A wonderful walnut sideboard from Gansu
With the Chinese New Year holiday upon us, everything has now stopped for a few weeks at the workshops in Shanghai and Beijing. Most of the craftsmen that produce our furniture or restore our antique pieces are originally from parts of China far removed from the cities, and for most the ‘Spring Festival’ holiday is the one chance they get during the year to get home and spend a good deal of time with their families. There is a huge exodus from Beijing and Shanghai as millions make the journey back to their hometowns.
This means that things are also on hold for us for a week or two in terms of finalising designs and costings for ‘made to order’ furniture or sourcing Chinese antiques for our next container. However we have already put together a good two thirds of the antique pieces that we will ship next time, provisionally at the end of March, and there are a few that we lined up just before the holdiay that are real stand out pieces for me.
One of these is a beautiful large sideboard that originates from Gansu in western China, close to the Tibetan plateau. Gansu is well known for two distinct types of furniture. The first is similar to furniture from neighbouring Mongolia and Qinghai and originates from the eastern part of the province. Usually made from pine or fir wood, these pieces are quite rudimentary but brightly decorated with paintings, most commonly of flowers.
The second style was more prevelant in the more mountainous western part of Gansu. In this area walnut trees were abundant and were one of the most popular materials for furniture making. Being a more prized type of wood, the walnut timbers were not painted but instead were finished with a clear lacquer that showed off its beautiful, rich tone. Designs tended to be quite simple, with minimal decoration other than the hardware and in some cases some carving. One other typical feature was the unusual mini cabriole shaped feet that are almost always seen on these pieces – referred to as ‘deer shaped’. This regional style is one of my personal favourites as the material is so pleasing to the eye and to the touch, while the clean lines of the designs mean that they look perfectly at home in a modern environment.
The sideboard in this instance is a great example of the style. Around 150 years old, it has all the typical features, from the thick extended ‘slab’ top to the delicate ‘deer shaped’ feet, as well as the simple carved spandrels that taper down to the floor. It would have been used originally to store clothing, documents and probably family valuables – the drawers would once have been fitted with lock plates, and there are clearly visible circular marks at the bottom of the drawers where these were fixed in place. The outer doors either side of the two central doors were originally fixed panels, but have been converted more recently to give easier access to the space inside. Best of all is the wonderful richness and warm tones of the walnut wood– beautifully preserved and full of character.
Unlike many similar pieces that are cut down in depth to make them more practical for a modern home, the cabinet is still in its original, imposing proportions. At over two metres wide and over half a metre deep it does need a large space to house it, but it would be difficult to find a more handsome example of Gansu’s wonderful walnut furniture.