- Place of origin:
Augsburg, Germany (probably, made)
Great Britain, United Kingdom (probably, made)
- Materials and Techniques:
[Cabinet] Oak carcase, with ash-lined drawers, boxwood carving and inlay of various woods
- Museum number:
27:1 to 3-1869
- Gallery location:
British Galleries, room 120, case 22
The cabinet was probably made in Augsburg, Germany, in about 1560 and the stand in Britain in about 1800. The carcase is oak, veneered with boxwood and ash.
Ownership & Use
This cabinet was owned by William Beckford (1760-1844), collector and author of the novel Vathek. It stood in St Michael's Gallery, Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire, Beckford's Gothic-style house. James Wyatt (1746-1813), George III's favourite architect, built the house for Beckford between 1796 and 1812; it was, however, demolished in 1825. When he acquired the cabinet, Beckford assumed that it had been designed for Henry VIII by the painter Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543). Holbein, who was closely associated with Henry VIII and his Court, was much admired by collectors and antiquaries. Beckford also owned a drawing by the artist, as well as a cup with cover and candlesticks supposedly designed by him.
On the exterior of two outer doors there are battle scenes based on engravings by the Swiss artist Jost Amman (1539-1591). The fronts of the internal drawers consist of reliefs in carved boxwood. These reliefs depict moral themes based on engravings by the German printmaker Virgil Solis (1514-1562). The themes include 'Truth Saved by Time from Falsehood', 'Kingship Rewarding Service', and 'Industry Exciting the Senses'. The back of the cabinet is decorated with 'Temperance with Grapes and a Vase' (left) and 'Prudence with a Serpent and Convex Mirror' (right).
[Cabinet] The cabinet is made of quartered oak (an expensive cut of a high-quality wood), the boxwood carvings applied to the drawer fronts are finely detailed, and the inner compartments are either lined with arabesque marquetry or carefully selected ash veneer, reminiscent of watered silk.
The cabinet is divided into one and two arches, on the broad and narrow sides, respectively. These arches are decorated with marquetry similar to that on the stand. The cornice and entablature above the columns is similarly inlaid, lined and marquetry, and opens as a lid, revealing five small drawers with walnut fronts and carvings in boxwood upon them. Two of these drawers are wider than the others; the intervening three form square compositions of carved work.
The subjects depicted on these drawers, depicted from the right hand side of the cornice row, are as follows:
1. Virtue, as a female figure sitting on a bank with books at hand, with a phoenix in the background as an emblem of her immortality. On the border of the panelis apinted in white the legen 'PHOENICI SIMILIS VIVIT POST FVNERA VIRTUS' - Like the Phoenix. Virtue survives the tomb.
2. A king sits on his throne, which is covered with tiny arabesques in relief, surrounded by his council of sages and ancients, with the words 'CONSILIVM NE SPERNE SENIS MONITVS3 BEATOS' - Despite not the old man's counsel and his blessed warnings.
3. Time with his hourglass draws Truth, a nude female figure, pursued with malignant scourges by Falsehood, also a female figure, out of a well, with the words 'INCLV(?)SAM TENEBRIS TEMPVS EDVCIT IN AVRAS' - Time draws me from my dark durance into open air.
4. Fame, a woman, fully dressed in court costume and braided hair, blows a trumpet with a human head or mouth to it, from which a flast is visibly issuing. On a rock in the background, a sage and statesman, or prince, are pointing to her. Below is an army headed by cavaliers on horseback, with pikemen, scarcely half and inch in height, following. There are the words 'VOCE OCVLIS ALIS TOTI SVM COGNITA MVNDO' - By voice, by eyes, by wings, to all the world I'm known.
5. Force, or Fortitude, a female figure seated on a lion, rides towards fun in his splendour. She is armed with the thunder of Jove, and the club of Hercules, with the words 'CVNCTA DOMO VICTRIX ANIMI VIRTVTE VIRILIS' - I tame all things victorious by the power of a masculine spirit.
The front arched panels also open to reveal elaborately fronted drawers and pigeon-hole doors carved of boxwood.
The end panels and outer door panels depict cavalry combats involving Roman knights in classic armour. The shields bear the illustration of an Austrian eagle, whilst the flags bear the cross and stripes of Savoy and Saxony. The two back panels depict two female subjects: Prudence holding a mirror and a snak,e and Temperance pouring money or grapes into a vase.
