A wonderful old Shanxi armoire
My last post talked about my visit to one of the areas in Beijing where you can view and selected unrestored antique Chinese furniture, with hundreds of pieces from different regions stacked up in warehouses. There were two vast warehouses specialising in the beautiful painted furniture of Shanxi province (see Roger Schwendemann’s blog for a very good article on these pieces), and it is quite possible that the cabinet shown here passed through one of these warehouses at some time in its life, before going on to our supplier to be carefully restored and then shipped to the UK.
Most of the furniture that we ship dates from around the end of the 19th or beginning of the 20th century, as it is difficult now to source older pieces. However we do occasionally come across something that is alot older and this beautiful painted black lacquer cabinet is one such piece. At a conservative estimate this dates from the mid 18th century, but it is most likely older than that – possibly being made at the end of the Ming Dynasty around the mid 17th century.
While it can be notoriously difficult to accurately date Chinese furniture, there are often clues in the lacquer, hardware or paintings and this piece is a good example. The black lacquer here is clearly very thick, built up in several layers most likely over a fabric base to achieve the desired smooth, shiny finish. Where the lacquer is worn, the wood beneath is clearly aged – you can see particularly along the side frames and at the feet. There is also crackling visible in the lacquer – something that occurs naturally over time and, although not impossible, is very difficult to fake. The brass hardware on the doors would once have been bright but over the years has turned to the dull, blackened colour that you see here. Again a good indicator of age, this is clearly a result of oxidisation over time rather than any modern day chemicals.
Lastly the paintings in this case give a clear indication of the period that the cabinet was first made. Their original brightness has faded, muted through exposure to the elements, but in this case it is more what they depict that shows the cabinet’s age. The frames of the cabinet are decorated in gold with a scrolling dragon head design – a specific motif that was typical of furniture from the late Ming period but not used during the later Qing. Even more significantly, the characters depicted in the paintings on the front of the doors are all dressed in clothing typical of the late Ming period, rather than the later Qing. While this does not necessarily prove that the paintings were carried out in the earlier period, there is no reason why an artist during the Qing dynasty would have painted characters in Ming dress. The new dynasty, founded when the Manchus successfully expanded south into China and eventually sacked Beijing, quickly went about enforcing their regime – symbolised by the edict in 1645 that all Han Chinese should shave the front of their heads and wear their remaining hair in a ‘queue’ on pain of death. It would therefore make no sense for an artist in Shanxi to decorate a cabinet such as this with characters from the earlier dynasty if working under the Manchus.
Finding this piece on my last visit to China was a real highlight as good quality furniture from Shanxi province is becoming incresingly hard to find. It has been sympathetically restored by the highly skilled craftsmen at our antique supplier in Beijing and remains in a very original condition. For one lucky new owner it will represent not only a beautiful addition to the home but a little slice of Chinese history.