Lapis Lazuli Cabinet

A mid seventeenth century Italian, lapis lazuli cabinet in the Dressing Room at Belton House, Lincolnshire

In 1710, Sir John Brownlow, later 1st Viscount Tyrconnel (1690-1754) set off on a Grand Tour of Europe when he was just 20 years old, which triggered a lifelong passion for Italian design and culture. One of the most significant legacies from this tour is the remarkable lapis lazuli cabinet.

The Grand Tour

Between the late 17th and early 19th centuries, numerous English aristocrats embarked on so-called Grand Tours of Italy, which introduced young men (and occasionally women) of polite society to centuries of European art and culture, and in particular Roman antiquity and the Italian Renaissance. Some also used their months of travel for extravagant shopping, buying antique sculptures, old masters and commissioning portraits from Pompeo Batoni (1708 – 1787) and his contemporaries. 

One of the most significant purchases from Tyrconnel’s tour is the remarkable lapis lazuli cabinet now on display in the Ante Study at Belton. Lapis lazuli is only found in a few places. The oldest source of this stunning rock is the Sar-i Sang mine in the Badakhshan district of Afghanistan, which has produced the finest stone for over 6,000 years.

Prized throughout history for its intense colour, lapis lazuli beads have been found in Neolithic burial sites and, perhaps more widely known, in the funeral mask of Tutankhamun. During the late Middle Ages, lapis was also ground up to create the expensive and striking pigment Ultramarine. It was used to great effect in the Renaissance and Baroque periods. The sky in Titian’s ‘Bacchus and Ariadne’ and the headscarf in Vermeer’s ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’, are beautiful examples of its use.

Portrait of Viscount Tyrconnel by Charles Jervas
Portrait of Sir John Brownlow, later Viscount Tyrconnel, by Charles Jervas in The Tyrconnel Room at Belton House, Lincolnshire
Portrait of Viscount Tyrconnel by Charles Jervas

The Belton cabinet

Usually, pietra dure cabinets comprise cut, fitted and polished hard stones to create elaborate polychrome patterns. This very rare example, however, bears a veneer that is entirely monochrome and features no design. Belton’s cabinet is constructed from rosewood and ebony and faced with veneers of lapis lazuli alone.

Pietre dure table tops, boxes and cabinets were very fashionable in the 18th century and were brought back from Italy to furnish the grand houses of the British elite. The most stunning of these must surely be the ‘Pope's Cabinet’ at Stourhead (NT 731575). It is said to have been made around 1585 to celebrate the papacy of Pope Sixtus V and was brought to Stourhead by Henry Hoare in 1740.

The Popes cabinet statuettes at Stourhead
Statuettes off the Popes cabinet during restoration at Stourhead
The Popes cabinet statuettes at Stourhead

Belton’s lapis lazuli cabinet, nearly 100 years younger than the ‘Pope’s Cabinet, was made around 1640 and is also thought to have been produced in Rome. Like the Pope’s cabinet, its design takes inspiration from the facades of Italian Renaissance churches.

Close up of panel detail overlaid with blue lapis lazuli
Close up panel detail of the lapis lazuli cabinet at Belton House, Lincolnshire
Close up of panel detail overlaid with blue lapis lazuli

The cabinet has a central door flanked by four Corinthian columns along the façade with gilt bronze base and capitals. Empty dowel holes suggest that the top of the cabinet was originally finished with gilt bronze statuettes or finials.  

Imported to England at what would have been great expense by Viscount Tyrconnel, the cabinet is first listed on a 1737 inventory in the Dining Room of Tyrconnel’s London house in Arlington Street. 

Hidden secrets

The cabinet’s front is made up of thirteen drawers and, although locks and keyholes were added in the 19th century, was originally designed with intriguing and secretive ways of being opened.

The first two drawers are at the base and open simply by pulling, which then gives access to the remaining eleven drawers. These are opened using a series of hidden pin keys and spring locks.

The central door itself is opened by pushing the lower drawer back to make it pop forward (an early version of a push catch) and, when removed, reveals a further six secret drawers. These still retain many of their original blue ribbon pulls.

Conservation project

In 2009-10 the National Trust restored the cabinet, removing late 19th century black varnish from the ebony. Early 20th century additions of gilded knobs and beading were also removed from the drawer fronts. 

Close up of giltwood stand during restoration
Close up of giltwood stand during restoration
Close up of giltwood stand during restoration

Prior to the work it had been assumed that the giltwood stand was not the original one made for the cabinet in London. The cabinet stood on an English Baroque giltwood stand which was probably made for a Japanese Export casket (NT435120). Once the 20th century additions were removed however, it fitted perfectly. The stand had been reduced in height and the water gilding and later paint decoration covered again in the 19th century, but is probably the stand made to support the cabinet at Arlington Street.  Another possibility is that it is the second attempt at a London made stand or a third that is was initially kept as a table cabinet. 

Now restored and re-gilt, Viscount Tyrconnel’s lapis lazuli cabinet, brought back from his Grand Tour over 300 years ago, can be seen jewel-like in the Ante Study.