This beautiful table cabinet at Francesca Galloway‘s stand was my favourite piece on display at Frieze Masters. It was made for the Portuguese market in Ceylon (modern day Sri Lanka), in the late sixteenth or early seventeenth centuries. It is covered with layers of gold leaf and tortoiseshell, topped with carved ivory panels and silver mounts for great opulent effect. Decadent and exotic, it combines rare and wondrous materials with exquisite craftsmanship to create a piece worthy of any kunstkammer or cabinet of curiosities.
The Portuguese were the first Europeans to initiate maritime trade with Asia, following the success of Vasco de Gama, who navigated the Cape of Good Hope to arrive in 1498. Although they bought some decorative objects back to Europe, they were mainly interested in the lucrative spice trade. As such, the pieces that they did import were costly luxuries of the highest quality, available only in a handful of shops in Lisbon, and purchased by wealthy and often scholarly collectors. It was only later in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that the Dutch and English started importing larger quantities of Asian goods, bringing items such as porcelain and chintz to the middle class market – a development that would lead ultimately to the cheap consumer goods imported from China and India today. When this cabinet was made, around 1600, these changes to Eurasian trade were just beginning – the Dutch were sending their first ships to Asia, hoping to challenge the Portuguese monopoly. The idea of Asia was still intensely romantic and glamorous, and pieces like this cabinet, shrouded in the mystique of the East, were highly desirable.
Despite these exotic associations, the cabinet also alludes to European decorative tradition, as it was around this period that this form of table cabinet became popular. They were often used to store exotic or unusual items – in Augsburg, a centre of cabinet making, Philip Hainhofer sold cabinets already filled with curious and collectible items. A cabinet such as this one, already a wonder in itself, would have been perfect for this – a most curious cabinet of curiosities!