Writing Chest
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Writing Chest

São Roque

Date 2nd-half of the 16th century

Origin India, Gujarat

Medium Teak, Mother-of-pearl, Tortoiseshell, Mastic

Dimension 11.4 x 24.5 x 17.8 cm (4¹/₂ x 9⁵/₈ x 7 inches)

An extremely rare, and highly important Gujarati small writing chest with a flat projecting lid. Raised on four bracket-shaped feet, and made from teak (Tectona grandis), it features a front drawer, and is fitted inside, on the left, with a small compartment or nook, set with a hinged lid, used to store writing implements, while the front drawer would have been used for storing documents and paper. The wrought iron fittings include a square shaped escutcheon with its T-shaped hinged latch, with a column on either side, the rosettes on the lid securing the latch, the drawer puller, two L-shaped brackets securing the front and side, and side handles, all follow the typical wrought iron fittings used on pieces of furniture produced in late fifteenth and early sixteenth-century Europe.
Every exterior face, except for the back and the underside which are painted with red shellac (on the underside only traces remain), is covered with mother-of-pearl tesserae, made most probably from pearl oyster shells, and, given the golden sheen seen on some of the tesserae, is likely to be from Pinctada maxima oysters and also from the marine gastropod Turbo marmoratus, all pinned with brass. The mosaic decoration is both unusual and striking in its decorative and colour scheme, with the contrast between the whitish colour of the mother-of-pearl from pearl oyster, the dark tones of the tortoiseshell - probably from the hawksbill sea turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) - and the vibrant orange-red inlays, made from mastic mixed with pigment. The carpet-like decoration consists of simple rectangular frames of mother-of-pearl dotted with alternating red mastic and tortoiseshell lozenges, and a central fish scale pattern on the sides and the top, the lid featuring a round medallion with a Timurid-style rosette, which is a stylized lotus flower, over a tortoiseshell ground. The front, on the account of the drawer, is decorated with similar rectangular frames, while the field features two rectangular bands of stylised palmettos and rosettes over alternating dark tortoiseshell and red-orange mastic inlays.
The Indian origin of this mother-of-pearl production, namely from Khambhat and Surat in present-day state of Gujarat in western India, has been fully demonstrated during the last three decades, not only by documentary and literary evidence but also by the survival in situ of sixteenth-century wooden structures covered in mother-of-pearl tesserae. A fine example is the canopy decorating the tomb of the Sufi saint, Sheik Salim Chisti (1478-1572) in Fatehpur Sikri near to Agra in the state of Uttar Pradesh, India. This is an elaborate artistic production, geometric in character and Islamic in nature, where the mother-of-pearl tesserae are employed to form complex designs of fish scales or stylised lotus flowers. Made to Portuguese order for export to Europe, the first items made using this type of mother-of-pearl technique to arrive in Lisbon were destined for the royal court and the princely collections of the time, as is recorded in surviving inventories. The first documented pieces are to be found in the 1522 post-mortem inventory of the guarda-roupa of Manuel I of Portugal (r. 1495-1521).
While caskets of many different shapes, that have been made using mother-of-pearl technique from Gujarat are known, either featuring truncated pyramidal lids (with slopes on each side and a flat top) following local Islamic prototypes (their remote origins in Far Eastern boxes containing Buddhist texts), or prismatic lids with three sides copying European prototypes, or even slightly domed-shaped lids also of European origin, no other writing chest of this production is known. Nevertheless, the late medieval prototype used as a model for the present writing chest is very well-known, as it was used in the production of the earliest pieces of Asian furniture made for export to Europe. These include mid-sixteenth century lacquer coated small and medium-sized writing chest similarly fitted with drawers and inside nooks made in the Kingdom of Pegu (present-day Myanmar) specifically for the Portuguese market, and large storage chests or travelling trunks made in Portuguese-ruled Cochin (Kochi, in the state of Kerala) from the sixteenth century onwards.
In addition to its rarity, the most important aspect of the present writing chest is in the rich, well-preserved painted decoration on the inside of the lid, the floor of the interior well, and the floor of the drawer. The inside of the lid is decorated with a prince or ruler on horseback with two attendants, the one in front wielding a fan and the second, behind his master, carrying an umbrella; both emblems denoting royalty and thus suggesting the royal or princely character of the horseman. All three figures are dressed in the courtly attire of the Deccani sultanates: knee-length tunics fastened at the side and tight-fitting trousers and turban. Adapted to the more intimate space of the well, the painting on its floor depicts a courtly love scene, with a man and a woman sitting on a carpet engaged in conversation, the man similarly attired, and the woman wearing a sari and a very tight-fitting bodice or cholee, emphasising her breasts, thereby highlighting the amorous, sensual nature of the depiction. The floor of the drawer is decorated with a princely hunting scene, with the prince on horseback with a bow and arrow aiming at a fleeing chital (Axis axis), surrounded by other deer and large hares.
Heavily outlined, albeit gracefully, with all the figures in three-quarter profile and the background sprinkled with stylised flowers derived from Persian painting, the style of the depictions is reminiscent of Indian painting on paper as practised in less sophisticated courtly workshops in the Sultanate of Gujarat. Our decorative paintings share many similarities, for instance, with the well-known Indo-Portuguese album Codex Casanatense 1889 - a “costume and customs” book on the different Asian peoples encountered by the Portuguese -, which has recently been attributed to an artist trained in a Sultanate studio in the early sixteenth century, possibly in Mandu (Malwa) or Gujarat, and dated to the 1540s.
Furthermore, the decoration of the few surviving mother-of-pearl basins using the same type of Gujarati production technique as the present chest, namely those featuring a wooden core and which entered their princely collections during the sixteenth century, matches in technique, materials and iconography those used in our unique writing chest. While one example features only Timurid-style medallions and arabesque decoration on its underside (Kunst- und Wunderkammer Burg Trausnitz, Landshut, inv. R 1265), the other known basin (Grünes Gewölbe, Dresden, inv. IV 181), which had precious silver gilt mountings added to it ca. 1582-1589, features painted animals, namely hares and deer, strikingly similar to the ones depicted on our chest.

Date: 2nd-half of the 16th century

Origin: India, Gujarat

Medium: Teak, Mother-of-pearl, Tortoiseshell, Mastic

Dimension: 11.4 x 24.5 x 17.8 cm (4¹/₂ x 9⁵/₈ x 7 inches)

Provenance: Private collection, England


‘Índia in Portugal — Um Tempo de Confluências Artísticas’, Museu N. de Soares dos Reis, Oporto 2021 (cat. cover and no. 26)

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Fine Furniture, Silver, Portuguese Tiles and Ceramics, Arts of the Portuguese Expansion, Chinese Porcelain, Fine Arts

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