The front arched panels, with the shafts of the columns attached to them, also open, with the columns cut off at their bases, to reveal elaborately fronted drawers and pigeon-hole doors carved of boxwood. The interior forms an architectural facade, the drawers or pigeon-hole doors forming rows of panels, which are divided perpendicularly by terminal figures and bases into four sets or divisions. The busts of these figures, in boxwood, are in complete relief and are specimens of the best cinque-cento art. The upper series of panels are the fronts of four shallow drawers, carved in relief with delicacy. The first panel represents a female figure, partly draped with broken chains in her hand. Prisoners are seen chained and being scourged by ther masters in the background, with the legend 'LIBER ES INDIGNAS FAC NE MEREARE CATENAS' - Thou are free, so act that thou never deserve disgraceful bonds. The second panel depicts a king, draped in robes, on his throne. Terminal figures of satyrs, an inch high, form supports of a canopy above it. All these parts ane finished in ivory work. The seat is supported by sphinxes, one of which is shown. Three courtiers stand in front of the king, while a kneeling sage or scholar present a book bearing the legeng, 'NIL MIHI FIT GRATIS LARGE REX CVNCTA REPENDO' - Nothing done for me goes without its reward. I am a king and repay all things with bounty. The third panel depicts a woman, dressed in the gown and hood of the Tudor Court, sewing or mending a dress whilst sitting on a bed with a work-basket beside her. A broken statue or torso lies before her, and there is a landscape background. The panel bears the legend, 'FACOLIT HVMANOS DIVINA INDVSTRIA SENSVS' - Divine Industry inflames the human perceptions. The fourth panel represents Sensuality. Two lovers, with drapery and terminal figures of fatyrs to support it, with the legend. 'DECIPIT HAEC MVLTOS PRAETEXTV PACIS AMICAE' - She deceives many under the guise of peace and friendship.
The row of panels below these four begins with a pigeon-hole door, which forms a double arch-shaped panel. A woman, a scorpion in her right hand, offers a dove to the sun or Apollo. There is a fox below on the ground. this is 'ADVLACIO' - Deceitful flattery. Below this pigeon-hole is a shallow drawer. On the front, a cavalier is falling headlong into a pitfall, the boards over it giving way in confusion, with the legend 'MVLTVM (EST?) INFOELIX CVI SORS ADVERSA MINATVR' - Very wretched he whom Fate threatens with adversity.
On the other side of the central pigeon-hole doors, the panel carvings represent Discord, a dreaped queenly figure, holding bellows, with which she fans the flame of discord which issues, accordingly from the spout. A cat with arched back on one side of her is quarrelling, and two dogs are fighting on the other, and a snake is under her ffet to show that discord develops every kind of evil passion. The panels bears the legend, 'VNDIQUE FLAMANTES DISCORDIA SVSCITAT IGNES' - Discord can fan flaming fires from every source. On the small drawer below this is a husbandman shaking apples from a tree, and his wife and child holding their hands to catch them. The legend or inscription is gone.
The panels of the central doors, having te largest of the subidivisions of the interior, contain: 1) A female figure, Virtue or Fortitude, holding a scourge; and S. Michel the Archangel scouring an armed figure - Lucifer or War. Trophies of classic armour and implements of war complete this composition.
Above these doors are two drawers with carved fronts. On the first, a sage measures a globe with compasses whilst Love rolls a globe behind. A hour-glass and scull indicate that this figure it Time. There is an architectural composition forming a fort of open colonnade or hall, and trees are seen behind. The legend reads: 'TEMPUS EGO IMMENSVM PATNS DIMETIOR ORBIS' - I am Time, and measure out in patience the compass of the world. The second drawer depicts a female figure, Chance or Fate, holding a mitre in one hand and a rope in the other. A man before her sits chained to a couch, while in the background, a man is being carried in a horse-litter with attendants. The words are: 'SORS POTIS EST SVBITO MVTARE IN VINCLA CORONAM' - Chance all too soon can change a crown for chains.
* Much of this description is derived from John Hungerford Pollen (see references).
[Stand] The stand consists of a framework of pillars with arches between - one at each end, and two on the sides. The double arches have no central pillars, and the centre spandrils end in hanging brackets. Architectural piers within the columns turn over to form the arches. The flat spandrils, and the surface of a flat base on which the whole stands, are inlaid with colour woods in coarse arabesque designs. Tudor roses and portculleses alternate around the border of the base.
Place of Origin
Augsburg, Germany (probably, made)
Great Britain, United Kingdom (probably, made)
Materials and Techniques
[Cabinet] Oak carcase, with ash-lined drawers, boxwood carving and inlay of various woods
Marks and inscriptions
[Cabinet] 'PHOENICI SIMILIS VIVIT POST FVNERA VIRTUS' Like the Phoenix, Virtue survives the tomb.
