V&A Online Journal
Issue No. 6 Summer 2014
The Cabinet with the Letter: Luxury and Poverty in 18th-Century Würzburg
Graduate, V&A/RCA History of Design MA
The letter hidden inside the writing cabinet made by the journeymen Jacob Arend and Johannes Wittalm paints a rather bleak picture, as revealed in Katrin Seyler’s article in this issue of the V&A Online Journal.(1) Faced with food shortages and the impact of war, the makers turned first to drink, and then sought to leave Würzburg, their place of employ, altogether. Yet in contrast to this sombre note, the cabinet itself embodies both luxury and extravagance (figs. 1 and 2). All the surfaces, including doors and drawers are curved, whilst marquetry in a whole range of materials has been used to decorate the piece from almost top to bottom. Curtained doors, flowers, birds, lanterns and even the gallery of a house, complete with balustrade, are all featured in this elaborate marquetry (fig. 3). The upper set of doors, meanwhile, are inlaid with the arms of Von Holach, the title taken by the first owner of this cabinet, Johannes Gallus Jacob (although at the time of completion, 1716, Gallus Jacob had not yet been ennobled) (fig. 4).(2) Despite their differences however, like the letter, this writing cabinet tells us a great deal about the men who made it, and the wider cultural contexts within which they worked.
Where might these skills have been acquired? In the letter, Arend notes that he originated from Koblenz. A little under halfway between Koblenz and Würzburg lies Mainz. In his article on the cabinet, Ian Caldwell suggests that it is likely that Arend passed through Mainz on his way to Würzburg. If so, this can offer some suggestions regarding Arend’s training. Mainz was renowned for its cabinet-makers, and the Joiners’ Guild regulations in particular required members to produce a cabinet as their masterpiece.(5) It is possible, then, that it was here that Arend honed his skills. Indeed, the Schloss Fasanerie museum in Fulda has two other cabinets attributed to Jacob Arend, which further demonstrate that he had acquired notable skill in cabinet-making and the application of marquetry.(6)
Meanwhile, the sheer range of materials used in this piece reveals the wider contexts of trade in this period. The carcase of the cabinet is made from pine, whilst the marquetry contains turtle shell, horn, brass, pewter, ivory and a variety of woods including walnut, sycamore, boxwood and tulipwood. The mounts are in lacquered brass and the drawers lined with embossed paper (figs. 6 and 7). Whilst the woods might come from closer to home, the more exotic materials were sourced from further afield. Turtles were found in the seas around Africa, Asia and America, whilst ivory might come from Ethiopia, Guinea, or the coast near Zanzibar.(7) Not only did the use of so many different types of material indicate the cost of the piece, and thus prestige of the owner, but it also bears testament to the wider trade networks operating in the 18th century.(8)
I am grateful to Sarah Medlam and the Furniture, Textiles and Fashion Department at the V&A for their help in the preparation of this article. Special thanks to the editor for her feedback and assistance throughout.
1. Writing cabinet, Jacob Arend and Johannes Wittalm; workshop of Servatius Arend, 1716. Museum no. W.23:1 to 41-1975.
2. Peter Thornton, ‘A Cabinet for a Würzburg Patron’, Apollo vol. LXXXIX (1969): 451.
3. Peter Hughes and Paul Tear, Sources & Techniques of Boulle Marquetry (London: The Wallace Collection, 1996), no pagination, f. 12–13.
4. Christopher Wilk, Western Furniture 1350 to the Present Day (London: V&A Publications, 1996), 84.
5. Ian Caldwell, ‘A Cabinet for Gallus Jacob’, The Antique Collector 2 (1985):52; Thornton, ‘A Cabinet for a Würzburg Patron’, 453.
6. Heinrich Kreisel, Die Kunst des Deutschen Möbels (Munich: Verlag C.H. Beck, 1970), vol.II, 276, 641.
7. Hughes and Tear, Sources & Techniques of Boulle Marquetry, no pagination, f. 13–14.
8. On 18th-century luxury goods, see: Dena Goodman, ‘Furnishing Discourses: Readings of a Writing Desk in Eighteenth-Century France’, in Luxury in the Eighteenth Century: Debates, Desires and Delectable Goods, ed. by Maxine Berg and Elizabeth Eger (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002), 71–82; and Michael North, ‘Material Delight and the Joy of Living’: Cultural Consumption in the Age of Enlightenment in Germany (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008).
9. Wilk, Western Furniture 1350 to the Present Day, 84.
10. Kreisel, Die Kunst des Deutschen Möbels, vol.II, 90–1.
11. Thornton, ‘A Cabinet for a Würzburg Patron’, 452.
12. Wilk, Western Furniture 1350 to the Present Day, 84.