Ham House’s cabinet of floral marquetry mastery
At Ham House in Richmond-upon-Thames, Surrey there is an exquisite 17th-century cabinet intricately inlaid with pieces of colourful woods and exotic materials. They come together to create an abundant display of spring flowers, birds and butterflies.
A cabinet like this may have been used to store 'curiosities' to show to one’s guests. Above all, it was a statement piece to showcase the cabinet-maker's talent and the owner’s wealth and taste.
This exquisite cabinet is attributed to Gerrit Jensen (active 1667–1715), a Dutch furniture-maker who may have come to London as part of a movement of continental craftsmen after the Great Fire of 1666 to help rebuild the city.
By the early 1680s, Jensen was cabinet-maker to the royal household and the chief supplier of veneered furniture to the Duke and Duchess of Lauderdale of Ham House, where this and other examples attibuted to Jensen can be found.
The cabinet opens to reveal ten drawers centred by a smaller door, concealing an additional three small drawers.
A statement piece
The cabinet is a virtuosic display of craftsmanship. It is made of oak and pine that has been veneered with sheets and pieces of ebony, walnut, fruitwood, ivory and stained horn, creating a dazzling profusion of tulips, pinks, daffodils and other flowers with birds and butterflies. This technique is known as floral marquetry.
Master of marquetry
Prior to Jensen's arrival in London, floral marquetry of this type was a novelty, representing the epitome of what could be expected of a fashionable London cabinet-maker.
Indeed, floral marquetry was the speciality with which Jensen conquered the London scene, impressing aristocratic and royal clientele alike.
Paintings in wood
Jensen's use of a variety of woods, veneers and natural dyes give his furniture a vivid and naturalistic appearance, a striking parallel to the heightened realism achieved in Dutch flower painting of the same period.
The taste for lively floral designs on cabinets and table tops may in fact have derived from Dutch flower paintings, characterised by bouquets or large displays overflowing from vases and urns.
Indeed, cabinets from the late 17th-century with floral marquetry were sometimes known as paintings in wood.
Cabinet of curiosities
It is not entirely clear what role these cabinets fulfilled in 17th-century households. Some were fitted with elaborate locking mechanisms. The locks on this particular cabinet are of exceptional quality and beauty, the best that money could buy at the time. Locks performed an important function in keeping money, valuables and important documents secure at a time when domestic interiors provided very little privacy.
A statement piece of furniture such as this may have also been used to house collections of curiosities and small precious objects. Certainly, the Duchess of Lauderdale was a formidable collector and connoisseur, and this cabinet is one of many superbly made objects she acquired to impress visitors to Ham House.