17th Century Court Cabinet

Nationality of Designer
Manufacturers Location
176.8 x 139.2 x 57.6 cm
Purchase Price


Renaissance cabinet with carved front panels


Sold at Brantwood in 1933. 


Central cupboard doors removed and used for hatch in the Warden's Cottage at Lawson Park. Sections have been replaced and refurnished in the mid 20th century. Some panels, although they are themselves 17th century, are not original to the cabinet. 

Why it's in the Collection

There are several interrelated reasons this cabinet is in the Lawson Park collection. It was, first of all, in the collection of Brantwood. Although it is unclear whether it was bought or owned by Ruskin himself, the cabinet was sold along with much of the house's contents 1933 following W.G. Collingwood's death in 1932 and the breakdown of the direct Ruskinian presence in Coniston. It is possible the renovations made to the cabinet's structure were carried out in preparation for its sale at this time. 

Such renovation also justifies the cabinet's presence in the collection. It is a hybrid of different periods, all imitating the original 17th century style, masquerading behind partly authentic features. The upper frieze, inscribed 'AD 1650 FTA', is authentic as are several other areas of woodwork. However, sections including the shelf, door-frames, and upper moulding are much more recent replacements. With a substantial piece of furniture built to last like this cabinet, maintenance and edits to the original object would have been anticipated; it would have evolved in a symbiotic relationship with the house of which it was a part. This is literally true as court cabinets were often built into a room's panelling and when extracted would have had backboards replaced. Questions of authenticity and originality seem either uncertain or even irrelevant when faced with such an object, and it is not uncommon for similar large furniture like this cabinet to have been heavily restored in or since the Victorian period (the V&A's collection contains several examples). In this case, little attempt has been made to disguise the renovations.  

Originality was a key concern for craftsmen who were part of the Arts and Crafts movement. The skilful construction and quality of carving found in antique furniture of the medieval and Renaissance period inspired William Morris and Ruskin to endorse a return to earlier principles of design and non-industrial methods. Court cabinets were used as models and their carving emulated as vestiges of an idealised age when the craftsman found pleasure and fulfilment in pre-industrial hand-wrought work that provided control over the conditions of his labour. What resulted were not so much copies as 19th century variants, adaptations on the original. 

About the Designer/Maker

The designer and craftsman of this cabinet is unknown. In the 17th century court cabinets were high-value objects, owned only by wealthy households. Cupboards (as their name suggests) had only evolved from open plank shelves to enclosed spaces with doors as recently as the mid 16th century. Suddenly cabinets developed with a facade that could hold decoration. Whereas early Renaissance furniture in Britain remained simple and essentially medieval in its ornamentation, as the period progressed Italianate finials or Romayne work (the carving of medallions featuring human or grotesque heads) came to dominate finer, more self-consciously sophisticated furniture that wished to display its owner's appreciation of continental culture. Designs for medallions, scrolling, strapwork and foliate decoration would have travelled in the form of engravings easily printed and transported across the continent and into Britain.

Large cabinets were used to store or display expensive plateware as well as other eating and drinking utensils and, in certain cases, broken meat to be distributed as alms to the poor. The increase in mercantile culture under Elizabeth's rule led to an expansion of a propertied class and significant steps toward greater luxuries. Wealth triggered renovation of old houses and the building and furnishing of new ones. Court cabinets, as objects central to the daily life of a well-off household, became more commonplace, and designers and craftsmen more professionalised in their manufacture.