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Writing box

  • Place of origin:

    London (possibly, made)
    Europe (possibly, made)

  • Date:

    ca. 1525 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Walnut and oak, lined with painted and gilded leather and silk velvet; later shagreen (possibly sharkskin) outer covering

  • Credit Line:

    Purchased with the aid of the Murray Bequest

  • Museum number:

    W.29:1 to 9-1932

  • Gallery location:

    British Galleries, room 58e, case 7 []

Object Type
This box was almost certainly made in the court workshops of Henry VIII, who reigned from 1509 to 1547. It is lined with leather, which is painted with the heraldic badges of Henry and his first queen, Katherine of Aragon (1485-1536), and the royal coat of arms.

The exterior of the desk is covered with shagreen (possibly sharkskin) and fitted with metal-gilt angle-mounts, loop handles and ball feet, all added during the 18th century. The interior surfaces of the compartments are lined with red silk velvet, probably added during the 19th century. The writing surface and the large compartment have been relined very crudely with a crimson silk velvet, the appearance of which is considerably older than that of the red velvet.

Time
The box was probably made between 1520 and 1527. The decoration includes painted heads in the style of miniature painting, which became popular after 1520. Henry began divorce proceedings against Katherine in 1527.

Subjects Depicted
The decoration includes both late Gothic features and early Renaissance ornament. On either side of Henry's coat of arms are figures of Mars, the Roman god of war, in armour and Venus, the goddess of love and fertility, with her son Cupid. The compartment lids are painted with the head of Christ and figures of St George and the Dragon. The front has a male and a female head in profile. The falling flap bears profile heads of figures from Greek legend: Paris, prince of Troy, and Helen, the Spartan queen whom he abducted.

Ownership & Use
The history of the box is uncertain. Similar boxes were listed in inventories taken at Henry's death in 1547, but this box could have been a royal gift and might have passed out of royal ownership soon after it was made.

Physical description

Box constructed of oak and walnut, decorated with painted and gilded leather. The box has a sloping top and a double lid, the outer enclosing a shallow tray contained in the inner lid, which opens to disclose three divisions, two with lids. The fall-down front encloses three drawers, the centre one divided into partitions and those on the side fitted with sliding lids. There is a small drawer with compartments fitted at the right side. The interior is covered with leather painted and gilt. The inside of the outer lid is decorated with interlaced strapwork, enclosing the badges of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. The inner lid bears the arms of Henry VIII encircled by the Garter, and with putti blowing trumpets as supporters. On either side are figures of Mars in armour, and Venus with Cupid, each under Renaissance canopies. The lids in the interior are painted with a medallion head of Christ and Saint George and the Dragon below a canopy. The front, above the three small drawers, is decorated with a male and a female profile head and scrollwork designs; the falling flap bears profile heads of Paris and Helen, inscribed 'Paris de Troy' and 'Helen de Greci' on a ground of arabesques.
The rim below the outer lid is covered in parchment and bears the inscription in classical lettering (much rubbed): 'DEUS REGNORUM EC[CLESIAE] CHRISTIAN[A]E MAXIMUS PROTECTOR IMPERII DA SERVO TUO HENRICO OCT[AVO] REGI ANGLIAE DE HOSTE TRIUMPHUM M[AGNUM].
The exterior of the desk is covered with shagreen and fitted with metal-gilt angle-mounts, loop handles and ball feet, all added during the 18th century.
The interior surfaces of the compartments are lined with red silk velvet, probably added during the 19th century. The writing surface and the large compartment have been relined very crudely with a crimson silk velvet, the appearance of which is considerably older than that of the red velvet.

A report on the materials used for the box was made by J.A. Darrah, 17/8/1976 (copy on dept. file):
Oak: base, sides, drop front, probably the back and the lid, long side drawer (with walnut bottom)
Walnut: interior fittings and three small drawers
Shagreen dyed black (probably ray) - applied to the external surfaces
Gilt-brass - fittings
Interior surface of the lid, the lower surface of the writing surface, the lids of the drawers and compartments and the drawer fronts are covered with undyed, buff coloured leather. The basic design of the decoration was applied to this in gold leaf outlined and detailed with black pigment. Large background areas were then coloured blue, figures painted in flesh tints with brown hair and highlights applied to the gold leaf with red and green glazes. The pigments used are azurite (blue), vermillion (red), calcium carbonate [chalk] (white), carbon black, iron oxide(?) (brown), chalk and vermillion (pink), copper resinate (green glaze), dragon's blood(?) for red glaze.
The internal surfaces of the compartments are lined with scarlet cotton velvet, not available until the 18th century, and laid onto a woodpulp cardboard (not used until the 19th century). The writing surface and the large compartment have been relined crudely with a crimson silk velvet, apparently pre-18th century.

Place of Origin

London (possibly, made)
Europe (possibly, made)

Date

ca. 1525 (made)

Artist/maker

Unknown

Materials and Techniques

Walnut and oak, lined with painted and gilded leather and silk velvet; later shagreen (possibly sharkskin) outer covering

Dimensions

Height: 5 cm, Width: 41 cm, Depth: 27 cm

Object history note

Purchased out of the funds of the Murray Bequest for £462 from Messrs Durlacher Bros., 142 Bond Street, London W1. RP: 32/6133

The provenance of the box is not known previous to its sale at Christies (7/7/1932 lot 111) by order of the Trustees of the late A.C.W. Dunn Gardner of Denston Hall, Suffolk. The coat of arms of Henry VIII (reigned 1509-47) together with the heraldic badges of his first queen, Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536), suggest that it was made by the court workshops of Henry VIII before 1527, when he began proceedings for divorce from Catherine. The inclusion of painted heads imitating miniatures suggests that the box dates from after 1520 when miniature painting became popular. Similar boxes appear in the inventory taken at Henry VIII's death in 1547 but were not described in sufficent detail to make identification possible. Possibly the box was made as a royal gift, or could have been owned by Catherine of Aragon herself, and might have passed out of the Royal collection soon after it was made.

