A family Will from the February of 1922 refers to an ebony table acquired by Richard Heber in 1823 at the great auction of William Beckford's collection from Fonthill, this solid ebony table, which relates to the cabinets in design and origin, is still with the family. There was indeed a quantity of similar ebony furniture in Beckford's collection and asides from the auction catalogue, this is attested to by watercolours and prints showing the interior of Beckford's gothic folly. Sadly, there is no catalogue entry for the offered pair in the 1823 sale or an earlier sale from 1801. Interestingly Heber, a fascinating character in his own right, was known to have attended the Fonthill sales in 1823. Most probably to buy books, as like William Beckford he was a keen bibliophile. On his death his sole executrix, Mrs Cholmondeley, received a life interest in all his estate, valued at £200,000. His enormous library filled eight houses in England and Europe and was sold in London, Paris and Ghent between 1834-7. His ownership of the offered cabinets makes sense as similar pieces of furniture appear in other important collections and notably those of other book collectors such as Horace Walpole and of course William Beckford. Heber was a worldly man of great wealth and possibly like Beckford and Walpole a collector of this rich and exuberant furniture. It seems highly likely that the present lot may well have been his and passed to his sister Mary Cholmondeley.
The variants to the carved detail between this pair of cabinets and the single cabinet, (lot 128) which is also in this sale, is fascinating. Jan Veenendaal discusses these surfaces in his seminal text Furniture from Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India, Delft, 1985. He identifies two distinct periods relating to carved detail and references a number of examples to support this categorisation. Lot 128 features low-relief carving which Jan Veenendaal dates to within 1650-1680 and he gives the high relief carving in the present lot to between 1680-1720.
This later 17th and early 18th century carving features almost three dimensional large ‘sculpted’ flower heads and tendrils, compare with the shallower foliate motifs on the single earlier cabinet. A 1690 inventory prepared for Cornelia Linis widow of Jacobus Vermeer by the notary Fredrik Michault in Batavia, details amongst other ebony pieces, 'twelve high kaliatur [ebony from India or Sri Lanka] wood chairs with large flowers’ (see Jan Veenendaal, op. cit., p.151). He draws parallels with the decorative foliate borders on dated late 17th century gravestones, from the Coromandel Coast, which feature similar motifs seen on these pieces (op. cit. p.52 and Jaffer, op. cit., p.134). The fact that there is no pre-1680 provenance for furniture in Britain which features bold foliate motifs and this thicker, deeper carving seems to support Jan Veenendaals assertion that these cabinets are after that date and fall into the late 17th/early 18th century period.
For direct comparison see a similar cabinet of the same form and dated to this period, in the Rijksmuseum which could possibly be from the same workshop (inventory number BK-1968-48). Illustrated Jan van Van Campen, Asian splendour: Company Art in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, 2011, no.33, p.55 and illustrated here as fig. 1.
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