[Cabinet] 'CONSILIVM NE SPERNE SENIS MONITVS3 BEATOS' Despite not the old man's counsel and his blessed warnings.
[Cabinet] 'INCLV(?)SAM TENEBRIS TEMPVS EDVCIT IN AVRAS' Time draws me from my dark durance into open air.
[Cabinet] 'VOCE OCVLIS ALIS TOTI SVM COGNITA MVNDO' By voice, by eyes, by wings, to all the world I'm known.
[Cabinet] 'CVNCTA DOMO VICTRIX ANIMI VIRTVTE VIRILIS' I tame all things victorious by the power of a masculine spirit.
[Cabinet] 'LIBER ES INDIGNAS FAC NE MEREARE CATENAS' Thou are free, so act that thou never deserve disgraceful bonds.
[Cabinet] 'NIL MIHI FIT GRATIS LARGE REX CVNCTA REPENDO' Nothing done for me goes without its reward. I am a king and repay all things with bounty.
[Cabinet] 'MVLTVM (EST?) INFOELIX CVI SORS ADVERSA MINATVR' Very wretched he whom Fate threatens with adversity.
[Cabinet] 'FACOLIT HVMANOS DIVINA INDVSTRIA SENSVS' Divine Industry inflames the human perceptions.
[Cabinet] 'DECIPIT HAEC MVLTOS PRAETEXTV PACIS AMICAE' She deceives many under the guise of peace and friendship.
[Cabinet] 'ADVLACIO' Deceitful flattery
[Cabinet] 'VNDIQUE FLAMANTES DISCORDIA SVSCITAT IGNES' Discord can fan flaming fires from every source.
[Cabinet] 'TEMPUS EGO IMMENSVM PATNS DIMETIOR ORBIS' I am Time, and measure out in patience the compass of the world.
[Cabinet] 'SORS POTIS EST SVBITO MVTARE IN VINCLA CORONAM' Chance all too soon can change a crown for chains.
Height: 139.5 cm, Width: 95 cm, Depth: 61 cm
Object history note
Purchased from the firm of Durlacher, London
[Stand] The stand was almost certainly commissioned by William Beckford. It is designed to accompany the cabinet, having similar, though less ornate, marquetry.
Historical context note
[Cabinet] Table cabinets of this form were produced in South Germany in the second half of the sixteenth century. They were developed from travelling writing cabinets, but the form of the present piece, with two doors rather than a drop front writing flap, indicates a shift in function toward cabinets to be used primarily to house precious objects of 'curiosities,' collections of a broad range of both natural and man-made objects intended to represent the world in microcosm.
Cabinet; marquetry of various woods, boxwood carvings, carcase of oak and ash draw linings; South Germany, 1550-80; stand possibly made in Britain, 1800-20.
Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)
Hungerford Pollen, John. Ancient and Modern Furniture and Woodwork. 1874
Much of the physical description of object arises from this text.
Wilk, Christopher. Western Furniture: 1350 to the Present Day. London : Philip Wilson Publishers Ltd, 1996. 231p., 38 & 39 ISBN 1856674435
Wainwright, Clive. Some Objects from William Beckford Collection now in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Burlington Magazine. May 1971, vol. CXIII, no. 818, p.258
Magnificent Effects at Fonthill Abbey Wilts to be sold by Auction by Mr Christie... October 1, 1822..., lot 43 of fifth day's sale.
Baker, Malcolm and Richardson, Brenda, eds. A Grand Design : The Art of the Victoria and Albert Museum. London: V&A Publications, 1997. 431 p., ill. ISBN 1851773088.
The history of this cabinet, both before and after it entered the Museum's collection in 1869, illustrates the ways in which presumed associations with a major artist (Hans Holbein, the Younger) and a historical figure (Henry VIII) influence how an object is viewed and assessed. It also reflects the Museum's changing views about the relationship between English and European material and its attempts to balance stylistic qualities with historical significance. The cabinet - now considered to be sixteenth-century South German - was in the collection of author and antiquarian William Beckford (1760-1844) at Fonthill Abbey in the early nineteenth century. In the catalogue of the abortive 1822 sale of the Beckford collection, the piece was described as "A CABINET of the Greatest CURIOSITY . . . from the PALACE at WHITEHALL, and executed from designs of HOLBEIN for KING HENRY the VIIIth," thus attracting interest for its historical associations as well as its virtuosity. The cabinet's stand is later in date and may have been commissioned by Beckford, or possibly earlier in the eighteenth century.
