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Cola Ma, Hong Kong, acquired in 1994
A MONUMENTAL PAIR OF HUANGHUALI 'SINGLE-PANEL DOORS' COMPOUND CABINETS
This magnificent pair of compound cabinets, sijiangui, ‘four-part wardrobe’ or dingxiang ligui, ‘top cupboard and upright wardrobe’, represents the finest quality of 17th century Chinese cabinetry. Compound cabinets are generally made in pairs, each comprising a large square-corner cabinet below a slightly smaller upper cabinet, which is specifically designed this way to secure support at the bottom. These cabinets were most likely have been exclusively made for the wealthiest and the most prominent families to define their interior living spaces.
This present pair is most desirable for their monumental single-panel doors. These single panels are cut from the same timber, and are matched in mirror opposites to achieve symmetrical balance. Wood materials of darker grain are deliberately utilised in the aprons, stretchers beneath the doors and frames, to create a sharp contrast against the lighter-grained door panels, highlighting the beauty of the huanghuali material. The formidable size of these cabinets, paired with a restrained design, create a subtle opulence that enhances their overall grandeur.
Another quality that adds charm to the present cabinets is their elegant proportions. The sizes of the metal lock plates and hinges are carefully calculated to maintain balance and harmony. The upper cabinets measure about one third the height of the bottom cabinets, and are placed at the top so that ladders are required to reach them, and understandably would have been used to store out-of-season clothing or infrequently used items. Although the upper cabinets are of separate construction, their unfinished undersides suggest that they were an integral part of the design and were never meant to serve as independent pieces of furniture.
Fig. 1 shows the top of one of the hat chests, covered by a lacquer surface with crackling that is characteristic of the period, partially revealing the linen and ash lining underneath.
In ancient times, robes were never hung vertically, but were folded and laid flat in chests or shelves. It is not unusual to find cabinets constructed partially or entirely from camphor wood, for its ability to repel insects. Huanghuali wood also has a distinctive honey-like, mellifluous fragrant scent which acts as insect repellent. However its smell is notably more subtle and soothing than camphor. This feature may have provided an additional reason why this was so much more sought after by members of the upper echelons. The generous proportions of large huanghuali cabinets made them ideal for the storage of long scrolls, bolts of fabric, garments, and books.
It was common practice to place the cabinets against opposite walls, such as the pair displayed in the Astor Garden Court at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; or to place them side by side, separated in-between by a smaller piece of furniture, such as the pair of ornately carved compound cabinets displayed in the Palace Museum, illustrated in Furniture of the Ming and Qing Dynasties (III), The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, Shanghai, 2002, p. 296, pl. 249 (fig. 2).
This extraordinary pair is the only example of this size and design that is luxuriously constructed with doors of single panels of huanghuali. A pair of huanghuali compound cabinets of almost identical design, but not of single-panel doors, from the Mimi and Raymond Hung Collection, is illustrated by R.H. Ellsworth et. al., Chinese Furniture: One Hundred Examples from the Mimi and Raymond Hung Collection, Vol. 1, New York, 1996, p. 188, no. 73, and later sold at Christie’s New York, 19th-20 September 2013, lot 1566 (fig. 3). Another very similar pair from the collection of Madame Henri Vetch, also not of single-panel doors, was illustrated in Gustav Ecke’s Chinese Domestic Furniture, Hong Kong, 1978, pl. 101, p. 125.
Compare with other pairs of cabinets decorated with plain aprons of various sizes and dating, such as a pair of cabinets with lock plates of similar design from the Frederic Mueller Collection, published by Robert Hatfield Ellsworth, Chinese Furniture: Hardwood Examples of the Ming and Ch’ing Dynasties, New York, 1970, pl. 130, (later sold at Christie’s New York, 27 November 1991, lot 237) (fig. 4); and a huanghuali-veneered pair, ibid., pl. 132. Also see two pairs of veneered cabinets from the Reverend Richard Fabian Collection, sold at Sotheby’s New York, 15 March 2016, lot 42; one pair previously in the Dr. S.Y. Yip Collection is illustrated in Grace Wu Bruce, Dreams of Chu Tan Chamber and Romance with Huanghuali Wood: The Dr. S.Y. Yip Collection of Classic Chinese Furniture, Hong Kong, 1991, p.119, no. 46, and sold at Christie’s New York, 20 September 2002, lot 60.
Related examples with more elaborate metal hardware and carved elements include a pair from the Museum of Classical Chinese Furniture Collection, sold at Christie’s New York, 19 September 1996, lot 30; and the aforementioned pair displayed in the Astor Garden Court at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.