A Cabinet That Had Everyone Fooled

The Vitel Cabinet and Its Hybrid Social Life by Janice Li

Unknown, 1630-40 / 1820, Vitel Cabinet, Japan / Paris. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Made in a Parisian ébéniste workshop in the 1830s, the Vitel Cabinet is incorporated with exquisite lacquer panels produced in Japan two centuries prior to its production, framed by marquetry elements in turtleshell, brass, ebony, satinwood and purpleheart, ormolu mounts and a Brescia marble slab top. [1] The lacquer panels are believed to be associated with the Mazarin Chest, an object often crowned the title of the most important object of its kind at the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A). The cabinet was consumed in England throughout the mid-nineteenth century before it was acquired by the V&A in 1882 as part of the John Jones collection. 

Unknown, The Mazarin Chest, about 1640, Japan © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

An object of such hybrid nature – with multi-layered values and a multi-cultural history – throughout different stages of its social life is easily viewed as a product of a singular cultural contact, or even culture clash.  [2] [3]However, by investigating eclectically and in-depth the four aggregate stages of the Vitel Cabinet’s social life — firstly, as potentially, part of the ‘fine group’ export lacquer chests from Japan to the Netherlands; secondly, as a 19th-century French-made classicist and orientalist cabinet; thirdly, as collectible in England from France; and lastly, as an artefact split between two departments in the museum — it is clear that the object embodies the mingling of hybrid and syncretic forms of exchange across the Atlantic and the Continent. [4]

Being a highly probable cousin of the Mazarin Chest, the production of lacquer panels and its incorporation into the Vitel Cabinet have been well-researched and discussed in the Mazarin Chest Project. [5] The project has produced extensive research materials of excellent quality that give background information on the panels’ potential origin and later circulation, providing the basis to question the relative value of the original chest to the maker versus that of the owner. 

The making of the Vitel Cabinet is part of a greater narrative of the eighteenth-century design of ebony, gilt-bronze, boulle marquetry, and lacquer furniture, which saw a revival in the nineteenth-century. Does the purpose of production of the cabinet fit into this trend in furniture collection? Was it produced in Paris specifically for the English market in mind? The Vitel Cabinet is known to have been in England as early as in the Stowe House sale, auctioned in 1848, very soon after its estimated production year in the 30s to 40s. [6]The fact that it formed part of such a notable patrician English collection almost immediately after its production leads one to speculate that it was a custom Parisian piece for the English market. In addition, the quality of craftsmanship on the cabinet might have been suggestive of a discrepancy, revealing the relative value of boulle work and Japanese lacquer at the time.

Although the first half of Vitel Cabinet’s life has been researched in depth in the Mazarin project, its life after arriving in England and its subsequent acquisition at the V&A remains unexplored. The details of the collection and display of the cabinet at Jones’ residence can be closely enquired into, in order to reveal its hidden cultural connotation — the fact that Jones most likely have made the purchase with the belief that the Vitel Cabinet was a ‘genuine’ eighteenth-century collectable in mind.

Drawing room at 95 Piccadilly, published in The Handbook of The Jones Collection in the South Kensington Museum (Chapman and Taylor, 1883). Museum no. NAL. 185.655.H, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

 

Besides the speculation that the Vitel Cabinet might have lacked an outstanding maker or provenance, it still remains largely a mystery as to why the Vitel Cabinet was constantly overlooked until the early 1980s, when V&A Keeper of the Far East Department, Joe Earle rediscovered the historical and artistic importance of the lacquer panels within the cabinet. Museum records can as well be scrutinised to analyse the changing perceived value of the Vitel Cabinet through the century at the V&A, and to question the current curatorial and conservation approaches taken as the lacquer panels are now separated from the body of the cabinet in the museum storage. 

Close-up of the front panel of the Vitel Cabinet, Janice Li.

The lacquer panels have a social life of three-hundred-and-fifty years; being a part of the cabinet has become intrinsic to its present life. The conservation and treatment of this cabinet and the lacquer panels are determined by the most highly valued aspect at the present time, which is conspicuous that the artistic value of the lacquer panels purely as seventeenth-century Japanese export is deemed higher by the museum now. Although there are no absolutely right or wrong answers in regards to removing the panels or leaving them fixed to the cabinet, it is crucial for curators and conservators to balance conflicting values and to exercise judgement that is ethically defensible.

As seen on the Vitel Cabinet, the perceived value of a hybrid material object is a constantly morphing one – new hybrid forms were introduced in every stage while each element transformed as they connected – it has been understood and experienced disparately in social groups and settings. [7] The hybrid social life the Vitel Cabinet has led, especially during the decades from the cabinet’s creation to being acquired at the V&A, embodies greater cultural phenomenon that is both cross-material and cross-cultural.

In its first stage of life as export lacquer, not only the relative values of export lacquer chest to the maker and consumers were different, it is important, also, to recognise the difference in value we put on them in hindsight. Mutual valuation of material, such as that of lacquer against boulle, or namban style against Nagasaki style, played a key factor in deciding the destiny of the lacquer chest, and later on, the Vitel Cabinet. The Vitel Cabinet has indeed lived a mysterious life that had many experts fooled: the cabinetmaker possibly did not know the value of the lacquer panels when creating the cabinet, Jones most likely thought of the cabinet as an eighteenth-century collectable piece, to the museum first believing that it was a London-made replica. Only until recent decades have people unveiled the mask of its complex hybrid identity – a classical revivalist export piece made for the English market from Paris in the 1830s, with lacquer panels cut out from an artistically and historically valuable export chest made in the 1630s from Japan.

The exceptional historical, social, and cultural significance of the Vitel Cabinet should be seen as an intrinsic whole, not as lacquer panels, nor as an ebony cabinet with boulle marquetry, but as its hybrid self. The museum ought to reconsider the current arrangement for storage and display for the object: the Vitel Cabinet deserves to be kept as one piece, as an outstanding showcase of the great global social and cultural history it embodies.

 

Bibliography:

Shayne Rivers, Nick Umney, Conservation of Furniture (Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann, 2003), 373.
Rivers, 374.
Elaine Baldwin, Introducing cultural studies (London: Pearson Education, 2004), 176.
Baldwin, 176.
The Mazarin Chest Project is a collaborative conservation and research project that incorporated five PhDs and produced more than 25 peer reviewed publications, including the book East Asian Lacquer: Material Culture, Science and Conservation (2011).
Furniture and Woodwork Department at the Victoria & Albert Museum, Department Registry, 1082-1882, 1-2.
Tony Bennett, The Birth of the Museum: History, theory, politics (New York: Routledge, 1995), 177.

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