When the cabinet was acquired by the Museum from the dealer Henry Durlacher in 1869 it still retained the Henry VIII provenance and its association with designs by Holbein, who had settled in England in 1532 and in 1537 became the king's court painter. Having experienced overwhelming success in England (he portrayed nearly a quarter of the nation's peerage), Holbein had been regarded by both Horace Walpole and Beckford as a talismanic figure in the history of English art. The cabinet's importance, according to Matthew Digby Wyatt's recommendation for its acquisition, thus resided in its national historical significance and its place in the development of specifically English design. Although Digby Wyatt strongly recommended the acquisition, he was, in comparison to later appraisers, noticeably cool about its artistic merit, probably because he regarded it as English work: "Of course the workmanship (which I believe to be English - as it is certainly neither French, Spanish, nor Italian, and I cannot think it to be German) does not fully realise . . . the admirable life and ease of Holbein's drawings. . . ." Thus thought to be of English workmanship, the piece was displayed among a varied and changing assortment of English furniture during the later nineteenth century.
However, as early as 1874 John Hungerford Pollen noted that the piece was "perhaps of mixed German and English workmanship" and focused upon the exceptional quality of the interior carvings, which he felt made the cabinet "the most remarkable in the Museum." The furniture specialist Percy Macquoid, discussing the piece in 1904, similarly praised the carvings: ". . . there is no possible ground for attributing the marvellous little carvings in boxwood on the faces of the drawers, and the skill shown in the portrayal of the human form to this [English] source." By at least 1913 the cabinet was recognised as typically South German in its form, and displayed with other European Renaissance furniture. More recent discussions of the piece - coinciding with the rise of interest in antiquarianism - have focused on its presence in Beckford's collection. Given its name because of a misunderstood association, the cabinet nonetheless retains its name as the Holbein Cabinet to the present day.
The cabinet's numerous drawers and compartments were intended to house a collection of precious objects or "curiosities," and the clever intellectual aspects of the cabinet's decoration make it a very appropriate receptacle for such a collection. Whereas the exterior is decorated on the front and sides with intense and violent battle scenes, the interior carvings, sometimes accompanied by moral maxims in Latin, strike a more contemplative tone; for example, a ruler is urged to listen to the advice of Age, Mars (the god of war) is chastised by Saint Michael, and Time leads Youth from ignorance to understanding.
Lit. Christie's, 1822; Hungerford Pollen, 1874, pp. 42-6; Macquoid, 1904, pp. 102-4; M"ller, 1956, pp. 101-5; Wainwright, 1971; Alfter, 1986,
pp. 42-6; Wilk, 1996, p. 38
MÖLLER, Lieselotte; Der Wrangelschrank und die verwandten süddeitschen intarsienmöbel des 16. Jahrhunderts. (Berlin, 1956), cat. no. 6
Precious: Objects and Changing Values (The Millennium Galleries, Sheffield 02/04/2001-24/06/2001)
A Grand Design (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco 13/02/1999-09/05/1999)
A Grand Design (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston 18/10/1998-10/01/1999)
A Grand Design (Royal Ontario Museum 21/06/1998-13/09/1998)
A Grand Design (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston 25/02/1998-17/05/1998)
A Grand Design (The Baltimore Museum of Art 12/10/1997-18/01/1998)
A Grand Design - The Art of the Victoria and Albert Museum (Victoria and Albert Museum 01/10/1999-31/01/2000)
Labels and date
SOUTHER GERMAN (probably Augsburg); about 1855
Stand ENGLISH; about 1800
Marquetry of maple, boxwood, pearwood, Hungarian ash, and other woods
This cabinet was in the collection of William Beckford (1759-1854) at Fonthill Abbey. At the time, it was supposed to have been designed by Holbein for Henry VIII, and to come from the Palace of Whitehall. It displays a mixtrue of arabesque and strapwork ornament executed in marquetry, together with carved reliefs, terminal figures, and architectural ornaments. [pre July 2001]
In the 1823 sale catalogue of Fonthill Abbey, this cabinet was described as 'designed by Holbein for King Henry VIII'. Beckford, who greatly admired the painter and designer Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543), certainly believed this, but in fact the cabinet dates from after Holbein's death. [27/03/2003]
Oak; Boxwood; Ash
Lion; Apollo; Cat; Dog (animal); Dove; Phoenix; Fox; Battles; Snake (animal); Michael (Saint); Prisoners; Courtiers; Tudor roses; Kings (people); Globes (cartographic spheres); Love; Bellows; Scorpion; Statesmen; Virtue; Hourglasses; Portcullises; Discord; Lucifer; Fate; Cavaliers (soldiers); Fame, personified; Truth, personified; Falsehood; Virtue, Temperance; Virtue, Prudence; Virtue, Fortitude; Time, personified
Furniture; British Galleries