9710 A RARE AMBOYNA AND EBONY BUREAU CABINET FROM THE CIRCLE OF PETER MILLER Anglo-German. Circa 1720. Measurements: Height: 8′ 1/2″ (2.45 m); Width [closed]: 43″ (1.09 m); Depth: 25″ (64 cm).
Of amboyna, ebony and kingwood. The shaped, molded ebony cornice rising to a pinnacle set with three turned finials. Below the central finial is an incurved lozenge-shaped panel containing an original engraved and beveled glass panel. The pair of domed doors containing old, but not original, conforming mirror plates, flanked and centered by protruding pilasters. The doors open to reveal a fully fitted interior with columns of drawers mounted with later brass handles and centered by a pair of central cupboard doors flanked by columnar bible boxes headed by turned finials. The midsection is centered by a domed door with an old, but later, conforming beveled plate flanked by two doors, which are in turn flanked by projecting corbels. The bureau section with inlaid fall, which opens to reveal a fitted interior, the drawers of which are mounted with later brass knobs. The fall above a frieze conceived as a well. The three long drawers of inverted breakfront pattern are set with old, but later, oval brass drop handles and escutcheons. The whole raised on six bulbous ebonized bun feet.
Private collection, Camarillo, California.
The design of the present bureau cabinet closely relates to another piece, now in a private collection, which is signed behind the central lower mirror panel Peter Miller Cabenet Macker in the Savoy in London the 13 June A[nn]o 1724 (figure 2). The similarities between the present piece and its signed counterpart are so exact as to suggest that both must be attributable to the same designer. However, it is interesting to note that while Miller’s signed cabinet is unequivocally English in materials and construction, the woods and mode of manufacture used on the present cabinet suggest it was almost certainly made in northwest Germany. Certain of its decorative details also support a Continental origin; it extensively features ebony moldings, rarely seen in England at this date, and its pilasters are supported by “smooth” Germanic-style inlaid corbels that are distinct from the typically English foliate carvings on the corbels of the signed example. Furthermore, the feet of the “English” Miller cabinet have a lightness of appearance, in line with other English turned-foot profiles, whilst the feet on the present piece have a “weight” more typically associated with German examples. These design elements also seem to indicate that the present model is of an earlier date than its English counterpart, which adds considerable interest to the piece and leads to some fascinating conclusions on its origin, maker and the international nature of the cabinet making industry in early eighteenth century London.
While no records of Peter Miller’s early years and training have yet come to light, some documents relating to his life and career in London have been preserved. A marriage allegation dated 28 May 1715 announced the intention of Peter Miller, of the Parish of St Mary le Savoy, to marry Anne Klug (or Clark) of the nearby parish of St Martin-in-the-Fields. He was then about fifty years old. It appears that Miller shared a workshop and possibly a house with a relative, John Miller, who was also a cabinet-maker. On 17th April 1723 he took out a Sun Insurance policy for £500 on goods and merchandise in his home.1 When Peter died in October 1729 he was far from rich, having little but his workshop and tools to leave to his two young daughters. This picture is at odds with his peerless furniture, which is undoubtedly among the finest produced in London during this period.
A third example of the present model was bought in 1957 with the assistance of the National Art Collections Fund for the Red Lodge Museum in Bristol England. This, like the signed piece, is English in its materials and construction. A fourth, sold at Christie’s, London in 1974, is closely related to the present example and therefore assumed also to have been made on the Continent. All four have the distinctive three-part design lower case with central niche and baroque cornice with central mirror.
The most likely explanation for the parallels between the work of Peter Miller in London and pieces apparently manufactured on the Continent is that Miller produced them in his country of birth, probably Germany, prior to his establishment in England, and it is very possible that Peter Miller may have in fact been Peter Müller. A review of the Dictionary of English Furniture Makers for foreign names offers up several French makers, but few Germans, a discrepancy that furniture historians have long suspected may be due to the tendency of such makers to anglicize their names.2 Examples of this include Henry Deickard, re-named Deckard, who was in 1713-14 recorded in the parish of St. Martins in the Fields as cabinet maker; and Heinrich Steinfeldt, renamed Steinfield, who was a “German cabinet maker” in Warwick Street Golden Square. It is clear that there were many Germans involved in the trade at this time, including the upholder Nathaniel Spindler who was in Bread Street from 1703 to 1717 and Joachim Falck who is recorded as a joiner in Southwark in 1727.3
The location of his business in the Savoy, London, may further support the theory of Miller’s likely German origin. The Manor and Liberty of the Savoy, established in 1284, encompassed the area between the Strand and the River Thames, part of which is now occupied by the Savoy Hotel. Its residents enjoyed numerous privileges not granted to other citizens of London, and Miller may have chosen to live here for religious purposes. The Savoy was an area in which disestablished religious organizations were permitted. In the 1680s, Huguenots fleeing persecution in France set up a congregation within its bounds. In 1692 the Lutherans arrived, making it the center of the German community in London, and not long after another German sect, the Calvinists, were allowed by Queen Anne to use a house there as a church.4 The German contingency in the Savoy grew further yet with the accession of the Hanoverian king George I in 1714. Around the time the present piece was made the community was thriving as it submitted plans to considerably enlarge the Lutheran church, and there is evidence of a German cabinet making community active in the Savoy, reflected by five cabinetmakers’ deaths listed at the German church there.5 By the 1760s the Lutherans were established enough to employ Sir William Chambers, Architect to George III, to build them a new church, the designs of which remain in the Victoria and Albert Museum.6
However, there is another reason why Miller may have located himself within the Savoy, most notably the freedom to work outside the cognizance of the London Livery Companies or gilds,7 and, therefore, have the ability to retain foreign apprentices without the oversight of the London authorities. In 1717, as part of his plans to build and embellish his new capital in the north St. Petersburg, Peter the Great of Russia sent twenty-four young apprentices to London, of whom nine trained as furniture-makers.8 They focused on areas of specialism that included “joinery and decoration of houses,” “knowledge of chairs, tables and cupboards,” “decoration of beds and the upholstering of rooms” and “cabinet work.” In 1724 they returned to St. Petersburg, and one Fedor Martynov produced drawings of furniture for the Russian Empress Anna Ioannovna, including a design for a cabinet of the same style and form as the present piece (figure 1).9 It seems possible, therefore, that Miller may have been a master to one or more of these Russian trainees.
