Box of mysteries

Complex and ongoing examination is gradually revealing the secrets of a 17th-century Colombian cabinet – the first of its kind to enter the V&A's collections.

Cabinet, 1625 – 1675, Colombia. Museum no. W.5-2015. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Early furniture tends to conform to well-known types, so it was an exciting challenge to examine a small cabinet, offered to the Museum in 2015, that was quite unlike anything else in the V&A's collection.

Covering every surface, inside and out, is a dense scheme of fantastic plants and animals surrounding Latin emblems which uphold the idea of virtue. Even more intriguing is the technique used for decoration – coloured sheets have been intricately cut and applied to the surface to resemble a smooth lacquer.

The cabinet had appeared some 60 years ago 'from nowhere' – a treasured but mysterious gift to its former owner Philip MacLeod Coupe – and served for many years as his sewing box. So, what is this strange cabinet? Wide-ranging research into colonial woodwork, and the generous assistance of international colleagues pointed to a type of Iberian American 'lacquer' called barniz de Pasto (Pasto varnish, after the Colombian city most closely associated with the technique). The identification was finally confirmed using FTIR analysis (fourier transform infrared spectroscopy) on the resinous surface by the V&A's Conservation Science department. The cabinet is the first known example of barniz de Pasto in a UK museum.

Cabinet, 1625 – 1675, Colombia. Museum no. W.5-2015. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Before the arrival of the Spanish in the Americas, a similar decorative technique had been used to decorate Inca wood cups traditionally used at ceremonial feasts in the Andes. From about 1600 it was applied to a wide variety of secular and religious European object types including small chests, trays and picture frames. Barniz de Pasto displays a hybrid style of decoration that mixes indigenous and European motifs with others probably derived from the luxury Asian textiles traded on galleons to the Spanish colonies through Manila – many of which were intended as prestigious gifts or commodities for the European market. Because they represent a meeting of three continents and cultures, barniz artefacts have been described as "some of the first works of a globalized world" (Jorge F. Rivas). Contemporary chroniclers claimed that they rivalled the finest Asian lacquers for the beauty, shine, and durability of their colours.

By 1801 the German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt (1769 – 1859) reported that there were 80 barnizadores in Pasto; he also identified many of the colorants used. There are various styles of barniz decoration, though as yet no clear chronology has been established. The intricacy of the V&A's cabinet, and the distinctive use of emblems suggest that it belongs to the early phase of production.

Cabinet (detail), 1625 – 1675, Colombia. Museum no. W.5-2015. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

If the decorative style of barniz is striking, the technique is fascinating, and quite different from East Asian lacquer. The principal ingredient is mopa mopa, a translucent green resin obtained from the leaf buds of a tree (Elaeagia pastoensis Mora) that grows in the mountainous tropical rain forests of southwest Colombia. After the removal of impurities, the gum was boiled in water and chewed to make it sufficiently elastic, with mineral colorants added through kneading or chewing (apparently the resin tastes like artichoke). Artisans would stretch the mopa mopa into thin sheets resembling clingfilm by pulling it, using their hands and teeth. The varied shapes needed for the decorative designs were cut out and applied to the heated wood surface, with inserts of different colours. Delicate twisted threads added fine detail, while cross-hatching created shading effects. Once cooled, the bond was permanent, and like lacquer, the surface durable, waterproof and impervious to most organic solvents.

Cabinet (detail), 1625 – 1675, Colombia. Museum no. W.5-2015. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The particular techniques applied to create the vibrant decoration on the V&A’s cabinet are now partially concealed beneath a later layer of discoloured varnish. In order to understand these mysteries, and to remove the varnish without disturbing the original barniz surface, V&A conservators will be gently analysing and probing the layers over the coming months, work that has been generously supported by Jorge Welsh Works of Art, London – Lisbon.

Find out about the latest analysis and conservation treatment of the cabinet, as a surface layer of paint is removed to reveal the original Barniz de Pasto scheme.