17th/ 18th Century
Northern Elm (Yumu)
This cabinet is designed in the “four-sides-square” style, a common form of construction from the Shanxi province, an area known to source fine furniture in China. The front consists of a pair of flushed panel doors fitted with hidden pivot hinges, a broad panel below, and a narrow recessed apron with simple apron-heads. The lock-plate and pulls are original. The interior is fitted with a shelf with two compact red lacquered and gilded drawers. The bottom half of the interior compartment has a “hidden space” behind the bottom front panel, secured by a removable shelf.
The entire surface of this cabinet is covered with the T-fret or key-fret design, sometimes interpreted as the Swastika design, which is a very revered old Buddhist symbol known in ancient China as the footprint of Buddha, and here infers to unlimited richness. Floating on this motif are numerous gilt medallions adorned with traditional auspicious motifs. Represented are the flowers of the Four Seasons: the peony (spring), the lotus (summer), the chrysanthemum (autumn), and the pine (winter). These floral motifs sometimes combined to form in China what are known as The Three Friends: Pine (strength), Bamboo (uprightness, integrity, and faithfulness), and Plum Blossom (strength in adversity because it comes into blossom while snow is still on the ground); the Four Nobles: bamboo for faithfulness, plum blossom for strength, chrysanthemum for generosity, and orchid for modesty and hidden beauty. Also represented in the medallions are the phoenix (prosperity, charity, and beauty), the crane (longevity), the butterfly (longevity and happiness), a few of the Attributes of a Scholar (brush holder, vases, and incense burners), as well as some landscape scenes. Together, these motifs and symbols proclaim “riches and honor till eternity” to the recipients. All along the border of the cabinet are small paintings of butterflies and scrolling flowers, with the medicinal herb artemisia or yarrow, imposed on some of these flowers, meaning blissfulness.
This cabinet is finished with a fabric underlay on the red front and black frame-members surface before thick coats of lacquer was applied. This undercoating trend was applied to many pieces of Ming furniture and continued in Northern Shanxi well into the mid Qing period. With age, the lacquer tends to crack, revealing the linen undercoating, as can be seen on this cabinet. It is best not to attempt to fix the cracks, especially on red-lacquered wood as it is very difficult, if not impossible, to recreate the red color, which is from a natural pigment of cinnabar or vermilion. If the restorer is not familiar with Chinese lacquer and the new application is not right, resulting in a “finish” look, the integrity of the antique would be jeopardized and the piece devalued. The patina it shows can be achieved only through years of use and natural aging. The richness this cabinet exudes proclaims it a piece made for a family of status. It is quite safe to say such a beautifully decorated piece in such good condition is quite hard to find in the world today.