The form of the bureau cabinet evolved in the later decades of the seventeenth century when London cabinet makers combined their most technically advanced products: cabinets and scriptors. In 1694 Gerrit Jensen was paid £200 by the royal household for “a wrighting table with a cabinet to set over it and a large glass case upon a cabinet with Door finely Inlay’d with metal for the closet of Whitehall.”10 The bureau cabinet would become the most sophisticated form of furniture to be developed in England during this period, and its popularity would endure throughout most of the eighteenth century. The inclusion of a mirror in its frontage allowed it to work in place of a pier mirror to enhance the light levels of a grand cohesive interior scheme. Their use for the storage of personal effects, valuables, and documents explains why they are often embellished with elaborate locks. Their increasingly ornate cornices, such as the double-arched shape that became popular in the early 1710s, owe much to wider developments in interior design and architecture of the time. The success of the format explains why some of the most expensive materials were deployed on these cabinets including inlaid metal and various forms of oriental and European lacquer. The present piece shows some significant technical developments that further confirm Miller’s consummate skill as a maker of this kind of furniture. Both this cabinet and its signed equivalent demonstrate a new style of drawer construction with a rebated bottom that fits on runners; remarkably this is the first firmly datable example to show this technique in English furniture. The cabinet combines this kind of technical innovation with daring style, confirming that the 1720s were a period of considerable evolution and transition in English furniture design.11
The present cabinet further features a brilliant display of exotic and highly figured woods of which the principle veneer is amboyna. This wood was named after the Island of Ambon of the Moluccas island chain in the East Indies, which was first known in Europe as a source of cloves and other spices. The wood appears rarely on English furniture prior to the 1750s, when the first confirmed usage in England is recorded, although some rare early pieces do survive such as a Georgian dressing and writing table in the Victoria and Albert Museum, and it is first mentioned in England in a custom return of 1730 of the East India Company.12 However, there appears to have been an ample supply of this wood to the continent much earlier on, as the Dutch controlled its region of origin for most of the eighteenth century. The interior of the present cabinet is mainly veneered in burr mulberry or maple treated with acid or soot to accentuate the grain structure. Such highly figured veneers are evocative of the furniture of George Coxed & Thomas Woster, (fl. 1690-1736) who employed bandings of rosewood combined with “mulberry” (often maple or ash) panels similarly prepared to produce rich patterns of high contrast resembling tortoiseshell. The process of creating these effects to the veneers was derived from Stalker and Parker’s Treatise of Japanning and Varnishing of 1688. These startling effects are displayed on the cabinet’s interior, on its drawer fronts, and within the starburst ovals to the reverse of its mirrored doors. It is possible that such techniques originated in Northern Europe, as veneers treated in this way can be observed on seventeenth century cabinet furniture from Schleswig-Holstein, Pommern and Sweden. The dramatic effect of the beautifully figured veneers is cleverly juxtaposed with the use of ebony moldings and feet, giving the piece a quality predictive of similarly contrasting effects found in German and Viennese furniture of the early nineteenth century.
We are extremely grateful to Dr. Adam Bowett for his help in compiling this research.
1. Beard, Geoffrey W, and Christopher Gilbert. Dictionary of English Furniture Makers, 1660-1840. Leeds: Furniture History Society, 1986. (GL, Sun MS vol. 15, ref. 28208; V&A Archives)
2. Gilbert, Christopher, and T V. Murdoch. John Channon and Brass-Inlaid Furniture, 1730-1760. New Haven: Yale University Press in association with Leeds City Art Galleries and the Victoria and Albert Museum, 1993. 31.
4. Somerville, Robert. The Savoy: Manor, Hospital, Chapel. London: Chancellor and Council of the Duchy of Lancaster, 1960.
5. Gilbert and Murdoch, 31 (records held at the Victoria Library Westminster).
6. Ibid., 81, item number D.248-1890
8. Guseva, Natalia Iurevna. “Fedor Martynov, Russian Master Cabinet Maker,” Furniture History: The Journal of the Furniture History Society. XXX London: The Society, 1994. 92-99.
10. Ibid., 15.
11. Bowett, Adam. Early Georgian Furniture 1715-1740. Woodbridge [England: Antique Collectors’ Club, 2009. 60.
12. Bowett, Adam. Woods in British Furniture-Making, 1400-1900: An Illustrated Historical Dictionary. Wetherby: Oblong Creative, 2012.