Friday Finds: A Look Back at the Archives

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Detail from the George I scarlet japanned mule chest, Mackinnon Fine Furniture Collection

We are continuing our tradition of Friday Finds with a look back at the archives – today, we are exploring the history of the George I scarlet japanned mule chest in our collection. Antique furniture is not only defined by its age–it is also reflective of its cultural and social history.  A perfect example is the scarlet japanned chest, which came to us with an interesting document regarding its past.

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A George I scarlet japanned mule chest, Mackinnon Fine Furniture 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).

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.

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Lemuel Francis Abbott (1760-1802) portrait of Rear-Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson, 1758-1805, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Greenwich Hospital Collection

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.’

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The document from 1925 accompanying the japanned trunk in the Mackinnon Fine Furniture collection asserting the connection to Lord Nelson.

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