No other Roman hardstone cabinets exist in a British public collection.
The cabinets came up for auction at Sotheby’s in July last year when they were offered for sale by the Trustees of Castle Howard and sold to a foreign buyer for £1.05m (£1.27m inc. buyer’s premium). Ed Vaizey, the then culture minister, placed a temporary export ban on the cabinets, deemed by Christopher Rowell of the reviewing committee on the Export of Works of Art as being “the high watermark of the British Taste for Italian Princely furniture”, in the hope that funds could be found to enable them to remain in the UK.
The Fitzwilliam, who announced their successful bid last week, raised the required funds with the aid of various grants and benefactors, principally £700,000 from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and £200,000 from the Art Fund.
The ebony and rosewood cabinets were made in Rome around 1625 probably for a member of the powerful Borghese dynasty. They are veneered in ebony and rosewood and are inlaid with costly, boldly-coloured hardstones such as jasper and lapis lazuli and applied with gilt bronze mounts. They were probably purchased in Rome by Henry Howard, 4th Earl of Carlisle when he was on his Grand Tour from 1738-39.
At Castle Howard the lavish cabinets were given their own neo-classical stands made around 1800 in England probably to the designs of the Charles Heathcote Tatham so that they could be displayed in the long gallery at Castle Howard.
Commenting on the successful purchase, Tim Knox, director the Fitzwilliam said “splendid hardstone mounted cabinets such as these were the ultimate trophy of British Grand Tour collectors in the 18th century. With their lavish inlay of electric blue lapis lazuli and glowing jaspers and later English stands with gilded caryatids, they are a perfect combination of Italian pomp and English splendour. Nowhere in the UK is it possible to see a pair of Roman cabinets of quite this swagger and splendour.”