The present outer covering of of shagreen, with metal mounts, dates from the eighteenth century and indicates the historic veneration with which the desk was treated even at that time. The original exterior covering of the desk is not known but might have been velvet or leather with an outer leather travelling case.

The scarlet velvet lining the interior surfaces of the compartments was probably added in the 19th century. The surface of the tray in the outer lid and the surfaces of the large compartment have been crudely relined with crimson silk velvet.

Historical significance: Tudor taste demanded luxurious furnishings, such as can be seen in the interior settings of portraits of Henry VIII and his family. Room interiors were furnished with carved, painted and gilded on ceilings or walls, or hung with tapestry or embroideries. Floors were often painted. Gold leaf was used lavishly on carving, and gold thread in embroidery. Tudor royal furnishings have largely disappeared and this is one of the few court objects to survive. The decoration of the box relates to such schemes of decoration. The inner surfaces of the desk are are lined with leather, lavishly decorated with gilding and painting. The painting is not of the high quality of illuminated manuscripts or miniature painting, but is probably closer in quality to furniture or wall decoration.

The box can be seen as a compendium of fashionable ornament of the 1520s. Features include Tudor heraldic devicese framed by early Renaissance ornament, late gothic features suh as the quatrefoils on the drawer-fronts, figures derived from North European print sources, and imitations of miniature painting. Heraldic imagery, which provided a ready repertoire of colourful motifs for Tudor craftsmen and carried powerful messages of ownership and allegiance, was used extensively at the court of Henry VIII for furnishings, liveries and as architectural decoration. It is this which gives us the clue to the origins of the box. The underside of the outer lid carries many devices including the initials 'HR' and H&K', and the lides of the small drawers include dragons and greyhounds, Tudor badges and often used as supporters for the coat of arms. The Renaissance ornament, in the form of grotesques, is in some parts misunderstood, such as the inverted candelabrum base, with paw feet, between the roundels of Paris and Helen.
The underside of the inner lid shows Henry's coat of arms, unusally supported by two putti similar to those on a carved coat of arms at Hampton Court. On either side are figures of Mars in armour and Venus with Cupid, after woodcuts by the celebrated German artist Hans Burgkmair, published around 1510.

Historical context note

This is a rare survival of luxury furniture made by the royal workshops. Such small writing-boxes were used on tables, to hold the paraphernalia associated with writing such as ink and quills, and other small items. It does not appear to have been designed for writing on, but has the characteristic sloping lid of a desk. It was not until the seventeenth century that the desk developed as a specialist form of table with drawers. The inventory taken at Henry's death in 1547 lists similar boxes or desks with their contents. For example in a closet next to the King;s Privy Chamber at Greenwich Palace were three desks covered with leather, one of which was 'furnysshed with boxes without Counters with a penne knyfe and a payer of sisorres'.

Descriptive line

Writing desk constructed of oak and walnut, decorated with painted and gilded leather. British, 1525 - 1527. The decoration painted by Lucas Hornebolte.

Labels and date

TABLE DESK. Walnut, covered with gilt and painted leather, with several drawers and divisions. Decorated with the Royal Arms and the heraldic badges of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon (The Portcullis, the Todir Rose, the impaled rose and pomegranate, the Fleur-de-Lys, the Castle and Sheaf of Arrows.) The figures of Mars and Venus after Woodcuts by Hans Burgkmair (about 1510). English; about 1525. Desks of this type were among the foreign novelties introduced to Britain under the early Tudors. The shagreen-covered outer cover and meral mounts are of later date. [1968]
DESK
ENGLISH; about 1520
Oak and walnut, covered in leather with gilt and painted decoration. The shagreen outer cover and gilt brass mounts probably added in about 1700.

This desk is a unique survival of royal luxury furniture with early Renaissance ornament. It is painted with the Tudor royal arms and with badges and personal devices of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. An inscription on the inner lid asks God to grant Henry victory over his enemies. The arms are flanked by figures of Mars and Venus derived from woodcuts of the Planets by Hans Burgkmair (1473 - 1531). The painting is likely to have been executed by one of the Flemish craftsmen employed by the court.

Bought with the funds of the Murray Bequest. [pre October 2000]
This box has many trays and compartments for writing implements. Several such boxes were recorded at Greenwich Palace when Henry VIII died in 1547. The royal arms and badges of Henry and Katherine of Aragon appear among figures and motifs based on Continental designs. The figures of the Roman gods, Mars and Venus were based on woodcuts by the German artist, Hans Burgkmair I ( 1473-1531), published in 1510. []

Materials

Oak; Walnut; Leather; Brass (alloy); Velvet; Paint

Techniques

Painting (image-making); Gilding

Subjects depicted

Paris; Helen; Mars; Venus; Jesus Christ; George (Saint); Heraldic motifs; Coats of arms

Categories

Images Online; Furniture; Household objects; Royalty; Woodwork; British Galleries; Containers; Medieval and renaissance

Collection

Furniture and Woodwork Collection

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