A Cabinet Fit For The Royal Pavilion
This remarkable gilt-bronze mounted Brazilian rosewood cabinet is much in the manner of the furniture thought to have been designed by John and Frederick Crace for the Royal Pavilion, Brighton.
The vogue for Chinese-inspired interiors in England had been in its heyday in the middle of the eighteenth century, closely associated with the Rococo taste, and was declining in the later part despite some notable projects employing Chinese features, for example Thomas Chippendale’s work at Harewood House and Nostell Priory in the 1770s. However, in the early 19th century the taste had retreated to a point that, as the eminent scholar John Harris remarked in his Regency Furniture and Designs 1803-26, “Sinomania or Hindoo Mania exerted little influence beyond court circles.” He goes on to say that “only in rare instances do these exotic styles make an appearance in the early 19th century pattern books,” the barometers of popular demand and taste. It appears that the Prince of Wales began to be interested in the style around 1790, when he commissioned the lavish interiors for the Chinese Drawing Room at Carlton House. From 1801 onwards, he went on to “relieve the chaste (classical) interior of Brighton Pavillion,” where he wished for a “gay and lively scheme of decoration that would be more appropriate for a seaside holiday palace.”
Having worked for the Prince of Wales in the 1790s at Carlton House and completed several commissions for Sir John Soane, John and Frederick Crace began their employment at the Royal Pavilion shortly after 1800. The Pavilion’s legendary interiors are breathtaking examples of complete Chinese schemes, set within the largest building project ever undertaken in this taste. It is important to note the little known fact that, under the guidance of the Craces, both overall decorative concepts and detailed elements are not the wild Cino-European fantasies now associated with the Chinoiserie. Instead, actual Chinese designs were employed, faithfully derived from porcelain, textiles and enamel etc. This literal approach was a result of John Crace’s genuine fascination with and scholarly knowledge of the Orient. Upon John’s death in the year 1819, Sotheby’s sold his considerable collection of Chinese curiosities and a library which included many works on the Orient. Interestingly, a typescript survives at Brighton that records that the Craces acted as agents acquiring for the Prince “enormous quantities of Chinese furniture, porcelain and curiosity of many kinds…” This gives rise to the intriguing idea that these items served as first hand sources for decorative motifs which appear in the Crace designs for the interiors at the Pavilion.
Like much of the decoration at the Pavilion, the present cabinet’s design shows a particularly pure vocabulary of Chinese ornament throughout, incorporating both the large famille verte porcelain panels, materials imported from China, and design elements directly and deliberately chosen from Chinese prototypes. The imagery on the panels appears to portray the wedding of a high-ranking military family. The bronze decoration consists of meaningful characters and symbols selected to support the theme of marriage: To the frieze is mounted the ancient Chinese meander motif known as “thunder pattern,” which “typified the downpour that brought the heaven-sent gift of abundance.” The thunder pattern is enclosed within gilt-bronze moldings shaped as continuous rods of bamboo, signifying longevity (figure 1). The porcelain panels are framed to the top and bottom with foliate gilt-bronze mounts centered by the Chinese character “Shou,” generally translated as “Longevity.” These mounts are cast in the mode of Chinese metalwork, devoid of sculptural content, with engraved lines to delineate the foliate shapes. The Chinese pattern plinth is applied to the corners with the Chinese character “Wan,” regarded as “the Buddha’s Heart” and described as the “accumulation of lucky signs possessing ten thousand efficacies.” The choice of rosewood may have been relevant for its visual relationship to the rare and much prized Chinese indigenous wood, Huanghuali.
A further aspect in the design of the present cabinet, which relates closely to Frederic Crace’s work, is the unusual feature of the fully canted sides. In the Pavilion, numerous pieces of cabinet furniture share this rare form, which allows the decorated sides of a piece to be viewed together with the front. This includes, for example a set of six cabinets made in 1802 to line the Corridor (figure 2); and a set of four originally in the South Drawing Room, now in Buckingham Palace (figure 3). Instead of porcelain, the doors and sides of both sets display large Japanese black lacquer panels. On the Corridor group, as in the present piece, two strips of “bamboo” frame a pattern at the top and a single “bamboo” strip finishes the cabinet at the bottom (figure 4).
The present cabinet has been carcassed in fine oak and is of exceptional quality. It also has the exquisite feature of an interior entirely veneered in mahogany. Furthermore, the fixings for the large gilt bronze frames that retain the porcelain panels are unusual in being very finely crafted cylindrical brass lead plugs with steel threaded ends. The Belgian black marble top is original to the cabinet and was often the stone of choice for highest quality English tables and cabinets of this time.
While the present cabinet has not been found in the inventory of the Royal Pavilion, it is possible that it may have been made for another royal house, or for a member of the high aristocracy. One nobleman, George Child Villiers (1773-1859), 5th Earl of Jersey from 1805, created a Chinese room circa 1806-10 as part of the alterations to Middleton Park under the direction of the architect Thomas Cundy Senior (1765-1825). It is interesting to note that the royal furniture makers Marsh and Tatham, who are thought to have produced the early furniture for the Royal Pavilion, including the set of six cabinets for the Corridor, are also likely to have supplied the “Chinese” Middleton Park furniture furniture, as evidenced by the existence of invoices from this firm to Lord Villiers in 1804.