Today we are sharing another spotlight from our summer exhibition, The Age of Walnut.
This superb George I burr walnut bureau cabinet is attributed to the Master of the Portuguese Royal Cabinets. The cabinet is veneered in the finest quality walnut throughout, with a serpentine cresting and cavetto cornice enclosing a shaped inset cartouche with carved interlaced C-scrolls. The cabinet features a pair of arched mirrored doors enclosing a fitted interior of pigeonholes and shelves, and the bureau section encloses a fitted interior of drawers and a cross and feather-banded writing-flat, standing above four short and two long drawers and on shaped bracket feet.
The cabinet features a label in the upper left drawer: ‘Purchased from / J.H. Gillingham South Kensington / At the / Antique Dealers’ Fair / Grosvenor House W.1. / 1936.’
The Master of the Royal Portuguese Cabinets
There is a small number of bureau cabinets of similar form and design, decorated in either walnut or japanning, that are traditionally attributed to the ‘Master of the Royal Portuguese Cabinets.’ The group is made up of:
- The present example
- A walnut bureau cabinet sold by Sir Thomas Beevor, Bt., Christie’s London, 14 June 2001, lot 150.
- A walnut bureau cabinet, advertised by M. Turpin in Connoisseur, June 1969.
- The pair of gilt-gesso bureau cabinets, one with Mackinnon in 2017, made for the Portuguese Royal court.
- A George I black and gilt-japanned bureau cabinet sold Christie’s London, 23 November 2006, lot 100.
- A red and gilt-japanned bureau cabinet formerly at Schloss Pillnitz, Dresden.
- A red and gilt-japanned bureau cabinet in the Gerstenfeld Collection.
- A red and gilt-japanned bureau cabinet sold Christies, Madrid, 1974 and with Mallett, London in 1978.
Although a definitive link with a known cabinet-maker has proven inconclusive so far, one of the likely candidates is Peter Miller of St Mary-le-Savoy. Miller’s name and workshop was only discovered in 1996, when Christopher Gilbert illustrated a magnificent walnut bureau cabinet in his publication Marked London Furniture 1700-1840. This bureau cabinet features Peter Miller’s label hidden behind the small central mirror, which reads: ‘Peter Miller Cabenet Macker in the Savoy in London the 13 June Ao 1724.’ It is thought that the cabinet was made for export to Spain given additional inscriptions in Spanish as well as its provenance in Barcelona.
Miller has come to be regarded as a cabinet-maker of exceptional skill and ability, however there are very few records of his activities, partially due to his workshop’s location on the west side of the Savoy, which was outside the City of London and its associated regulations. One of the few records is a notice on 28 May 1715 by Peter Miller, described as being ‘about fifty years’ in age stating his intention to marry Ann Klug (or Clark). His will, dated 17 September 1729, describes Miller as a ‘Cabinet Maker.’ He left his ‘Trade and Business of Cabinet Making’ to John Miller, who was recorded as working at Fountain Court on the west side of the Savoy.
The Master of the Portuguese Royal Cabinets may also have a connection with one of Miller’s neighbours on the Strand, the renowned cabinet-maker James Moore and his partner John Gumley. Moore and Gumley, who received Royal patronage from George I, specialized in both gilt gesso furniture as well as looking glasses. Gumley’s firm advertised its wares for export in a 1714 notice for ‘the Quality, Gentry and Merchants for Exportation’ to acquire his looking glasses of the ‘Newest Fashions.’
It is believed that Moore and Gumley collaborated on an exceptional commission for the Portuguese Royal Court, which gives the Master of the Portuguese Royal Cabinets its name, including a pair of bureau cabinets decorated entirely in gilt gesso, mentioned previously, that share a similar form with the present cabinet.
In addition to the fine burr walnut veneers used throughout, this cabinet features elaborate engraved brass lock-plates. The inspiration for this abstracted foliate decoration derives from Continental sources from the middle to the end of the 17th century. Jean Le Pautre, a French designer who published a series of ornamental engravings, is a likely source for the lock-plate’s design. Like his contemporaries Daniel Marot and François de Cuvillies, Le Pautre travelled widely in Europe where his designs would serve to influence local craftsmen. Back in England, seeing the increasing demand for these Baroque designs from the Continent, a printseller named Thomas Bowles compiled a series of these sources in 1729 into a suite of prints entitled A Compleat Book of Ornaments,… Invented and Drawn by some of the best Artists. Virtually identical lock-plates also appear on the Portuguese gilt gesso bureau cabinets, as well as the walnut bureau cabinet attributed to Peter Miller from the collection of Sir Thomas Beevor, Bt. Each cabinet’s lock-plate features similar scrolled Roman acanthus and laurel foliage and a central figure: one with wings, another blowing a conch shell, and the present cabinet with a triton accompanied by a bird.
Peter Miller & Russia
There is an interesting connection between Miller’s workshop and Russia. Peter the Great of Russia had grand ambitions to develop a new capital in St. Petersburg as one of the great European cities. He sent a group of twenty-four apprentices to London in 1717 with the goal of improving Russian knowledge of art and architecture. Nine of these apprentices were sent specifically to study under furniture-makers, including ‘joinery and decoration of houses’ and ‘cabinet work.’ One of these travelling apprentices was Feder Martynov, who set up a thriving furniture business upon his return to Russia. Three of his drawings of cabinets prepared for Empress Anna Iovannovna survive in the Russian archives. The first cabinet, which was the one ultimately selected by the Empress, features striking similarities with the present bureau. Like this piece, Martynov also created his bureau in walnut ‘of handsome burr.’
Given the similarity of Martynov’s drawing and the cabinets attributed to Miller, it is highly possible that Martynov received training from him during his time in London. As Miller’s workshop was located outside the City of London and therefore outside of the restrictions of the London Livery Companies, he was free to provide this type of training to the visiting apprentice.