craftsmen, were crucial in establishing Paris as the centre of European decorative trades, a status it was to retain throughout the eighteenth century.

The form of a cabinet with an open stand designed en suite had emerged both in Antwerp and Paris by the 1630s. Most of the ebony used in France in the 1640s was imported from Madagascar and nearby islands via Amsterdam or the southern Netherlands. In Antwerp, however, the cabinets made in the first half of the seventeenth century were generally considerably smaller, with painted panels as their main decoration, and they retained the form of table cabinets in being finished all round, capable of being set anywhere in a room. The Parisian cabinets, in contrast, were larger and had undecorated backs, indicating that they were intended to be set against a wall. Although there are differences in size and quality, all such cabinets must have been prestigious pieces made to order rather than stock pieces, with variations, particularly in ornament, to reflect the owner’s preferences.

The hierarchy of decoration was carefully graded, as on this example, with relatively little decoration on the stand or the sides of the cabinet. The rich carving of the front, however, gave way to an even more intense decoration as the doors were opened and the recesses of the cabinet revealed, with the dramatic black of the exterior generally leading to the vibrant colours of tropical woods and other materials used as veneers to decorate the innermost compartments, called in the seventeenth century the caisson.The Parisian cabinets are particularly notable for the development of skill in cutting ebony to spectacular new effect, combining thin veneers (sometimes engraved), with thicker plaques ( between about 8 and 10 mm thick) carved in low relief, as on the V&A cabinet. The joins were concealed by ebony ripple mouldings, a German invention of about 1600, that became popular for both picture and mirror frames and for cabinets, and was presumably brought to Paris by immigrant cabinetmakers. Two characteristic features of Parisian ebony cabinets are also often found on Antwerp ebony cabinets: a mirrored recess or caisson (called a ‘perspective’ in the Southern Netherlands); secret drawers concealed within the cabinet structure. Carved ebony was also used to create frames for pictures and mirrors, some of which survive while documents also attest to the existence of furniture that has not survived including tables and small cabinets in the form of desks.

Exhibited at the Holburn Museum, Bath, 27 October 2012 to 6 January 2013, in Secret Splendour. The Hidden World of Baroque Cabinets, cat. no. 3

Historical context note

The owners of Parisian ebony cabinets were found among the nobility, but also the bourgeoisie, such as Parisian doctors and tourists such as John Evelyn’s wife (1652) and the Earl of Dorset (1660). Price options varied according to sized and the use of luxury materials such as ivory, especially in the caisson, and use of ebony or substitutes on the stand. The most expensive could be five to eight times more expensive than the cheapest.

Ebony cabinets were foremost display furniture, demonstrating the wealth and power of its owner, and intended to excite the admiration of privileged visitors to whom the cabinet was revealed. Clearly, the cabinet also functioned as a place to keep papers, precious objects or exotica in the visible drawers and secret compartments, and as a stage on which occasionally to display them, making particular use of the caisson or sliding shelves. Among the objects recorded in Parisian cabinets are coins and medals, gloves, fans, and ‘besognes’ (small jewels and curiosities in oyster or turtleshell, ivory and silver.) Contracts make specific mention of the keys, underlining their role in protecting the contents and the keyholder’s privacy. They were likely to be placed in richly furnished rooms such as the grand salle or an important bedchamber. Contemporary illustrations suggest that such cabinets were customarily covered with textile or leather.

The story of Endymion
The decorations on the cabinet are drawn from the novel L’Endimion by Jean Ogier de Gombauld, which was published in 1624.

