Antique furniture is not only defined by its age–it is also reflective of its cultural and social history. A perfect case in point of this principle is the scarlet japanned mule chest in our collection.
This extremely rare and fine George I period scarlet japanned chest has a lifting top decorated with various scenes of oriental figures in landscapes. The front, similarly decorated, depicts with islands, bridges and fishing boats with an elaborate chased central escutcheon plate over two short and one long drawer similarly decorated and retaining their original brass handles and escutcheons. The sides are decorated with sprigs of flowers and with original engraved lifting handles. The whole is raised on four turned bun feet. This chest is a wonderful and very rare piece of furniture.
The history of the mule chest goes back to the seventeenth century. The simplest form of these chests is the blanket chest, a large wooden box with a hinged lid. Blanket chests were used to store clothing, blankets, and other linens to keep the pieces dry and conveniently organised. The form derived from the elaborate European caskets and coffers that were used to hold family treasures securely.
The mule chest developed out of this simple form with additional drawers at the base of the chest that was meant to hold slippers, which were called ‘mules’ in the seventeenth century. (There is another theory that the term mule chest originates with the ‘mules’, or transporters of prohibited goods, who would use the secret drawers in these chests to smuggle their wares).
Japanning is the term for the European version of lacquer, which was imported from Asian decorative art techniques. John Stalker and George Parker were responsible for publishing the earliest book in English on the subject of European lacquer in 1688 entitled A Treatise of Japanning and Varnishing. This influential publication offered recipes, technical advice, and ‘above an Hundred distinct Patterns for Japan-work in Imitation of the Indians, for Tables, Stands, Frames, Cabinets, Boxes, &c.’
In the treatise they explain that the high gloss finish of lacquer has such an effect that ‘no amorous Nymph need entertain dialogue with her glass or Narcissus retire to a fountain.’ The publication listed eight possible ground colours for lacquer furniture, including scarlet red.
Japanned work had several advantages over imported genuine lacquer pieces as it was often less expensive and provided an opportunity to create designs that conformed to European taste and fashion. Nevertheless japanning was still a costly process and these objects tended to found in only the wealthiest households.
This mule chest comes, by repute, from the collection of Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson (1758-1805). Lord Nelson was a British officer in the Royal Navy that led Britain to a number of historic victories during the Napoleonic Wars.
Along with a receipt for this chest from 1925, there is an attached document that reads:
‘This is to state that the Red Lacquer Chest in question was purchased by us from a descendant of Lord Nelson, to whom it formerly belonged.’
To learn more about Nelson and art associated with his life and legacy, have a look through the collections at these museums:
Royal Museums Greenwich: http://www.rmg.co.uk
The Nelson Museum: https://www.nelson-museum.co.uk