The Ince Blundell Amber Cabinet

Danzig, Late 17th Century

  • This item was purchased by Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool.

Inset with carved ivory plaques of mythological scenes and scrolling foliage, with the most unusual feature that all surfaces, within as well as without, are veneered with carved and engraved amber, the long drawer in the base containing eight square amber bottles with cork stoppers and brass ring handles, the centre with an oval ivory relief, the mica background to the relief with engraved signature ‘G Bullock'. Danzig, c. 1695-1700.

Height 18" (46cm).
Width 13½" (34cm).
Depth 9¾" (25cm).

Provenance :- The Ince Blundell Collection, Ince Blundell Hall, Lancashire, from at least the early years of the 19th Century, until 1959; By descent to the Weld family, Lulworth Castle, Dorset, until 1998.

This cabinet is listed in an 1841 inventory of the contents of Ince Blundell, which was prepared after the death of Charles Blundell (1761-1837), as ‘an Amber Cabinet with Ivory Ornaments and Medallions', and was valued at £12.12s. (a copy of this inventory is in the Lancashire County Record Office, Preston). It was also illustrated and mentioned by Christopher Hussey, in the last of three articles he wrote on Ince Blundell in 1958 before the collection was dispersed (Country Life, 24th April, 1958, fig. 3, p. 877, and p. 878.). The signature in the bottom drawer must be that of the sculptor and cabinet-maker George Bullock, and presumably records his restoration of the cabinet, which must mean that it was at Ince Blundell from at least the beginning of the 19th Century. Henry Blundell (1724-1810), who formed the celebrated collection of classical sculpture, now owned by the National Museums & Galleries on Merseyside, which was at his death the largest such collection in private ownership in Britain, was an important patron of Bullock. The frontispiece to the catalogue of the 1988 Bullock exhibition, George Bullock, Cabinet-Maker, shows the portrait by Joseph Allen of Bullock with his bust of Henry Blundell which is now in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, and the exhibition included this portrait, and the bust, and also a signed wax portrait relief of Henry Blundell (see nos. 57, 58, 59, pp. 129-131). Blundell's Bank Book records numerous payments to Bullock, and the relationship was clearly important to the young sculptor and cabinet-maker. A letter to Bullock from the painter Henry Fuseli about the purchase of a painting (ibid., p. 131), shows that Bullock acted as Blundell's agent, and the signature on this cabinet reveals another side to their relationship. Bullock is also known to have drawn up an inventory of the Ince Blundell Collection after Henry Blundell's death but a copy of this document, which might have thrown more light on the earlier history of this cabinet, is not known to survive. Therefore, it remains unknown whether Henry Blundell acquired this cabinet in England or on the Continent, or whether it had been inherited from his or his wife's family.

As far as is presently known, this is one of a group of four similar cabinets, the others being in the Kunstgewerbemuseum, Berlin, the Victoria & Albert Museum, and the Grünes Gewölbe, Dresden. Other related cabinets of this type, upright table cabinets with doors enclosing an arrangement of interior drawers (rather than the more often seen form of a rectangular tiered casket), are in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg (a larger, later cabinet); the Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum, Brunswick (a miniature cabinet-on-stand); Malbork Castle, Poland (a smaller cabinet, previously in the collection of King Stanislaw August Poniatowski of Poland); Gripsholm, Sweden; and Grönsöö, Sweden (a much smaller cabinet).

The cabinet can also be compared to other amber objects - caskets and tiered caskets, candlesticks, games boards, tankards and other vessels, house altars, and crucifixes - in the carving of the ivory plaques and in the recognised repertoire of decorative techniques that were used by the amber workers. These techniques include carving designs from behind the amber panels, painting scenes on foil over which amber panels were laid, using a combination of clear and cloudy amber panels to decorative effect, and carving scenes and motifs in relief in the amber itself, which is seen particularly on the sides of this cabinet. It may even be possible to suggest possible makers of this cabinet on the basis of these comparisons; it is certainly possible to say that it was made in Danzig rather than Königsberg, the other major centre of amber-working at this time, and that the amber workers and the ivory carvers who produced it were the same as those who worked on other known pieces. The ivory reliefs are very close to those of the cabinet in Berlin referred to above, which has recently been attributed to one of the makers of the celebrated Amber Room, Gottfried Turau, and this cabinet is also closely related to a casket in the Danish royal collections at Rosenborg Castle, Copenhagen, which is attributed to Gottfried Wolffram, one of the other makers of the Amber Room.

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