The story of Endymion, a handsome youth, opens in the town of Heraclée where an eclipse of the moon frightens the inhabitants. They meet in procession to Mont Latmos, playing loud musical instruments to recall the moon. When it appears again, the crowds disperse, leaving a young man, Pyzandre, encountering his friend Endymion, who has an adventurous tale to tell. One day a priestess had foretold that his future would be controlled by the goddess Diana, who has been so taken by his beauty that she has visited him as he sleeps. At dawn he kneels before her and asks to worship her among the immortals. Endymion is entranced and seeks the help of a wise woman Ismène, who gives him a magic potion. Endymion sets out to find Diana and battles with fabulous monsters and disfigured men. He finds the goddess, who is surrounded by her nymphs. She shoots at him with a bow and arrow provided by Cupid, putting him into an ecstatic state, in which he is found by a nymph. Thereafter, Endymion goes on his way, taking his rest that night under a myrtle. At daybreak a woman, looking like Aurora, the goddess of the dawn, asks him to cut a branch from the myrtle. He does this and is attacked by armed men, with whom he battles. On returning to the myrtle he sees that it drips blood and that the branch has disappeared. The tree speaks to him, telling him that it is Diophanie, a young girl who was lost and has been changed into the myrtle. Hermodan, Diophanie’s suitor, hears this and kneels before the tree to embrace it.

A slave takes up the story of the lovers. Diophanie is the daughter of a rich shepherd who loves the humble Hermodan, but refuses him because she is being courted by Apollo, the Sun-god (and brother of Diana), who takes on the appearance of Hermodan. She declares that she is willing to marry the man whom her father thinks suitable but first sacrifices an ox in the presence of the false Hermodan, before disappearing to take on the form of the myrtle.

Endymion is chosen as a sacrifice to Diana and is purified by being submerged in the river. Diana and her nymphs see this as they return from hunting. As a prisoner of high rank Endymion is given the freedom to wander in the woods and later he sees Diana being playfully tied to a tree by her nymphs, while Jupiter looks down from the heavens, ready to end the game with a heavy rain shower. Sthenobée, the niece of the priest who will sacrifice Endymion, turns out to be also the maiden who asked him to cut off the branch of the myrtle. Endymion and Sthenobée fall in love, but Sthenobée must, no matter how reluctantly, continue to prepare for the sacrifice. Endymion is given rich clothing, and she crowns him with flowers. He is led in procession to sacrifice, Sthenobée riding in a chariot drawn by stags and preceded by men with oxen and women with baskets of flowers on their heads. During the ceremony of sacrifice, Sthenobée passes the knife to her uncle the priest and, a few moments later, is bitten by a serpent and dies. The priest declares that Endymion must, according to the oracle, die voluntarily, so he kills himself, but wakes to find that the whole episode has been a dream.

Descriptive line

Cabinet on stand, 'Diana and Endymion', French, 1630-50

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Wilk, Christopher, ed. . Western Furniture 1350 to the Present Day. London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1996. 230p., ill. ISBN 085667463X.
Thorpe, William, 'The French Taste of Mr John Jones. Part I, the born virtuoso' in The Antique Collector, October 1961, pp. 208-214.
Secret Splendour. The Hidden World of Baroque Cabinets. Booklet written to accompany the exhibition at the Holburn Museum, Bath, 9 October 2012 - 6 January 2013, in which this cabinet was shown, cat. no. 3, with extra illustration in introduction.
Elizabeth Miller and Hilary Young, eds., The Arts of Living. Europe 1600-1815. V&A Publishing, 2015. ISBN: 978 1 85177 807 2, illustrated p. 111.

Labels and date

CABINET ON STAND
FRENCH (Paris); about 1645
Oak and pine carcase veneered with ebony. The interior has a central recess with ivory and mirror decoration. Inscribed (inside) 'L'Endimion'.

The principal reliefs on this cabinet are taken from illustrations to L'Endymion (1624) a celebrated novel by Jean Ogier Gombauld (about 1576-1666). It is probable that they were supplied to the court circle in Paris; Anne of Austria, who became Queen Regent for the infant Louis XIV in 1643, was an admirer of Gombault. The form of this type of cabinet is derived from Flemish prototypes, but the elaborate and exclusive use of ebony on this scale is a new departure and explains why the French adopted the term 'ebeniste' for a cabinet-maker. [pre October 2000]

Materials

Ebony; Oak; Pine; Ebony; Oak; Pine; Ivory

Techniques

Carved; Marquetry

Categories

ELISE; Furniture; Images Online; Renaissance (French)

Collection

Furniture and Woodwork Collection

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