Namban Lacquer Cabinet
height: 46cm, depth: 35.5cm, width: 64.5cm
This chest, made in Japan towards the end of the sixteenth century specifically for the Portuguese market, is an example of what is known as Namban lacquerware.
Pope Gregory XIII granted Portugal in 1580 exclusive rights to maritime trade east of the Red Sea to as far as seventeen degrees east of the Moluccas (in today’s eastern Indonesia). Japan thus became one of the new sources for exotic luxury goods that could be imported to Europe for profit. Lacquered chests and other objects inlaid with mother-of-pearl were acquired by the Portuguese from Gujarat in India but the superiority of Japanese mother-of-pearl inlaid lacquer was quickly noticed and so Japan became a new source to feed European demand.
The chests and other objects were lacquered in black (
urushi), decorated with gold and silver dust (maki-e) and then inlaid with pearl shell (raden). The items became known in Japan as namban, literally ‘southern barbarian’ but perhaps more appropriately translated as ‘exotic’, and was a reference to the Portuguese who commissioned the goods.
The growth in the Portugal-Japan trade was remarkable for it was only in 1542 or 1543 that the first Europeans visited Japan – three Portuguese sailors landed at Tanegashima after the Chinese junk in which they were sailing apparently was blown off course. The Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier arrived in 1549 (see
for an ivory image of Xavier.) The Jesuits made big, early inroads and were particularly successful at propagating Christianity in the south. It is likely that the first Namban lacquewares made for the Portuguese were in fact made for the Jesuits.
The cabinet here is larger than many extant examples.
The drop-down front of this example no longer is present. Several extant examples are known in museums and private collections where the fronts have been removed, see de Kesel & Dhont (2012, p. 14) for an illustration of one example. One possible reason is that they were removed deliberately by their owners even in past centuries because the interiors usually have a great deal more decorative value than the front that obscures the interior when closed.
The top, sides and front fall are decorated with gold and silver foliage interspersed with pearl shell against a black
urushi background. The top is decorated with what appears to be a tiger attacking a small herd of deer, adjacent to a small fenced garden and hut, with a pair of birds overhead, and surrounded by a thicket of foliage.
The sides are similarly decorated with scenes of traditional huts, birds and copious foliage.
There is a metal handle to each side and the external corners are fitted with (formerly) gilded and engraved copper mounts.
The fronts of the interior drawers are similarly decorated. Each drawer retains its original copper drawer pull. The sides and interior are decorated with black
The borders of each drawer as well as the interior sides of the cabinet itself are richly decorated with what is known as Namban scrollwork (Impey & Jorg, 2005).
The condition of this cabinet reflects its age. The drop-front has been removed and there are significant losses to the mother-of-pearl inlay.
Bennett, J., & A. Reigle Newland,
The Golden Journey: Japanese Art from Australian Collections, Art Gallery of South Australia, 2009.
, et al, Portugal and the World: In the 16th and 17th Centuries, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon, 2009.
Christie’s London, ‘Important Jesuit Lacquers and Japanese Works of Art from the Age of Western Influence’, November 19, 1985.
Clode Sousa, F.,
et al, Obras de Referencia dos Museum da Madeira, Instituto dos Museus e da Conservacao, 2009.
et al, Os Constructores do Oriente Portugues, Comissao Nacional para as Comemoracoes dos Descobrimentos Portugueses, 1998.
Impey, O., & C. Jorg,
Japanese Export Lacquer 1580-1850, Hotei Publishing, 2005.Museum of Christian Art, Rachol, Goa, 1993.
de Kesel, W., & G. Dhont,
Flemish 17th Century Lacquer Cabinets, Stichting Kunstboek, 2012.
Tilley, W.H., ‘Treasures from the Christian century’,
Arts of Asia, September-October 1986.
US art market
Inventory no.: 1800